Ethics: the good, the bad and the ugly

The BBC defines ethics as ‘a system of moral principles, affecting how people make their decision and lead their lives,’ and put simply, the way in which we determine what is good and what is bad. Ethics are particularly relevant to the media, especially with journalists (professional, free-lance or amateur) being a prominent presence in areas of conflict. Ethics are important to ensure that we as a society understand what is acceptable and adhere to those standards to ensure peace and understanding. If only it were that simple.

If Dumbledore says it, it must be right
If Dumbledore says it, it must be right

A significant problem associated with ethics are their subjectivity. Standards of ethics depend on various different factors such as; ‘discipline, political system, legal system, religious/social system, research content, setting/institution and time in history’ (McCutcheon, 2015). Factoring in these aspects,  an act that appears ethical and good to one person, may be bad and unethical to another. A recent example of how media ethics are not universal and can be misunderstood is the imprisonment of Al Jazeera staff in December of 2013.

Greste, along with two other Al Jazeera staff, were arrested in Cairo, Egypt for ‘broadcasting news which was damaging to national security by meeting with recently declared terrorist group, The Muslim Brotherhood’ (BBC, 2013). To the Egyptian government, their work was completely unethical. Illegally meeting with a terrorist group which was interpreted as ‘damaging.’ Whereas the Al Jazeera staff were looking to uncover the truth in a conflict ridden area. A movement to free Peter Greste with the slogan ‘telling the truth is not terrorism,’ and the hashtag of FreeAJStaff went viral, however in this case the Egyptian court viewed the ‘truth’ as terrorism.

Free AJ staff

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalist’ Code of Ethics states standards to do with accuracy and honesty to upkeep image and credibility. The first standard is ‘report and interpret honestly, do not suppress relevant available facts.’ This guideline can be interpreted in various ways such as; Peter Greste and the Al Jazeera staff were trying to uncover the truth and did nothing wrong, or, the facts and information were not readily available and breached this code of ethics, or violated the political ethics of their host country, Egypt and thus their imprisonment is justified.

A problem with media ethics is that there are no ‘fixed right answers’ (Gordon, 1996). For example, the code of ethics mentioned above are are similar yet different to the Al Jazeera code of ethics, which are different to the Telegraph’s code of conduct. With all these different ethical codes, how are we supposed to know what is right or wrong? Ethical or unethical?

We need ethics to get by in life as smoothly as possible, but we cannot impose our personal ethics on others and must understand that ethics are subjective from people, institutions and countries.

Further Information 

Controversies with journalism ethics can be seen in many media stories;

Julian Asange and WikiLeaks.


BBC, 2013 Egypt Crisis: Al Jazeera journalists arrested in Cairo, http://Http://, accessed 29 March 2015

Gordon, D., Kittross, J.M., Reuss, C. & Merrill, J.C. 1996,Controversies in media ethics, Longman, White Plains, N.Y.

McCutcheon, M. 2015 Research Ethics, BCM210, University of Wollongong, accessed 29 March 2015

Ward, S.J.A. 2013, Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives, Wiley-Blackwell, GB.


5 thoughts on “Ethics: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Hi Adelaide,
    This is a really interesting look at ethics, and really well written! You’ve turned a pretty boring topic into a really interesting issue. Your example of the Peter Greste case really reinforces your argument that ethics are subjective and can vary across different nations. Your use of hyperlinks was great, allowing me to further explore ethics in journalism and your use of multiple sources gives your argument strength and validity.

    Just a thought, aside from this case, if different countries have different ethical standards, do we respect and abide by what another country deems as ethical or do we go against it if it conflicts with our own understanding of what is ethical?

    The subjectivity of ethics definitely applies to WikiLeaks as you mentioned, and brings up that whole argument of moral vs. legal ethics. While, WikiLeaks is considered legally unethical, morally speaking it is ethical, as people have a right to know if their government is involved in any corrupt or unethical activity.

    1. Thank you Byron for your feedback! I definitely found the Peter Greste case very interesting and thoroughly enjoyed researching more on quite an important ethical and legal issue.
      Extending on your thought regarding abiding by respecting our own personal ethics or the ethics of the country we’re in. I think a current political and ethical issue of this is the proposed execution of the Bali 9.
      It’s a tough issue and no one really has the answer to but I think by being aware of these issues is a good step in the right direction towards cultural and ethical understanding.

  2. Hey Adelaide,
    I agree with you, there are definitely many different codes of ethics for different media organisations. Idea to think of, especially for journalists, would be to consider the points of view and culture of the country they are interviewing or writing in. It is an intense world now, that’s why good ethics is needed. Respect for individuals is the most important element. Oh and awesome Dumbledore gif. =)

  3. Hey, how tricky is the topic of ethics? I mean different people, different industries all have varied stances on what should be upheld and what is appropriate. I agree that the media should be careful and aware of their identity within ethical standards and I think your example of Al Jazeera was spot on. When you’re in the media and portraying personal and relevant issues it is so important to ensure that precautions are taken. However I believe as a journalist there is such a fine line across different stories and continents it makes it so hard! You tackled a big issue and area of ethical discussion, so well done!

    1. Definitely difficult to determine the difference between ethically right and wrong.
      I do believe that journalists do have a responsibility to respect the rules and regulations of a country they’re in but when those rules potentially withhold vital information and the truth needs to be told to better society, then it should happen
      Thanks for the feedback Alyss 🙂

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