Global Media Ethics

Image of Earth and satellite

NOAA virtual satellite. Photo via Hackshaven/Creative Commons

by Stephen J. A. Ward

What is global media ethics?

Global media ethics aims at developing a comprehensive set of principles and standards for the practice of journalism in an age of global news media. New forms of communication are reshaping the practice of a once parochial craft serving a local, regional or national public. Today, news media use communication technology to gather text, video and images from around the world with unprecedented speed and varying degrees of editorial control. The same technology allows news media to disseminate this information to audiences scattered around the globe.

Despite these global trends, most codes of ethics contain standards for news organizations or associations in specific countries. International associations of journalists exist, and some have constructed declarations of principle. But no global code has been adopted by most major journalism associations and news organizations.

In addition to statements of principle, more work needs to be done on the equally important area of specific, practice guidelines for covering international events. An adequate global journalism ethics has yet to be constructed.

The global media debate

The idea of a global media ethics arises out a larger attempt change, improve or reform the global media system to eliminate inequalities ion media technology and to reduce the control of global media in the hands of minority of Western countries. This attempt to re-structure the media system have been controversial, often being accused of being motivated by an agenda to control media or inhibit a free press. The debate continues today.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was an attempt to establish a “New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO)” prompted by concerns that Western media and its values were threatening the cultural values in non-Western, developing nations. The main players in NWICO were non-aligned nations, UNESCO, and the Sean McBride Commission. The recommendations of the McBride report in 1980, One World, Many Voices, outlined a new global media order. The report was endorsed by UNESCO members. The USA and Great Britain left UNESCO in the early 1980s in opposition to NWICO.

The dream of a set of principles and policies for equitable and responsible dissemination of information worldwide has not died. More recently, the United Nations has held two meetings of a movement called “World Summit on the Information Society.” At a summit in Geneva in December 2003, 175 countries adopted a plan of action and a declaration of principles. A second summit was held in Tunisia in November 2005 which looked at ways to implement the Geneva principles. At the heart of the summits’ concerns was the growth of new online media and the “digital divide” between the Global North and South.

On the history of the NWICO debate, see Gerbner, G. & Mowlana, H. & Nordenstreng, K., eds., The Global Media Debate. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1999.

The attempt to reform the global media system is much wider in scope than an attempt to construct a global media ethics. The former looks at what norms should guide media practitioners when they face difficult decisions on what to report. The latter goes beyond ethical reflections to include the economics, politics, and technology of media.

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Why a global ethics?

There are at least two reasons:

(1) Practical: a non-global ethic is no longer able to adequately address the new problems that face global journalism, and

(2) Ethical: new global responsibilities come with global impact and reach.

News media now inhabit a radically pluralistic, global community where the impact of their reports can have far-reaching effects — good or bad. News reports, via satellite or the Internet, reach people around the world and influence the actions of governments, militaries, humanitarian agencies and warring ethnic groups. A responsible global ethic is needed in a world where news media bring together a plurality of different religions, traditions and ethnic groups.

One responsibility is to report issues and events in a way that reflects this global plurality of views; to practice a journalism that helps different groups understand each other better. Reports should be accurate, balanced and diverse, as judged from an international perspective. A biased and parochial journalism can wreak havoc in a tightly linked global world. Unless reported properly, North American readers may fail to understand the causes of violence in Middle East, or a famine in Africa. Biased reports may incite ethnic groups in a region to attack each other. A narrow-minded, patriotic news media can stampede populations into war. Moreover, journalism with a global perspective is needed to help citizens understand the daunting global problems of poverty, environmental degradation, technological inequalities and political instability.

For a systematic study of global media (and journalism) ethics, see Stephen J. A. Ward, Global Journalism Ethics (in bibliography below). 

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New stage in journalism ethics

Since the birth of modern journalism in the 17th century, journalism has gradually broaden the scope of the people that it claims to serve — from factions to specific social classes to the public of nations. The journalistic principle of “serving the public interest” has been understood, tacitly or explicitly, as serving one’s own public, social class or nation. The other principles of objectivity, impartiality and editorial independence were limited by this parochial understanding of who journalism serves. For example, “impartiality” meant being impartial in one’s coverage of rival groups within one’s society, but not necessarily being impartial to groups outside one’s national boundaries.

Global journalism ethics, then, can be seen as an extension of journalism ethics — to regard journalism’s “public” as the citizens of the world, and to interpret the ethical principles of objectivity, balance and independence in an international manner.  Journalism ethics becomes more “cosmopolitan” in tone and perspective.

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Components of global media ethics

The development of global journalism ethics has the following tasks.

Conceptual tasks

New philosophical foundations for a global ethics, which include:

• global re-interpretation of the ethical role and aims of journalism

• global re-interpretation of existing journalism principles and standards, such as objectivity, balance and independence

• construction of new norms and “best practices” as guides for the practice of global journalism

Research tasks

More research into the state of journalism, amid globalization:

• studies of news media in various regions of world

• studies on the evolution and impact of globalization in news media, with a focus on ownership, technology and practice

• studies on the ethical standards of new media in different countries

• studies on news coverage of international problems and issues

Practical tasks

Actions to implement and support global standards:

• application of this global perspective to re-define the coverage of international events and issues

• coalition-building among journalists and interested parties with the aim of writing a global code of ethics that has wide-spread acceptance

• initiatives to defend and enhance free and responsible news media, especially in areas where problems are the greatest.

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How would a global ethics be different?

Philosophically, the distinct conceptual element of a global ethics can be summarized by three imperatives:

1. Act as global agents

Journalists should see themselves as agents of a global public sphere. The goal of their collective actions is a well-informed, diverse and tolerant global “info-sphere” that challenges the distortions of tyrants, the abuse of human rights and the manipulation of information by special interests.

2. Serve the citizens of the world

The global journalist’s primary loyalty is to the information needs of world citizens. Journalists should refuse to define themselves as attached primarily to factions, regions or even countries. Serving the public means serving more than one’s local readership or audience, or even the public of one’s country.

3. Promote non-parochial understandings

The global journalist frames issues broadly and uses a diversity of sources and perspectives to promote a nuanced understanding of issues from an international perspective. Journalism should work against a narrow ethnocentrism or patriotism. What do these three imperatives imply for specific standards of journalism, such as objectivity? Under global journalism ethics, objectivity becomes the ideal of informing impartially from an international stance. Objectivity in journalism has usually been understood as the duty to avoid bias toward groups within one’s own country. Global objectivity takes on the additional responsibility of allowing bias towards one’s country or culture as a whole to distort reports, especially reports on international issues.

Objective reports, to be accurate and balanced, must contain all relevant international sources and cross-cultural perspectives. In addition, global journalism asks journalists to be more conscious of how they frame the global public’s perspective on major stories, and how they set the international news agenda. The aim of global journalism should be more than helping the public sphere “go well” at home, as civic journalists say. The aim should be to facilitate rational deliberation in a global public sphere.

Global journalism ethics implies a firm journalistic response to inward-looking attitudes, such as extreme patriotism. It was disturbing to see how some news organizations during the Iraq War of 2003 so quickly shucked their peacetime commitments to independent, impartial reporting as soon as the drums of war started beating. Cosmopolitanism means that the primary ethical duty of a global journalism in times of conflict and uncertainty is not a patriotism of blind allegiance, or muted criticism. Public duty calls for independent, hard-edged news, along with investigations and analysis.


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Problems and obstacles

Universal values?

Among advocates of global ethics, there is disagreement over whether ethicists need to identify “universal values” among all journalists, or humans. Do such universal values exist? What might they be?  Recently, a growing group of ethicists have attempted to identify a common core of values in various places: in codes of journalism ethics, in international treaties on human rights, in anthropological studies of culture.

One view is that neither universal values nor universal consent is required for a plausible, global code. This view sometimes stems from a contractual or ‘constructionist” view of ethics. The constructionist does not believe that ethics depends on “finding” or “discovering”, through empirical means, a set of universal values that all rational people acknowledge. Rather, the correct method of global ethics is to see whether all or most interested parties are able to “construct” and agree upon a set of principles through a fair process of deliberation. On this view, it is also not clear that a set of values must gain universal consensus — a demand that seems unduly strong, given the variety of new media in the world. A weaker requirement would aim at the construction of a set of principles agreed to by most major journalism associations and news organizations.

Note: On a constructionist approach to universals, see Ward, S. J. A., “Philosophical Foundations of Global Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20(1), (2005), 3-21.

Also, see Black, J. and R. Barney, eds., Search for a Global Media Ethic. [Special issue] Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 17(4), (2002).

Getting specific:

Global journalism ethics will have to amount to more than a dreamy spiritualism about the brotherhood of man and universal benevolence. Conceptually, there is work to be done. Global journalism ethics must show, in detail, how its ideas imply changes to norms and practices. What exactly do journalists “owe” citizens in a distant land? How can global journalists integrate their partial and impartial perspectives? How can journalists support global values while remaining impartial communicators?

Reforming media practices

The slow, complex, practical task of developing better media practices is no less imposing. Exhorting individual journalists to be ethical will be futile unless supported by an institutional climate that encourages global values in the newsroom. Aware of such difficulties, some journalists may accuse global journalism ethicists of being unrealistic in thinking that news organizations will provide the education, expertise and extra resources needed to achieve a high-quality cosmopolitan journalism.


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Select bibliography

Black, J. and R. Barney, eds., “Search for a global media ethic.” [Special issue] Journal of Mass  Media Ethics, 17(4), (2002).

Callahan, S. “New Challenges of Globalization for Journalism.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 18, (2003), 3-15.

Christians, C. G. “Ethical Theory in a Global Setting.” In Cooper, T. W. & Christians, C. & Plude, F. F. & White, R. A. Thomas, eds., Communication Ethics and Global Change, p. 3-19: White Plains, NY: Longman, 1989.

Christians, C. and Nordenstreng, K. “Social Responsibility Worldwide.”  Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19(1), 3-28.

Christians, C. & Traber, M. , eds., Communication Ethics and Universal Values. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

Cohen, J., ed., For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, Martha C. Nussbaum with Respondents. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Cooper, T. W. & Christians, C. & Plude, F. F. & White, R. A. Thomas, eds., Communication Ethics and Global Change. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1989.

Gerbner, G. & Mowlana, H. & Nordenstreng, K., eds., The Global Media Debate. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1993.

Merrill, J. C. Global Journalism, 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1991.

Price M., Rozumilowicz, B. & Verhulst, S., eds., Media Reform: Democratizing the Media, Democratizing the State. London: Routledge, 2002.

Seib, P. The Global Journalist: News and Conscience in a World of Conflict. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Ward, S.J.A. Global Journalism Ethics. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Ward, S.J.A. “Philosophical Foundations of Global Journalism Ethics” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20(1), (2005), 3-21.

Ward, S. J. A. The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Weaver, D. H., ed., The Global Journalist. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998.