I teach a course on media ethics. The final exam is for each student to write his or her own code of ethics. I take this very seriously and think it’s important. We review all the different cases of the semester:

  • Should rape victims be named?
  • Should war photographs be censored?
  • Should reporters self-censor to support their corporate owners, or their families, or others’ families?

and on and on and on…

One thing you can see if you look back at all our class discussions is that each of us has different core values and commitments. We disagree and our internal logic is usually makes sense when we break it down to our core values. I also share with them times in my working life when I have grown uncomfortable, like moments in meetings where I wanted to blurt out things nobody dared say or things that have upset me, like when someone else over promises or says something that seems unfair to me. Each of those upsets is a boundary violation, a breach of my personal Code of Ethics.

Clarifying my own Code of Ethics made life a lot simpler. I did it in the fall of 2004 with my students at the University of Idaho and still have it, with minor alterations, posted on my office wall. I’m sharing it with you below.

Today I got an email from last year’s valedictorian. She said, many paragraphs in:

By the way, I wanted to tell you that I came across my Code of Ethics a few weeks ago… I was kind of feeling sorry for myself since my life seems so boring and mediocre to what it has been, and I was having issues in my romantic life…anyway, I read it and it made me cry (I’m such a wuss!) but actually made me feel pretty empowered..so I hung it on my dresser mirror so I see it every day. I thought you would like to know that!

I love it when they say stuff like that! Here’s mine. What would go on yours?

Preamble

I believe that I’m here to educate, entertain, discover and celebrate human potential and beauty.

I believe that I am responsible for how my life turns out… my circumstances do not dictate my choices, and no one else has made my life the way it is. I’m responsible for my successes and my failures, and should be sure to thank those who’ve helped along the way. I must also never forget to ask for help and be willing to collaborate. Mysterious and unexpected things happen when I stop talking to myself and start listening to others.

I believe I have a duty to use my own unique talents to their fullest, as well as elicit and acknowledge others’.

Who I am is an awesome force of nature – entertaining, inspiring, calling forth talent, action, adventure and acknowledgment.

This is what I’m all about:

Justice

– I can contribute to justice on the planet by treating every student as fairly as possible, understanding that we all come from different backgrounds and experiences. I will honor even the ways of thinking I do not agree with or completely understand. I will encourage others to do the same.

– I will be trustworthy and truthful and will not stand for anything less in my dealings with others.

– I will donate my time, energy, skills and money to charitable organizations in which I believe.

– I will expose injustice and brainstorm with others ways we, as individuals and a culture, can eradicate it.

Pride/Excellence

– I will take pride in my work and my self, and encourage others to do the same.

– Actions I can’t be proud of will cause moments of pause. My next step is to see them coming, instead of flinching at them in hindsight! What would it provide to be proud of everything I do?

– I stand for excellence in myself and others. Anything less is a waste of time and energy. Why do anything half-way? It dishonors me and the people I encounter.

Self-Expression

– I will sing and teach with abandon, not letting my concerns or fears stop or constrain me, and encourage self-expression in others.

Discovery

– I will continue to travel the planet.

– I will see each new meeting as a chance to discover a place or person with untold gifts and treasures waiting to be explored.

– I will continue to see the world with optimism and hope. I will encourage others to do the same.

Contribution

– Each person has unique contributions for the world. What would it be like if we each approached others, and our lives, like contributions waiting to happen?

Adventure

– If all of this is in place, I’m an intrepid explorer – of the planet and the human condition, of the possibilities for my employers, for myself, for my friends, my students, organizations, the planet. If people are free to express themselves, offer up their unique contributions, and I treat each day, place and person like a new discovery – who knows what will happen next!

What I see about Media Law and Ethics, after doing this exercise for myself, is that I think the First Amendment should protect individuals’ and our cultures’ self-expression. Sometimes our expression may be sloppy – we may say things we want to correct, take back, or revise, and we should do that… and I value the act of creation, and the willingness or courage to go out on a limb. I value creativity and all kinds of ideas and images… if they’re in the spirit of discovery, celebration, making a difference. Images that provoke or perpetuate hate, violence, vengeance, ignorance, deception and deceit have no place in the world I’ve created on the page above, and shouldn’t be extended any special rights. It’s one thing to condemn an idea or image, though, because you don’t like it or agree with it, and quite another for it to be dangerous or damaging. So, for example, I think our regulators and legislators should spend more time thinking about the consequences of violence in the media than Janet Jackson’s ridiculous Super Bowl stunt. Fox News should be held accountable.

Likewise, the concept of freedom of the press and of expression should not be used as dogma to force a particular brand of democratization in the name of corporate or political power, but to safeguard, forward, nurture and protect expression of a wide array of values, images and ideals – even if they don’t always coincide with mine.

People should be held to account for their own actions, just as I am responsible for mine. That might mean that even though we have the technology and it seems reasonable to download music from the Internet without paying for it, people should be held accountable for breaking the law as long as it is breaking the law (in Switzerland it’s not.). By the same token, people do choose to smoke or not smoke, but that may not speak to the ethics of tobacco advertising. I respect how some multinational FMCG companies are beginning to question their product lines from the bottom up. Does the world really need sugary soda?  No.

I believe that victims of rape or domestic violence should have the opportunity to decide if they want to be named or not, and that decision should be codified in court records. I believe that some special consideration needs to be extended to crimes against women because of the imbalance of power between genders and the epidemic of violence against women. Likewise, special care and consideration need to be given to the framing and treatment of minorities in media. We may have a responsibility to seek out good news in African American communities, and certainly should beware of framing all African American men, for example, as criminals in media images. If media portrayed a wider range of images and options, that could have positive consequences for peoples’ real lives. This is in keeping with my personal commitment to justice.

Finally, this Code of Ethics calls for Good News. I see the world as a place where newsworthiness should be redefined to uncover inequality and offer solutions to promote justice, to more regularly highlight contribution, excellence and talent. This happens in media content, but not often enough and more of it could make a difference. It could uplift and inspire us to do more, and better, for each other.



A version of this post originally appeared on my personal blog.