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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Media Ethics is now Media Activism

Upheavals in journalism have bequeathed to journalists a dizzying whirlpool of ethical issues that become the topics of talk shows, academic papers, and conference panels. The focus of these discussions tends to be on how to responsibly incorporate new media, including social media, into responsible daily journalism.

Less noticed is that fact that this revolution, in changing our relationship with media, points toward a radical reorientation of media ethics: media ethics as a form of media activism. As I will argue, it is not media activism understood as critiquing news organizations and specific stories. It is a technology-powered online activism where we create the ethical media we want.

We have known about the possibilities of the “democratization of media” for some time. Media experts like Dan Gillmor in the United States and Alfred Hermida in Canada have perceptively tracked the potential of new media for citizen and participatory journalism.

I want to draw out the implications for media ethics.

Traditionally, media ethics has included the study (and discussion) of norms by professional journalists in newsrooms and by ethicists in academia. Media ethics has also included the application of norms to ethically complex situations by journalists in newsrooms.

But now, our idea of media ethics is broadening to embrace something I call media-ethics activism. Media ethics activists “do” media ethics by taking action. These new ethics activists include citizens, journalists, NGOs – anyone or any group – who improve our media system by creating new forms of ethical journalism online.

They use the new publishing tools available to both professional and non-professional journalists. They become activists for ethical journalism by creating the journalism they believe is lacking in the public sphere.  This can be regarded as a developing branch of media ethics, powered by new technology.

Through digital technology, citizens, NGOs, journalism centers, news outlets, students, and institutes can link up with others to create their own web sites, metablogs, social media networks, and a dozen other varieties. Here are some examples:

Unhappy about how election issues are covered? Then consider a site where academics and civic groups in the State of Washington talk about the many referenda that get placed on election ballots.

Unhappy about coverage of local community issues? Then see  The site covers education, transportation and other key issues in Madison, WI., by combining the talents of university faculty, experts, citizens, and students.

Unhappy about the mainstream’s inattention to human rights and international news? Then consider how NGOs and other groups have created valuable sites such as; or read how a world-wide association of bloggers follows the issues at

Or, consider how a group of U.S. mainstream journalists, with money from the Pulitzer Foundation, set up their own independent global news organization at

The hundreds of people participating in the creation of these new journalism sites are “doing” media ethics as activism, whether they would call it that or not. Powered by new media, they have not remained content to carp about the weakness (and unethical behavior) of existing news media. Instead, they have decided to create their own media.

The media ethics shift

What do these changes mean in the long run for media ethics?

First, they signal a journalism that blurs the distinction between factual information and discussion of the facts. New forms of journalism will continue to creatively mix facts, values, interpretation, and analysis. That is why I have, for years, argued for a new notion of objectivity that is capable of evaluating interpretations, not just facts.

Second, they signal a momentous shift from a media ethics defined as the study of ethical “content” (or principles) to a media ethics defined as journalistic activity.

The media ethics of the future won’t just be about teaching codes of ethics that evaluate someone else’s journalism – it will be about how to create media ourselves, and the values that our various forms of journalism should exhibit.

In this way, media ethics becomes a zone of media activity.

This shift also changes how we understand media criticism and media accountability. Historically, media criticism has tended to be “external” to the production of journalism. Critics stand on the sidelines and monitor the mainstream media. Now, media criticism applies to everyone who uses media, and the critic is often both a consumer and producer of media.

Similarly, media accountability becomes broader than citizens complaining to press councils and ombudsmen, or writing letters to the editor. As valuable as these mechanisms are, accountability becomes the responsibility of everyone who enters into the production of journalism. Media criticism and media accountability are no longer US (concerned citizens) versus THEM (big bad media). Instead, media ethics today and in the future will be a “media ethics for everyone.”

Please note what I am not saying.

I am not saying that media ethics should stop studying ethical principles or monitoring big media, from Google to News Corporation. I am not saying that older forms of media activism, e.g. lobbying against the concentration of new media, should end.

What I am saying is threefold. (1) We have to extend our notion of media ethics to take account of the new areas of expressive media. (2) Media ethics can be done by creating your own ethical media. And (3), media ethics needs to deal with issues raised by the citizen’s power to create media.

We should celebrate the fact that ‘new media’ makes possible a richer and more inclusive range of activities for improving our media system

However, a word of caution: All technologies have good and bad uses. With the power to create media comes the responsibility to use that power wisely. There is no guarantee that this will happen in the long run. It could happen that people will create media that is unethical.

Therefore, citizens, including journalists, have an ethical obligation to carefully consider what types of journalism they will create. Media ethics activism is not the creation and promotion of just any kind of media. It is the creation of media that we need, as a public. It is the creation and promotion of ethically valuable forms of journalism for democracy.

For example, as I argued during a recent talk in Vancouver, one task of media ethics activism, especially in the United States given the rise of partisan media, is the creation of media spaces that encourage reasonable dialogue through inventive uses of new media.

The creation of what I call “dialogic journalism” is one aim of activist media ethics.

But there are many other possible ethical aims. Journalists around the world should look to their own media cultures and consider what forms of media they need the most.

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