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Analyzing Ethical Dilemmas in Media Practices
Mitch Land, Ph.D.
School of Communication and the Arts
Regent University
Analyzing Ethical Dilemmas in Media Practices
Ethical or moral conflict arises when principles and values collide. For example, when
covering a crime story such as the Boston Marathon bombing, a reporter must decide whether to
name victims and take photos or videos of the dead and injured. Immediately, the principles of
truth, liberty and humaneness must be considered. Will emotional and psychological harm be
done to the families and victims if their injured or slain bodies are depicted graphically? Does the
non-moral value of getting the story first or publishing prize-winning photographs of the tragedy
– thus responding to the demands of truth and liberty – justify violating the principle of
humaneness? That is, the reporter is compelled to present the facts to the readers and viewers and
may argue from a First Amendment perspective that she not only has the obligation to present all
the facts to her viewers, but she also has the freedom granted her by the First Amendment.
Immediately, the reporter will realize that her editor or producer expects her to do her job; the
newspaper or broadcast network, management and stockholders expect the same. Indeed, both
the expectations of her readers or viewers and the economic welfare of the company compel her
to consider all stakeholders. How does she make the best decision in such an ethical crisis? On
what basis does she prioritize the competing principles/values and stakeholders?
In both editions of our book, Contemporary Media Ethics, I discuss the Potter Box model
named for its contributor, Ralph B. Potter, professor emeritus of social ethics at Harvard Divinity
School.1 This model features four quadrants: 1). The empirical facts or definition of the
situation, 2). theological perspectives, 3). Decisions or affirmation of basic loyalties and 4).
Ralph B. Potter Jr., “The Logic of Moral Argument,” in Toward a Discipline of Social Ethics:
Essays in Honor of Walter George Muelder, ed. Paul Deats Jr. (Boston: Boston University Press, 1972),
108–109; and Ralph B. Potter Jr., War and Moral Discourse (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1969), 23–
Modes of ethical reasoning. Clifford Christians and his associates renamed and rearranged those
four quadrants thusly: 1). situation definition, 2). values, 3). principles, and 4). loyalties and
suggested that the Potter Box applied in this way could offer a framework for moral reasoning as
decision makers work through an ethical dilemma.2 The basic idea is that the decision makers
would focus on the essential facts, and then consider the principles and values that compete to
create the ethical dilemma. Then, as they further examine the various stakeholders concerned in
the situation, they would arrange the principles and values in order of priority as they consider
the primary, secondary and tertiary stakeholders (See Figures 1.1 and 1.2).3 As I taught students
how to apply the revised Potter Box through the years, this vexing question often came up: “On
what basis does one prioritize the principles and values, and then stakeholders?” Something
seemed to be missing from this model. The model needed a philosophical base.
Indeed, everyone makes decisions in life on the basis of a worldview, especially
when it comes to moral choices. That worldview could alternate among a religious philosophy, a
utilitarian framework, or in some cases, mere egoism. The Point-of-Decision Pyramid introduced
a philosophical foundation to the model. Imagine taking the Potter Box diagram at its midpoint
and pulling it up into a three-dimensional structure with a foundation (See Figure 1.3).4 Rather
than four panels, this three-sided pyramid model assumes that principles and values can be
considered within one panel. The principles we applied in the second edition are the following:
Clifford G. Christians et al., Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning, 9th ed. (Boston: Allyn
and Bacon, 2012), 3–7.
Mitchell Land, Koji Fuse and Bill W. Hornaday, eds., Contemporary Media Ethics: A practical
guide for students, scholars, professionals in a globalized world,” 2nd Edition. (Spokane, Wash.: Marquette
Books, 2014), 37. Potter Box adapted from Christians, et. al, Media Ethics: Cases in Moral Reasoning, 9th
ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2012), 3-7.
Mitchell Land, Koji Fuse and Bill W. Hornaday, eds., Contemporary Media Ethics: A practical
guide for students, scholars, professionals in a globalized world,” 2nd Edition. (Spokane, Wash.: Marquette
Books, 2014), 38-39.
truth, humaneness, justice, freedom, stewardship, harmony and diversity. Principles provide the
guideposts for what is right and wrong; values can be thought of as ”principles applied,” because
they define what is good and bad. I like to view values as principles in action. It’s also imperative
for media practitioners especially to distinguish between moral and non-moral values. In other
words, the professional values of getting a story first, interviewing the most authoritative
sources, publishing compelling images and making profit are non-moral values. They’re
important to guide professional journalism practices, but the journalist must be careful not to
allow non-moral values to trump moral values.
The Point-of-Decision Pyramid Model applied should begin with the decision
maker’s worldview—or the philosophic framework that will inform the analysis as he or she
reasons from the case facts through the prioritization of principles/values and then to the
stakeholders. In addition to demonstrating utilitarian, communitarian and non-western
philosophical frameworks as foundations for moral reasoning, we must remind students,
professionals and educators of the importance of the Christian worldview as the most appropriate
philosophical framework for analysis. The decision maker should then move from one panel to
the next to make the most informed decision possible. It’s worth citing this process verbatim
from the text:
First, the case facts give rise to the ethical dilemma by cutting through
extraneous details to expose the raw nerve of moral crisis. The gradual exposure of
essential facts helps reveal the angst of conflicting moral principles and values. This
leads to the second step, the relationship of principles in terms of stakeholders and
loyalties. By moving back and forth from the stakeholder panel to the principles
panel—all while constantly considering case facts in the first triangular panel—the
competing principles and values become more apparent.
The second triangular panel should list, in order of priority, the principles that
emerge from elaboration on the essential facts and careful consideration of the
stakeholders. Because of their interchangeability, principles and values are
contemplated in the same triangular panel. The third triangular panel addresses
stakeholders and should list, again in rank-order, the prioritization of stakeholders in
light of competing rights, claims, and loyalties as facts and competing principles and
values in the case become obvious. Indeed, the initial prioritization of principles in
the second panel may require re-evaluation as the analyst poses the following
questions when considering stakeholders: (1) Who has the most to gain and who has
the least to gain as we move toward the point of decision? (2) Conversely, who has
the most and least to lose?
The third triangular panel addresses stakeholders and should list, again in
rank-order, the prioritization of stakeholders in light of competing rights, claims
squarely situated on the foundation of a selected moral philosophy, we spiral upward
through the prioritized elements of our triangular panels to the point of moral
decision. The goal is to build an ethical structure that will stand after the storm of
crisis has passed.5
Ibid., 38-40