Media and Ethics

Von udp

Once your reputation is ruined

… you can talk without restraint!

Many want to see themselves in the media, and many media want sensations. So many consider themselves sensational. Our author Ulf D. Posé finds this absurd. He wants a new media ethic; the same ethics for managers and journalists; ethics based on sincerity, competence and responsibility. Unfortunately, the hard core mainstream rarely delivers this. Executions by the media make the hangman and the culprit interchangeable. Managers tell lies, journalists manipulate. And the audience stands around and passes on the rubbish.

Never confuse public relations with advertising!!

Let’s begin at the beginning. Public relations are for creating and maintaining trust, sympathy and a better image. Don’t confuse that with advertising. Advertising is just about sales. Advertising is for selling products and services, to get a higher market quota and/or profit margin. We see already that public relations work is often misused for advertising. The problem is: Whoever sails under a false flag should not be surprised if nobody then believes him. Efficient public relations work aims to win public trust and conserve lasting good relations through considered actions. To achieve this, you must know how to handle media in a trustworthy, authentic way.

The media, your friend and foe.

Most bosses have a negative image of the media. One reason for this is that bosses confuse public relations work with advertising. Another reason is that bosses think that journalists are against them. This mistrust is often based on the fact that bosses hand out information to journalists completely useless to them. More than a few bosses habitually exaggerate their good deeds while glossing over their misdeeds. The manager’s dishonesty encourages him to publish only what he believes to be popular. This populism, however, is detrimental. The “public” does not accept it. People recognize the intent and are disgusted. The Allensbach institute showed without doubt that bosses follow a “conformity pressure of public opinion”, even when they know better. Nölle-Neumann proved that about 60 to 80 per cent even of central Europeans are prepared to agree with nonsense, provided that “it is what the majority thinks”. Background: Clearly, to avoid social isolation, the individual is prepared to forego his or her own thinking and adopt the opinion of the majority. This mechanism shows the manager’s enormous potential for social integration. But it contradicts all ideals of integrity and destroys his trustworthiness.

The power of the media.

Bosses do not have easy lives. Especially in cases of misconduct, more than just trustworthiness is at stake. Even the best of intensions to put things right or to explain is often useless. A respectable boss should know in advance how the media function, otherwise he hardly stands a chance. Considering all that is known of the role of the media, they have appointed themselves to be modern pillories. During the middle ages, people were pilloried on the market place. Nowadays, anybody whose behavior was allegedly offensive is filmed, photographed, degraded, publicly scolded, and tried even before his misdeed is proved. In the media, pre-trial without proof happens every day. The media do not know the meaning of the phrase “in dubio pro reo”. They have reduced the term “moral” to “stigmatizing”. Journalists can easily, without having to fear consequences, draw special attention to some points or leave out important facts if they so desire. They do not feel responsible for the public opinion thereby created. They claim to state public opinion, rather than creating public opinion. Newspapers, radio and television seem to work according to the old Roman principle “panem et circenses”. Their idea of entertainment is public executions.

A considerable part of what we call “news” is nothing but reports about some people’s misdeeds and the consequences thereof. It is remarkable that crimes and unorthodox behavior are so popular. That is why it is easy to understand that managers shun being publicly displayed. When the media feel like it, they even invent reports that have no truth in them whatsoever. For example, a few years ago “Bild” (gutter press) had a report on page one about Karl Lagerfeld demanding that a passenger leave the first-class area with the words: “Remove this cripple”. Allegedly, this happened on a flight to Munich. Incidentally, Karl Lagerfeld had never booked this flight. He was not on board. The report was a fabrication.

On the other hand, people think: If RTL (TV company) or Bild has not reported something, then it did not happen. What is interesting is that media self-censoring largely lives from what they do not report. Media and journalists are “gate keepers”, that is, people who decide what the public should get to know and what not. Since, by a process of subconscious conformity, all journalists do it, the reader gets a sense of confirmation: “If they all write it, then it must be true.” If you want an example of newspapers refraining from reporting, search through the last few years’ issues of Stern, Spiegel, Bild, Süddeutsche or ZEIT (periodicals and newspapers) whether they have cast doubts on the German democracy.

The media’s ethics.

What makes the world such a miserable place to live in is the detrimental pairing of good intensions and incompetence!!

Apparently, Roger Willemsen does not have a very high opinion of media ethics. He says: “Television is interested in only one thing, the quota. Human dignity is of secondary interest.” In Willemsen’s opinion, humans are nothing more than a branded article to the media. Unfortunately, however, like many others, he does not hold this against the media. Their bigoted behavior is the same as the bigoted behavior of the public, and is thus just the result thereof. Willemsen, like others, makes the mistake of seeing the public as the reason for the media’s lack of integrity. However, Willemsen demands from the media that they should report knowledgably, rather than just with good intensions. This is what seems to be the problem. More than a few journalists consider it good enough that they have good intensions or find something outrageous. They do not care to acquire special knowledge. This is how they miss the fact that the world’s misery is, among other things, an indescribably sad mixture of good intensions and incompetence. And this concept is addopted by the reader. Best example: the reports on Hartz IV (the reformed German unemployment benefit scheme, 2005 onwards).

Media manipulate public opinion in order to report again later!!

That means that media have tremendous power. The question is: Are they aware of this power and do they use it conscientiously? I have my doubts, because journalists usually claim that they have no power whatsoever and all they do is report after an event. If they write about public opinion, then this public opinion is there already.

Two facts should be taken into consideration: Firstly, when people are asked in polls who, in their opinion, has too much power in the country, the media always rank near the top. Most people think that there is abuse by media, but they still let themselves be influenced. Secondly, there is an “agenda setting effect”. Comparative research has been conducted about themes which constantly appear in the mass media, actual developments which can also be proved by statistics, and public opinion. For instance, about what are the most important duties of politics. The research showed quite clearly that usually the mass media know it before it happens. The media manipulate public opinion towards certain leanings but refuse to admit it. If this state of affairs continues, ethical behavior in the media is negligible. However, if the media manage to develop an awareness of their responsibility, media ethics has a realistic chance.

Ethical use of media.

Now what are the alternatives for a boss with the media? The only chance for him not to fall victim to abusive populism is trying to act, instead of just behaving. The difference between activity and behavior is easily described.

Whenever talking of activity, five basic principles must be met. They make the difference between activity and behavior:

Accepting responsibility: I must be prepared to live with the foreseeable consequences of what I do. –

Contingency/Alternatives: I must be aware that there are alternatives.

Finality: My activity is aimed at a specific goal. –

Efficiency: Something has to happen, there must be a result.

Explanation: I must be able to give a reason why.

Which is when the question of responsibility comes up.

Active media ethics and responsibility.

Responsibility means to accept the foreseeable consequences of what you have done!!

When the elections in Lower Saxony and Hessen ended with a catastrophe for the SPD, the then Chancellor said into the microphones: “I take full responsibility!” This is easily said. Apparently none of the journalists present came up with the idea of asking the Chancellor: “Mister Chancellor, how exactly does this responsibility manifest itself?”. For a trustworthy and decent manager, taking responsibility means that he accepts the foreseeable consequences of what he has done. If this responsibility does not manifest itself in a following activity, then the statement: “I take full responsibility” is purely word acrobatics!

Ackermann of Deutsche Bank apparently was not very well advised when he tried to explain the victory sign he had made with the one Michael Jackson was known to have made. That was more than embarrassing. The magazine Stern replied by printing a picture of him on its cover page. Ackermann and politicians were accused of arrogant behavior in positions of power. More likely than not, none of the readers ever asked what exactly was so arrogant. Who wants to know that arrogant behavior is defined as feeling superior while not being able to prove this superiority. Ackermann might have been better advised to point out that the victory sign was meant to indicate: “The accusations against me are false and I wish to get a chance to defend myself. I am confident that I will be proved not guilty”. He should have asked himself if he is prepared to accept responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of such careless utterances and signs. Maybe he would and should have acted in a totally different way.

The roots of responsibility.

Responsibility is derived from “to respond” The question is: Who should be the recipient of your response? What is the object of responsibility?

Responsibility towards myself: If I want to show responsibility towards myself, I have to take my behavior towards other people into consideration. I have to choose the appropriate forms of interaction and react to how they approach me. That means you need not approach the issue through intense contemplation, but rather by analyzing the way you interact with others.

We are talking about responsibility towards one or more defined individuals. That means responsibility to the public.

Responsibility clarifies whether an activity is allowed. To be sure, responsibility sometimes also happens by third parties making us responsible for something; for example the responsibility before the law, towards the company, the employee, the customer. But here I mean rather the responsibility to oneself. Consequently, I have to ask myself: What degree of responsibility am I prepared to accept as a public agent?

Possible answers are:

  • I accept responsibility for the results of my activities.
  • I accept responsibility for my intensions.
  • I accept responsibility for the actual activity/process.
  • I accept responsibility for the ethical value of my activities.

Unfortunately, the question about the ethical value of an activity is hardly ever asked. But that is the managers’ job. He can decide if what he did was just behavior or actually responsible performance. Something is certainly ethically responsible if it helps people to discover their potential and does not hinder them in any way

When we say activity, then the agent always has a choice, i.e. he could have chosen alternatively. It also means that the negative consequences are taken into consideration. If negative consequences have to be accepted, then this should happen after a responsible weighing of priorities.

Willingness to accept self-responsibility.

A special approach towards media is necessary. It should be characterized by the willingness to act and thus to accept responsibility. The requirement for this is an ethical conscience, because responsibility usually pertains to responsibility of conscience. Our conscience is what decides immediately before we do something if it has ethical quality. This is also the answer to “guilty or not guilty”. There are only two ways of being guilty: Either you have not schooled your conscience so it can give you sufficient means to decide if an activity is ethical or not. Or else if you decide in favor of what is ethically bad.

Here are some common deficiencies when it comes to conscience: Firstly, there is attitude. For most managers, good intensions are all they need. Secondly, there is the moral value of the results. The intensions may have been rather unethical, but unfortunately, the result is ethically quite admirable.

For the ethically motivated manager, this means that good intensions and even the admirable result are not good enough. The activity itself is what counts. For an ethically motivated treatment of media, it is therefore important to act ethically.

The meaning of ethics during an activity.

Unfortunately, when dealing with media, the question of ethics in media is seldom discussed, even though it would be easy for a manager to determine whether his or her activity is ethically responsible.

Ethical behavior when dealing with media, for example, takes into consideration that facing the reality of the media world has high priority, regardless of my personal interests. If I lack ethical behavior, I will consider everything that is not in my interest negative. That means that I will tend to oppose media as a matter of principle. Ethical behavior does not include the idea of negative influences. All that matters here is that media are different, which makes it easier to deal with them.

Another difference between an ethical and unethical manager is that the latter looks to the media only for confirmation, rather than reality. That makes ethical behavior a necessary means for adapting to reality.

Unethical behavior.

There are three forms of unethical behavior:

Ignorantia simplex:

The manager has never taken any pains to discover ethics. Consequently, he must not be surprised if the media report his lack of ethics. However, he is very much surprised because, due to his ignorance, he does not understand what the media are talking about.

Ignorantia crassa et surpina:

The conscious choice to act unethically. Here, the manager probably has only one motive: How can I camouflage my unethical behavior? He will only admit what is already known and try to hide everything else. Best example: The Döring affair in Stuttgart. (Translator’s comment: if I remember correctly, in 2004, Döring, a right-wing CDU-politician in a speech described a dead colleague as having been opposed to Hitler, when the reverse was true).

Ignorantia affectata:

Overcoming one’s ignorance connotes with negative sentiments. Dealing with the media is a pain in the neck, especially after misdeeds.

What matters is how a manager understands his or her responsibility. Here Hans Jonas did pioneer work with his book “Das Prinzip Verantwortung” (The Responsibility Principle). To deal responsibly with media, you must ask your conscience what you should say to them. Unfortunately, many managers have lost their ethical conscience. Ethical conscience is replaced by the normative power of facts. They do what they have to do. Since the conscience receives less and less queries, its importance when dealing with media dwindles.

The prerequisites for ethical behavior towards the media.

Which requirements must be met if you want to deal with the media in an ethically responsible way? The company itself must become a place where ethics are an issue. As soon as that is achieved, the manager will have to ask himself about the attitude and awareness with which to meet the media.

The requirements within the company:

The recruitment policy should be consistent with the company policy.

The directors should have a recognizable exemplary function.

The company values should be realistic.

The border morals should be consistent with the company culture.

The recruitment policy should not counteract human dignity.

There should be a formal, non-material, system of values.

Border morals concern the relation between the moral efforts a company makes and its possible public reward or punishment. Generally, moral behavior is rewarded. A customer buys rather from a clean company than from a dirty one.

What a manager must do when dealing with media.

He should be trustworthy, competent and honest.

He should be prepared to accept responsibility.

He should have a personality with internalized values and identify with them.

He should have primary virtues.

His orientation in life should be an ethically responsible one.

He should not limit himself to admitting what is already known.

He should evaluate what has happened from a realistic perspective.

He should not consider the media his enemies.

If you want to treat the media in an ethically responsible way, you should always keep in mind that you might easily be hit by a conformity mechanism. In modern opinion research, it is called “loop of silence”. This mechanism is well-documented and describes the isolation with which every manager is punished by the public as soon as he voices an opinion that is not popular. At the same time, every manager should be aware of his own hidden fear of isolation.

This fear of isolation constantly motivates him to keep informed about which opinions and what behavior is generally accepted and how they increase or decrease in the public scale of acceptability. But it is the ability to live even with this loneliness that makes some managers strong and capable. If you do not fear isolation or know you can always retreat into a circle of like-minded people, you can publicly declare what you think without having to suffer.


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