[Essay] Media are ethically positive, if they strengthen fundamental values

Some events become turning points in the evolutionary course, not only of certain institutions but the entire nation as well. The way things have unfolded in the media sector during the last few years, they may very well turn out to be such events, in the historical course. The structure of the Indian media has undergone a major change during the last decade or so. A paradigm shift in the way national discourse and public opinion are shaped can thus be expected in the times to come.

Role of the Media in a Democracy 

Even though access to the “public sphere” is open in principle to all citizens, media plays a predominant role as far as influencing the national discourse and shaping public opinion are concerned. Today media, which comprises not only of newspapers, periodicals, radio, television but also the Internet contribute immensely to the public sphere. This is the prime arena in which debates and deliberations take place.

Media and Morality

The fact that media acts as trustees for the public, is the primary reason they are expected to follow strict moral codes of conduct. Suppression or distortion of facts is considered an anathema and rightly so. Independence, accuracy, decency and fairness are virtues that are inherent in the media profession. However, not all have been able to abide by the virtues considered as fundamental to a free and fair press. Sensationalism, commercialism and the unethical practices that follow are no longer unheard of, in this noble profession. Over dramatization of issues, sacrificing news values for ratings, accepting free gifts in lieu of biased coverage, doing promotional work for sources, invading privacy etc. have become all too evident, to be ignored.

Indicators of Media Ethics 

Prof. Christoph Stuckelberger, provides an interesting terminology to understand media action holistically in the context of our basic values and fundamental premise. He says that such behaviour by media which weakens or violates our fundamental values by oppression, exploitation, violence, dependency, injustice, individualism and short term thinking would qualify as ethically negative. On the other hand, media are ethically positive if they strengthen fundamental values. Therefore facilitating freedom, justice, participation, empowerment, peace, reconciliation, community, sustainability and responsibility are indicators of media being ethically positive. Even a layman’s understanding of the spirit of the Indian Constitution makes it very clear that these are the very values that form its basic edifice. This explains why media freedom and fairness is considered as one of the most important pillars of our Constitution as well.

What could possibly prevent the attainment of such noble ends? How difficult can it be to let moral codes of conduct guide one’s actions? Is it difficult to write what one knows to be true? What is the need to suppress or distort news?

Challenges and the Road Ahead

Ordinarily, it would be difficult to answer these questions. But they are very important to understand the challenges that media faces and to appreciate the difficulties encountered in following an ethically positive path. Reconciling freedom of speech with ethical restraint is one such challenge. Also, on the one hand adherence to code is not legally binding, while on the other hand, a strict code of ethics can make journalists an easy target for libel suits. Further, every journalist holds a different set of personal values and ethics. How one responds in a state of ethical dilemma varies from one person to the other. This holds true for journalists as well. It is this which prevents an absolute standard of ethical code that can be applicable to various organizations without variation.

We are in an era, where media has emerged as a business. Like all businesses across the globe, profit maximization applies for the media as well. Consequently, maintaining adherence to the ethical code of conduct has taken a backseat. However, it has to be realized that unlike other professions, media professionals enjoy a special measure of freedom and power. This bestows a special responsibility on them as well. Being ethically positive demands that they continue to give highest regard to society’s rights even in the face of challenging situations. News needs to be presented meaningfully, separating facts from opinions. This is particularly important in this age of twenty four hour news coverage. Providing a representative forum for exchange of comments and criticism is also important.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, it is best to resort to principled reasoning and ensure that action confirms to our ethical standards. Hutchins Guidelines and Potter’s Box offer interesting ways to analyse ethical problems. Following these and others can ensure that media remains ethically positive and continues to strengthen our fundamental values.

Clash of the Old and New 

A new issue has emerged in the form of social media. In so far as it lacks traditional monitoring, it offers a more democratic platform as compared to the mainstream media. By providing a means to articulate popular opinion, it is changing the nature of democratic discourse in India and other countries. On many occasions the social media has forced the mainstream media to bring such issues into their discourse that otherwise would have been conveniently swept under the carpet. This has challenged the monopoly of the more traditional forms of media in deciding the national narrative. Though resistance from the mainstream media, large corporations and think tanks to safeguard their monopoly over the national discourse has been intense, the social media has largely succeeded in disseminating information and influencing opinions.

It remains to be seen how traditional forms of media will reconcile with the new forms. However, one thing is pretty clear – both the new and the traditional are here to stay. It would also not be completely wrong to say that the form that confirms to and strengthens our fundamental values would have a brighter future. The tug of war between the two may continue for the time being, however it is adherence to ethics that will be strengthened in the end.


If the world has become a global valley, it is the media which will have to become its lighthouse. In turbulent times like these nothing could be better than turning to the Father of the Nation, who said: “The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power; but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within” (This essay was originally published in Target 2013 Mains Programme of GKToday.)

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