Ethical Considerations Of Media Influence

Using media to promote social change has always been a question mark in society.  However, the the massive influx of media in modern times, the question is almost being put by the wayside as each individual has become their own media broadcaster thanks to the use of blogging and social media.  However, the question still remains; is it like propaganda?  I quite like this excerpt from an article from the Journal of Popular Film and Television:

The systematic use of the media to promote social change has been an ethical concern since the early studies of media propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s. The United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan used film and television to support their respective military objectives during World War II. History indicates that the media can be misused to control public opinion. If all films and television programs with persuasive influence were eliminated, however, there would not be much left for people to see. The idea that entertainment culture is value-free is not plausible given the overwhelming evidence that films and television programs have measurable effects on people, regardless of whether such effects were intentional. Social science research indicates that the media already influence social change, and that we should be more concerned about how the entertainment media affect beliefs and behaviors (Thoman 8-9).

Despite the abundance of research on the negative effects of television, research also shows the popular media can have important prosocial effects on the public. The use of persuasive communication strategies to promote such effects is not unethical. Persuasion is a necessary part of a free and democratic society (Bettinghaus and Cody 14). The popular media should be regarded as being capable of promoting both constructive and destructive beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, we consider it is ethical to use popular media to persuade audiences to adopt prosocial beliefs and behaviors or to change beliefs and behaviors that are destructive to people and society.

Distinguishing Prosocial and Antisocial Messages

A second important ethical issue concerns who is best qualified to make decisions about prosocial and antisocial messages in the popular media. Previously, we defined prosocial messages as any communication that depicts cognitive, affective, and behavioral activities considered to be socially desirable or preferable by most members of a society. There are many important social issues that should be openly discussed by the popular media, but determining how to ethically present issues is a difficult task. The pressure on producers to make popular films and television programs that will attract the largest audiences possible impedes the entertainment industry’s commitment to produce popular cultural products that promote prosocial change.

Distinguishing between prosocial and antisocial content is also problematic without a common core of moral and ethical values. Defining the fundamental values of Americans has been rigorously debated since Dan Quayle raised the issue in the 1992 presidential election. We cite two examples of how a lack of consensus about values makes it impossible to evaluate media. There is a strong consensus in American society that child abuse is wrong, but some people think media portrayals of children being spanked is unethical, whereas others feel media portrayals of sexual relationships between adults and young teenagers are ethically acceptable.

A second example addresses the strong consensus that every American has an inherent and Constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some Americans use this right to support the promotion of media that argue for the protection of unborn children from abortion, whereas others extend this right to support messages that protect a women’s ability to legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Because there is no consensus in the United States on the value of an unborn child versus the value of a pregnant woman’s choice to bear a child, addressing the abortion issue in popular film and television is controversial. A 1972 episode of Maude that promoted abortion was considered prosocial by some and highly offensive by others. In 1985, an episode of Cagney and Lacey showed a right-to-life group picketing an abortion clinic. Opponents of abortion regarded the episode as prosocial, whereas supporters of abortion rights complained about it.

The primary ethical issue here is determining who will decide for whom what is prosocial. In most developing countries, the national government usually decides what is prosocial and what is antisocial. Government control of the popular media is alarming to most people concerned about unethical practices such as “brainwashing” and “political propaganda,” and is strongly resisted in the United States. The recent public and Congressional debates of the harmful effects of television violence in the United States indicate that despite the overwhelming evidence that television violence is harmful to children, most Americans resist legal restrictions against television producers.

When the responsibility for media content is left to producers of popular media, however, ethical problems are still apparent. For example, a study of daytime television soap operas in the United States indicates that most of the sexual relationships depicted on the soaps are between people not married to each other, and there are almost no portrayals of people becoming pregnant or infected with a sexually transmitted disease (Lowry and Towles 77-83). Thus, daytime soap operas promote the idea that sexual irresponsibility and infidelity have no negative consequences and that sex is primarily for unmarried people. Such research exemplifies how producers of popular media are not necessarily more responsible than governments in promoting socially beneficial beliefs and behaviors.

Discerning which values and beliefs promoted by popular media are good for society and which ones hurt society should be based on socially accepted community norms. The prosocial and antisocial effects of popular media are both individual and corporate, and therefore dealing with this issue involves more than a personal ethical decision regarding what movies to see and what television programs to watch. The corporate nature of evaluating the ethics of popular media is best illustrated in the debate over pornography. Some communities have decided that pornographic films do not benefit their community and thus should not be allowed at public theaters. Other civic leaders feel that the moral and ethical nature of films is for each person to evaluate, and thus pornography should be available to the public. Without public discussion and debate about what constitutes socially accepted norms and shared values, it is impossible to resolve the ethical issues regarding prosocial and antisocial messages.

Brown, William J., and Arvind Singhal. “Ethical considerations of promoting prosocial messages through the popular media.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 21.3 (1993): 92+.