Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916
Both Sides of the Story: Communication
Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
Tobias Eberwein1 & Colin Porlezza2
1 Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies, Austrian Academy of
Sciences/Aspen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, 1010 Vienna, Austria
2 Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich, 8050 Zurich, Switzerland
Current transformations in the media landscape are challenging contemporary communication
and media ethics in at least 2 ways. First, digitization of the media creates new
ethical problems that stimulate calls for a redefinition of the norms and values of public
communication. Second, new instruments of web-based media observation introduce
new possibilities for media (self-)regulation and accountability, thus complementing the
initiatives of traditional institutions like press councils. The article retraces those conflicting
developments by reference to 2 comparative studies, representing the diverging traditions
of conventional communication ethics and media accountability research. In bridging over
the conceptual gap between the 2 forms of research, the article develops new perspectives
for ethical reflection in the mediatized worlds of the digital age.
Keywords: Communication Ethics, Media Ethics, Media Self-Regulation, Media
Accountability, Journalism, Online Media, Digitization, Mediatization.
In a world that is mediatized to the core, communication ethics have a key function
in the process of evaluating and assessing human behavior. Everyday life is increasingly
influenced by various forms of media communication (Deuze, 2012), which
implies that ethical reflection is hardly possible without taking into consideration
the insights of contemporary communication ethics (Ess, 2011). However, the ongoing
media transformation also puts many basic ethical concepts to the test. While
a large part of the Internet-related scientific research literature has focused on the
specific potentials of web-based communication, such as its possibilities to pave the
way for new forms of participation (Singer, 2011), more transparency (Eide, 2014),
and a general democratization of professional journalism (Steensen, 2011), more and
more counterexamples suggest that the promising innovations of digitization are all
too frequently reversed. These examples include recurring problems with the quality
Corresponding author: Tobias Eberwein; e-mail:
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T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
of digital contents (lack of accuracy, hate speech, etc.), which—in many cases—are a
direct result of the hypertextuality,multimediality, and interactivity of online communication,
but also with copyright laws and their compensation, issues of data security
and data privacy, the general data explosion and the challenges of information overload,
as well as the uneven distribution of Internet access (Quinn, 2014).
This contradiction provokes numerous questions: Do the ethical problems of
online communication outweigh its undisputed potentials? How do both sides of this
discussion relate to each other?What does this mean for the future of communication
ethics? And what are possible consequences for the (self-)regulation of digitalmedia?
Questions like these are currently being discussed in the light of different analytical
concepts, among which the perspectives of traditional communication and media
ethics and the recent research about media accountability and media governance
stand out.
Traditional communication and media ethics are usually understood as a subdiscipline
of practical philosophy (Rath, 2003). Similar to other subdisciplines, such as
political ethics, business ethics, ethics ofmedicine, or ethics of technology, they focus
on human action as their object of analysis, striving to reflect and legitimize universal
rules of good and responsible behavior in their specific area of application. In the
case of communication and media ethics, this normative approach paves the way for a
definition of ideal values like truth, freedom, and solidarity as well as order and cohesion,
which are regarded as prerequisites for democratic media to fulfill their social
function (McQuail, 2013). In theWestern world, the development of ethical reflection
about the media has been strongly influenced by the tradition of (mostly U.S.-based)
journalism education that narrowly construed media ethics as individual ethics of
professional journalistic actors (Christians, 2000).However, broader concepts of contemporary
communication and media ethics also relate to other actor groups besides
the producers, for example, recipients or communities (Ward & Wasserman, 2010),
which become ever more important in the mediatized realities of today.
Unlike conventional media and communication ethics, research about media
accountability and media governance turns the spotlight from the ideal to the
practical level, thus adding an applied perspective to the tradition of philosophical
reasoning. Through investigating the performance of the different instruments and
institutions of media (self-)regulation (e.g., press councils, ombudspersons, media
journalism, but also media law etc.), the applied perspective evaluates whether and
how the ideals of responsiblemedia communication are realized under the conditions
of everyday life (Puppis, 2007). The inevitable conflicts between ideal norms and
media practice have been documented and discussed in a large scope of studies
(for an overview see Eberwein, Fengler, Lauk, & Leppik-Bork, 2011). The practical
relevance of these conflicts has been exemplified in the recurring attempts by scholars
in this field to act as consultants both for the media industry and media politics.
However, both traditional communication ethics and research about media
accountability and media governance seem to suffer, compared to other research
branches, from a lack of empirical studies, which has to date impeded their
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Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza
connectivity to the mainstream of communication studies. Moreover, neither
the links nor the frictions between the two strands of research have been illuminated
and systematized.
Other research fields, such as management, economics, or medicine, have made
further progress in rethinking the dichotomy between research and applied ethics.
Eisenbeiss (2012, p. 791; see also Weaver & Klebe Trevino, 1994, or Donaldson
& Dunfee, 1994), for instance, analyzed business ethics with regard to leadership,
when she addressed “recent calls for more collaboration between normative and
empirical-descriptive inquiry of ethical phenomena by developing an interdisciplinary
integrative approach to ethical leadership.” She concluded that an integrative
approach, which combines normative and empirical ethical considerations, besides
offering new insights with regard to the significance of responsibility for ethical
leadership, represents a starting point for leadership education in terms of how to
deal with ethical dilemmas. Similar efforts can also be observed in bioethics, where
innovative research methodologies are used to shed light on new ethical issues,
which, in turn, leads to a greater understanding of ethics in practice (Frith, 2012,
205ff; see also Borry, Schotsmans, & Dierickx, 2005). The so-called empirical turn
from purely normative ethics to an approach that includes empirical research methods
has thrived in medicine as well (Salloch, Schildmann, & Vollmann, 2012), but
it has not yet occurred in the specific area of journalism and media studies. Even if
some media researchers such asNick Couldry support a neo-Aristotelian approach to
media ethics, which is “guided by the eminently practical insight that right behavior
cannot be identified in advance, abstracted fromthe often competing requirements of
specific contexts” (Couldry, 2012, p. 189; see also Couldry, Madianou, & Pinchevski,
2013), the empirical exploration remains limited.
Thefollowing sections of this essay are supposed to clarify the differences between
normative and empirical ethics as well as the interdependencies between the two with
regard to journalism. By searching for a superordinate concept that would connect
the diverging research traditions, they take the aim of “getting the discipline in communication
with itself” literally, in the hope that it may be useful to demonstrate the
relevance of normative approaches to communication and the media. The starting
point for the line of argument comprises two comparative studies, which were conducted
by the authors.They included qualitative interviews and a quantitative survey
among media practitioners in 12 European countries, as well as a content analysis of
relevant codes of ethics. The implications from these studies are sure to broaden the
comprehension of ethical reflection in communication and media research—which
is more important than ever in the network societies of the digital age.
Ethical challenges in the digital media world
Digitization has not only had a huge impact on the journalistic practice, but was also
a fundamental cultural transformation affecting the media industry (Boczkowski,
2005). Due to the process of convergence that facilitated the emergence of new
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T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
types of multi-, cross-, or transmedia storytelling, journalists had to adapt to the new
characteristics of the web and develop new skills and procedures (Pavlik, 2001).However,
these transformations were not limited to the “techniques” related to everyday
editorial practice, but required a new journalistic mindset. As new concepts, such as
networked journalism, challenge the central qualities of journalists’ role conception
in society, a fusion occurs between traditional news journalism and different forms of
participation by the audience (Beckett, 2010, p. 1).These changes lead to new ethical
challenges that transcend those that strictly refer to the journalistic practice and can
be best described by what Stephen Ward calls the “ethics of how to use new media”
(Ward, 2014, p. 51).
Ethical principles are built to last and journalism is no exception to this rule.
Such principles change slowly and only upon extensiveempirical evidence,which—as
Friend and Singer (2007) argue—leads to an inherent conservativism. This might be
helpful in the everyday practice of the journalistic profession, as these guiding principles
set a framework of rules, but they can become an issue if the whole system
is confronted with structural changes such as the impact of new and social media
on journalism. Moreover, professional journalists are no longer the sole authority to
define good practice, which allowed them to largely ignore calls for greater responsibility
and accountability (Hayes, Singer, & Ceppos, 2007). As virtually everyone
can become an information provider—being at the same time either or both a news
source and part of the public—journalists can no longer be regarded as the only
stronghold of credibility and trust when it comes to news production.
Overall, the digital age has radically changed both journalistic practice and
the journalism profession, and the ethical principles are essentially coupled to the
evolving dynamics within the newsrooms as well as the tools and technologies used
in the news production (Boczkowski, 2005).The dynamics confront news organizations
with new ethical problems, which have been unrecognized—and subsequently
ignored—in analog newsrooms. Hence, the medium—and the technology related
to it—matters, because it changes the way journalists interact and deal with the
public (Singer, 2010).This means that some principles will remain unaltered, others
have to be adapted, and some of the ethical decision-making in journalism has to
be developed from scratch. New principles have to take into account that different
actors, such as the public, now play an increasingly significant role, as audience
interaction becomes paramount in a network society.
A critical scrutiny of the performance of traditional institutions of media
self-regulation such as press councils shows that they have increasingly been forced
to deal with complaints about web issues in recent years. In order to analyze specifically
howtheWeb and newmedia technologies such as linking and online comments,
but also socialmedia like Facebook and Twitter, are affecting professional journalistic
norms, the authors carried out a content analysis of journalistic codes and guidelines
in 12 countries in Eastern and Western Europe (Austria, Estonia, Finland, France,
Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the
United Kingdom).The aim of the project was to investigate to what extent the ethical
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Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza
problems of digital journalism are really accounted for and whether press and media
councils are in a position to act as competent judges responsible for ethical concerns
in a digital media world.
The analysis was systematized along the lines of two major ethical dimensions,
thus providing a coordinate system for contemporary communication ethics that can
also structure future analyses. First, we looked at the shift from gatekeeper ethics
to relationship ethics (Singer, 2010). Gatekeeper ethics largely focus on the journalists’
role to decide what is, or is not, going to be published. In this case, professional
norms such as ethical principles serve as a specificway to both articulate and safeguard
this gatekeeper role. Ethical principles, in this respect, become mainly an instrument
to cultivate an essential role in society—one of fundamental importance to democracy,
allowing citizens to be self-governing thanks to their information: “In short, the
underlying rationale for the ethics of the journalist in a traditional media universe
both stems from and depends upon this traditional role and the traditional view of
that journalist as central to the flow of information” (Singer, 2010, p. 119).
On the other hand, as the Internet changes the way journalists are perceived (more
as individuals) and interact with their publics as well as with one another, relationship
ethics has a variety of implications due to its emphasis on connections to colleagues,
communities, and publics. Being part of a network, the journalist has to develop his
reputation as a trustful information provider first because it allows the publics to participate
farmore actively inevery stage of the journalisticproductionprocess (Beckett,
2010, p. 1). Particularly if you are engaging in interactions—more importantly also for
collaborations—building trust is essential: “The answer lies in the function of the networked
professional journalist to act as a filter and facilitator and the potential power
of the citizen to hold them to account. […] In the end trust is secured by connectivity.
Interactivity leads to accountability through a new conceptualization of trust
based on the networked journalist as a reliable hub of connectivity” (Beckett, 2010,
p. 15). Both journalists working in a traditional news environment and those working
in a network rely on trust. However, in the case of traditional news organizations,
trust is largely based on the reputation the media outlet gained over decades—and
the ethical principles support this performance. “Trust us because we know what we
do,” according to Singer (2010), is a lot to ask, perhaps even too much if we take into
account the dwindling trust in themedia.Anetworkedmedia ecosystem, on the other
hand, requests journalists—be they bloggers or reportersworking in establishednews
firms—to establish a new connection with their publics in order to build trust, which
is, “generally, the ethical thing to do in a relationship” (Singer, 2010, p. 119).The same
applied to the second differentiation between monomedia and multimedia ethics that
have distinctive implications for journalists with regard to ethics for news gathering,
production, content, and relationship with the public (Ess, 2013; Pavlik, 2001).
The study showed that most of the prevalent journalistic codes of ethics in Europe
have not yet reached the Internet era. In themajority of cases, they do not—or only to
a limited extent—contain any references to ethical problems that result from the distinct
features of online communication.1 Exceptions can be found in the guidelines by
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the Dutch Raad voor de Journalistiek (2010) or the Finnish Julkisen Sanan Neuvosto,
which include specific rules relating to the editorial handling of web archives, of corrections
in online media, or to the moderation of discussion forums on the Internet.
Particularly, the FinnishCouncil forMassMedia created a specific Annex to itsGuidelines
for Journalists, which concerns materials generated by the public on a website
(Julkisen SananNeuvosto, 2014).Most of the analyzed codes, however, do not pay any
attention to digitalmedia.
On the other hand, problem-centered interviews with international experts from
the fields of journalism, social media, and media self-regulation enabled us to verify
that transnationally similar amendments of ethical codes are actually being discussed
or prepared in various European countries—even though not in all of the possible
areas of conflict. While some press councils, for example the Swiss or German, still
concentrate their deliberation on areas such as online comments, sourcing, and transparency,
other institutions ofmedia self-regulation, like theDutch or the Finnish press
councils, have progressed to tackling complex issues such as social media and audience
However, the issue of journalism ethics cannot be assigned to institutions of
self-regulation such as press councils only. If news organizations want to invest in
quality management, they have to establish forums for debates as well. Audience
members are not alone in wearing many hats. Journalists can be editors, bloggers,
citizens commenting on social media, media critics, etc. Such conflicts can
become even worse if entrepreneurial journalists are launching start-ups, where
there might be additional clashes between commercial and editorial interests. These
overlapping roles demand clear guidelines. However, codifying ethical principles and
transforming them to abstract guidelines may be useful for the purpose of general
considerations. The more specific the guidelines, the more context-dependent they
can be, which makes them hard to apply in specific circumstances. In a networked
journalistic ecosystem, besides clear guidelines, in which news organizations define
general conditions of how they react to ethical issues, it is necessary that media
organizations foster the practices by which journalists connect with their publics.
Such forms of participation—and interaction—would not only embrace the wider
notion of relationship ethics, allowing citizens or the civil society to hold the news
media to account. An enhanced participation would also allow news outlets to get
immediate feedback on their performance and to know whether they are “on the
right track to satisfy the needs of their most important stakeholders, namely the
public who consumes their products” (Meier, 2011, p. 165).
Potentials for media accountability
While traditional communication and media ethics focus on the normative level
of how media actors should behave, research on media accountability and media
governance is related to the practical level. Scholarly research explores what impact
different institutions and practices of media (self-)regulation such as media law,
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Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza
ombudspersons, or media journalism, etc., have on the everyday routines of the
journalistic production process and how media organizations can be held to account
for the quality of their media performances (de Haan & Bardoel, 2011).
Claude-Jean Bertrand, who carried out one of the first comparative studies on
media accountability, defines the concept as “any non-State means of making media
responsible towards the public” (Bertrand, 2000, p. 108). A noteworthy aspect of the
concept of media accountability is that it transcends the previously dominant focus
on the media’s general responsibility toward society. Instead, it concentrates on the
media’s obligations toward their stakeholders and, specifically, their publics. According
to the studies of Hodges (1986, cited in McQuail, 2010), the difference between
responsibility and accountability is simple: “responsibility has to do with defining
proper conduct, accountability with compelling it” (for an overview of definitions see
Fengler, Eberwein, Leppik-Bork, Lönnendonker, & Pies, 2014a).
Media governance on the other hand is similar to the concept of media accountability,
but encompasses a stronger focus on governmental action—although it is
often described as “government without politics” or “governing beyond government”
(de Haan & Bardoel, 2011). Contrary to strict media regulation, media governance
involves a networked form of coordination that expresses the intention of a constrained
role of the state in the field of media policy, particularly with regard to press
freedom, journalistic independence, and actors of the private market (Donges, 2007;
Puppis, 2007).
Nevertheless,media accountability and media governance are not concepts based
on rigid structures.They must be seen as a process of different but interrelated practices
in a sequence that range from journalism education to quality management systems
during the production process through to specific practices of interaction with
the audience after the publication of the news.
Recently, the close relationship with the public has become one of themost important
aspects of media accountability, given that the Internet has increased the opportunities
for the public to get in touch with news organizations and journalists. What
is generally called responsiveness denotes the idea of receiving feedback from users
that expect news organizations to react to their concerns and wishes in reference to
the media’s performance (Bardoel & d’Haenens, 2004; Domingo & Heikkilä, 2012).
The interactivity and immediacy of theWeb 2.0 has further expanded the opportunities
for members of the audience to critically observe and criticize media content, for
instance, through blogs or citizen journalism. This can be particularly important in
media systems operating under tight political control. Furthermore, the online realm
potentially allows users also to take part in the actual news production by means of
user-generated content, allowing for new and innovative practices of editorial coproduction
such as participatory journalism.
While the online realm enhances the scope ofmedia critique, providing users with
a means to reinforce journalistic norms (Fengler, 2008), it also increases the number
of stakeholders the media have to deal with in terms of media accountability, generating
a complex framework of media accountability practices offline and online.
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This is of vital importance, as traditional institutions of media accountability such as
press councils or ombudsmen suffer fromdistrust and skepticism with regard to their
The failure of the traditional institutions of media accountability and media governance
is confirmed by the second study carried out by the authors (see also Fengler,
Eberwein,Mazzoleni, Porlezza,&Russ-Mohl, 2014b; Fengler et al., 2015), called “Media
Accountability and Transparency in Europe.”3 The quantitative survey of almost
1,800 journalists in 12 European and two Arab countries demonstrated that in the
eyes of professional communicators, traditional institutions of media self-regulation
(such as press councils, ombudspersons, or media journalism) regularly fail when it
comes to addressing the pitfalls of digital communication ethics.
At the same time, large numbers of innovative instruments of media accountability
(e.g.,media watchblogs, cyber-ombudsmen, ormedia criticism on social networks
like Facebook or Twitter) are currently emerging online all around the globe. By hinting
at and discussing minor and major journalistic flaws in public, these instruments
help create a novel kind of participatory media regulation which everymedia user can
contribute to, and which seems to be all the more attentive to the specific features
of digital communication. The survey also showed that the participatory potential
of online communication offers multifaceted new chances for quality management
within the newsrooms. Digital communication must be seen not only as a source
for new ethical problems, but also as a viable strategy to correct them, but only if
media managers are prone to implement such measures. Frequently there is still a
gap between the positive assessment of such practices and the implementation of
accountability practices within the newsrooms, and it thus seems that journalists do
not practice what they preach (Groenhart & Evers, 2014).
Of course, as effective the concept of participatory media regulation might be,
it is not free of controversies. The advent of the Web 2.0 has not only given rise to
an augmented interactivity between journalists and users, it has also brought along
new forms of incivility in communication such as threats, name-calling, hate speech
(Papacharissi, 2004), or trolling (Cho & Acquisti, 2013; Steele, 2013; Turner, 2010).
Incivility and trolling are widespread phenomena on the Internet and are not limited
towebsites of media outlets, but they occurwherever users interact and exchange their
views. Even if trolling may always exist up to a certain degree, news organizations have
different tools at hand to limit the dysfunctional impact of digital misbehavior: gamification,
moderation, or removing the anonymity of the posters can both limit the
impact of trolls and encourage constructive postings (Binns, 2012, p. 559). But even
if these tools bring more civility to the interactions between journalists and users,
they are by no means cure-alls. Such walled gardens may bring “more civil, cohesive,
and diverse discourse; yet, on the other hand, the lingering danger of designing
new systems that perpetuate old problems such as fragmentation, filter bubbles and
homogenization” (Zamith & Lewis, 2014, pp. 569ff).
Nevertheless, for all the problematic side-effects that an increased digital
interactivity entails, hindering participation means precluding accountability and
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responsiveness and shutting out an increasingly assertive public (de Haan & Bardoel,
2012). The potentials of the Web to foster accountability to the public are by no
means fully exploited by news organizations (Eberwein & Porlezza, 2014; Powell &
Jempson, 2014). But the online space is becoming increasingly important particularly
because of its immediacy, versatility, and capacity to reach a lot of users. Under
these circumstances it is very likely that news organizations will have to cope with
increasing pressure from the audience in terms of being held to account for their
A new notion of media and communication ethics
The empirical studies presented in this article illustrate two conflicting developments
of media and communication ethics in the mediatized worlds of the digital age.
On the one hand, they indicate that the digitization of the media creates new
ethical problems that are a direct result of the hypertextuality, multimediality, and
the increased interactivity of the Internet. Various examples can be seen in the
daily workflow of professional journalistic newsrooms, which still have to find new
quality standards for verifying online sources, providing adequate hyperlinks in their
coverage, handling user comments, or integrating other user-generated contents
such as mobile photos and videos—to name just a few of the fields of action that
are currently being discussed. Although the innovations of the digital age have
stimulated calls for a redefinition of the norms and values of public communication,
there still is considerable uncertainty about what constitutes good and responsible
online journalism—or which traditional norms may remain unaltered. Our analysis
demonstrates that—despite a few exemptions—most of the contemporary codes of
ethics throughout Europe and elsewhere have not yet been adapted to the realities
of a digital media world, hence offering hardly any assistance when it comes to
assessing the potentials and perils of online communication. By uncovering gaps in
the evaluated codes, our researchmay also serve as a practically relevant collection of
recommendations to suggest amendments to the current codes and guidelines—from
which not only journalists but also the audience will benefit.
On the other hand, our empirical studies also gather new impulses for the practice
of media (self-)regulation and accountability. Our comparative journalists survey
clearly demonstrates that the digitization of communication must not only be
regardedasadanger for ethically justifiedbehavior in journalismandthemedia; at the
same time, it can also be a generator for promising innovations in this field. In recent
years, there has been a stunning growth of new instruments of web-based media
observation (such as media watchblogs, cyber-ombudsmen, and media criticism on
or through platforms like Facebook and Twitter), which are not only supported by
the media industry, but also integrate the voice of the audience. This new type of
participatory media regulation seems to be particularly beneficial in the media landscape
of today, sincemany of the traditional institutions ofmedia self-regulation are a
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matter of growing dispute within the profession as they are criticized for being ineffective
and outdated. By contrast, as our survey suggests, participatory media accountability
instruments can unfold a noteworthy sanction potential when they use the
possibilities of attention management offered by theWeb—particularly in those journalism
cultures without a long tradition ofmedia professionalism and self-regulation.
In many instances, social media are the one and only channel that audience members
can use to voice their discontent about the performance of journalistic actors (see
Bichler et al., 2012, for a collection of best practice examples). Therefore, participatory
media accountability instruments constitute a valuable complement to the initiatives
of traditional institutions, like press councils or ombudsmen, and by transforming
and extending journalistic quality management, adapting it to the requirements of
the digital age.
By addressing both sides of the story, we intend to develop a new notion of digital
media and communication ethics, which is no longer limited to traditional concepts
of professional norms and (self-)regulation, but is able to tackle and explain the implications
of digital and convergent communication. On the grounds of the systematic
disruption of journalismand the enormous changes in themedia (eco-)systemcaused
by the digitization of communication, the elaboration of a new digital media ethics
(Ess, 2013) becomes an inevitable necessity in a globalized and increasingly interconnected
However, the strands of research relevant for such an objective seem so far to
have failed to engage in a mutual discourse. Indeed, both traditional communication
ethics and research onmedia accountability andmedia governance focus on the
same objects of analysis, sometimes even posing similar research questions.However,
most of the studies in one field or the other have successfully ignored the findings
and traditions of their respective counterparts for a long time.This lamentable state
occurs, although reciprocal references would be all the more reasonable, since the
practical insights ofmedia accountability research are nothing but a natural follow-up
to the philosophical arguments of traditional communication ethics. The disciplines,
interlinked, would be able to clarify both their theoretical claims and their practical
utilities, which are often overlooked in discussions about the current transformations
of the media. Other than their lack of mutual integration, the reputation of communication
ethics and media accountability within the larger field of communication
studies seems to suffer from their ambivalent relationship to empirical research aswell
as the absence of a larger theoretical concept to explain their role in the mediatized
worlds of today. This is a deplorable condition, since a normative approach becomes
evermore important at present, in order tomake sense of themassive reconfigurations
of the global media landscape that are currently taking place.
The hostility of communication ethics toward empiricism is a problem that seems
to be characteristic of the struggle to clarify the aims and principles of practical
philosophy. Traditionally, ethics are supposed to evaluate decisions about the “ought”
of a certain action, which is usually done on the basis of logical thinking, in such a
way as to clarify which preferences can be normatively legitimized. Under ordinary
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Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza
circumstances, there is no need for empirical proof in this context. Nevertheless,
attempts to deduce normative principles from empirical evidence were criticized
as far back historically as the early 18th century (see Treatise of Human Nature by
Hume, 2005), and George Edward Moore described such an attempt to move from
“is” to “ought” as a “naturalistic fallacy” (Moore, 2002). Fromthe perspective of communication
and media ethics, this may suggest that a legitimization of professional
journalistic norms must be based not on the insights of empirical media research,
but rather on plausibility and reason.
Following the argumentation of Rath (2014, pp. 37ff), however, we contend that
contemporary communication and media ethics must not dispense with empirical
research either. Indeed, communication ethics needs empirical data as touchstone,
in order to test the practicability of its normative parameters in the real world. For
example, if communication ethics is expected to help develop rules and guidelines
for digital journalism, it needs reliable information about this field of action and
its protagonists, in order to be relevant for them and adequate to reality. This is
particularly valid if the field of action is in a state of change, as is the contemporary
media landscape. This type of understanding of communication ethics, naturally,
has methodological consequences. Scholars in this area of research cannot solely
rely on philosophical reasoning, but must also develop an appropriate interest
in and knowledge of empirical communication and media studies. Accordingly,
contemporary communication and media ethics metamorphose into an integrative
discipline, which combines its philosophical foundations with the practical orientation
of empirical media research. This combination bridges over the gap between
traditional communication ethics and applied research on media accountability and
media governance.
In order to improve its connectivity, however, this new approach to communication
andmedia ethics also needs a theoretical framework to clarify its place within the
broader system of communication studies. One of the most promising candidates for
sucha theory is offeredby the concept ofmediatization, as specifiedbyFriedrichKrotz
(2007) and others, which reconstructs the dynamics of change in culture and society
and the historically varying influences of (new) media on them. From the perspective
of communication and media ethics, which is struggling to cope with the current
transformations of the media, mediatization theory seems to be a valuable vehicle
which can help to differentiate the determining factors of this process of change, thus
alsooutlining thekeyfieldsofdiscourseof a futuredigitalmedia ethics.Unfortunately,
the normative dimensions of the mediatization approach have not yet been probed
into with due diligence (e.g., Ess, 2014)—and some of its proponents seem to oppose
the idea of paying attention to the subject as a moral agent altogether (e.g. Hjarvard,
2014). Consequently, many of the pressing questions with regard to the relationship
between communication ethics and mediatization theory are still unanswered. For
example, what are the most problematic forms of mediatized communicative actions,
communication technologies, and communication structures from a moral point of
view? How can we discuss responsibility for and resistance against these forms of
338 Journal of Communication 66 (2016) 328–342 © 2016 International Communication Association
T. Eberwein & C. Porlezza Communication Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
mediatization? Which normative principles can be made plausible in this context?
Evidently, the scholarly debate about communication ethics in the mediatized worlds
of the digital age has only just begun—and, considering the difficulties in assessing
the future direction of the ongoing media transformation, it is high time to move this
debate into the center of our discipline.
1 For example, the code of ethics (“Ehrenkodex”) of the Austrian Press Council contains no
references to the Internet at all ( In
Switzerland, the Directives related to the Declaration of the Duties and Rights of a
Journalist contain some rules with regard to online comments and the right to be forgotten
(, while the German Press council has just recently updated its code
of ethics (“Pressekodex”) with regard to user-generated content ( In
Italy, with the exception of the Charter of Treviso (,
where the protection of minors is regulated, the Ordine dei Giornalisti does not have any
directives for ethical issues in the case of digital journalism. However, this is no European
phenomenon:The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists in the US makes
no references to digital journalism either (
2 Particularly the Finnish Annex that deals with material generated by the public on a media
website includes a statement about interactivity, since “the public must be given the
opportunity to inform editorial offices of inappropriate content in such a way that the
informant receives due confirmation” (Julkisen Sanan Neuvosto, 2014).
3 Further information about this study can also be found on the project website
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