Media work constantly throws us challenges that don’t have a singular correct answer. In fact, we often face situations where we don’t know what to do as every option seems likely to cause harm (these are called moral dilemmas). While there are no absolute rules that guarantee perfect behavior in all situations, here are some basic tips to help you mitigate harm and best ensure quality, ethical work.
When faced with a tough professional decision or any kind of moral dilemma, you can refer to philosopher Sissela Bok’s 3-step process for ethical decision making:
Step 1. Consult yourself.
What does your conscience or “gut” say? What is troubling about the situation? What personal values or principles are in conflict? Evaluate why you feel the way you do. This step helps you clearly identify the dilemma.
Step 2. Consult experts.
Is there someone with more knowledge or know-how that could help you make a more informed decision? You don’t have to “go it alone” when facing dilemmas. Talk with other people or imagine what someone might say. Depending on the situation, you could start with a co-worker, peer or trusted mentor. And experts are not limited to people with institutional credentials. Have conversations (real or imagined) with someone whose judgment you trust.
Step 3. Consult the affected.
Who has an interest in how this situation is handled? What are some potential consequences of your actions? How might you consider the viewpoint of such stakeholders when making your final decision? Use empathy to better understand the situation and respond accordingly.
Following this model does not guarantee you are making “the” correct decision. It does, however, enable you to make an informed decision—one you could stand behind (and explain if need be). Not only does this help you make the best decision for your individual career. It also helps you build a world of social trust and mutual care so necessary for our communities to flourish.
Dr. Joseph Jones is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Reed College of Media where he teaches courses on media law, ethics, history, culture and sociology. Dr. Jones is the faculty sponsor for WVU’s National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) chapter and serves as the Research Chair for the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC). He recently won the Penn State Davis Ethics award for his work on food journalism ethics and has also published on the Black press, fashion media, and feminist theory.
Boks, Sissela (1978). Lying: Moral choice in public and private life. Pantheon Books.