Media ethics in a modern society

Imagine your daily routine: you grab a free newspaper at the underground station, click through Facebook in order to take a quick look at the news. Those are only two channels with which you can consume media  in a modern society…

Nowadays we are surrounded by a pretty diverse media landscape – one incident is usually accompanied by countless articles that differ from each other, even just in small details. Reading them all seems to be an impossible task. They are competing for our attention; every article is trying to be more sensational than the next one. Choosing those articles that somehow stand out from the regular coverage, just seems like the natural thing to do. Sometimes it is a shocking image that does the trick.

Sensationalism, ethical guidelines and the “Austrian Presserat”

Of course, people want to know the face of the politician who has been arrested recently or the athlete who won the Olympic Games, instead of just knowing their names. And of course, it is way more interesting seeing the dead body of a 3-year old boy, than just reading about his death. This kind of news may be more thrilling – but is it ethically justifiable to portray this?

The “Austrian Presserat” gives us ethical guidelines and points out abuse. It deals with questions like these in order to guarantee quality and freedom of press. Looking at the diversity the media landscape has to offer and the constant modification it is going through, ethics has become a complicated aspect. Especially in our modern times, the media is constantly in need of reformation.

71 dead refugees and the case of Aylan Kurdi

In reaction to almost 200 complaints, the Presserat took a closer look at a photograph published by “Die Krone” in August 2015, depicting 71 dead refugees who were found in a truck’s cargo bay on the A4 highway. The Austrian Presserat came to the conclusion that printing this photograph was a grave offence to human dignity. The reason for this decision was that the article primarily dealt with the crime of human trafficking, while the sorrow of the refugees was only mentioned in passing. Beyond that “Die Krone” obviously received the picture illegally from a police officer.

As mentioned above, in September 2015, “”, “Österreich” and “Profil” published a picture showing dead 3-year old Aylan Kurdi; a refugee whose body had washed up on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea. The publication of this picture lead to considerable interest and protest at the same time. In this case, the Presserat decided the publication to be appropriate because the picture showed the dimension of the sorrow and the threat refugees face when they are forced to escape. The picture was neither sensational nor voyeuristic and it had a huge impact on public empathy towards refugees. In addition, the father of the boy agreed to the publication of the tragic picture of his dead son.

In both cases, the privacy of the victims had been ignored. The story behind the picture was the decisive factor.

Our responsibility as a consumer

In times where information is easily accessible by everybody the term “privacy” becomes more and more vague. Therefore, it is necessary to think about what privacy means to the individual. This does not only include thinking about what you want to expose about your own life, it also means to decide, based on your own standards, how media coverage should treat other people’s privacy.

The media is under immense pressure to keep up with the competition. To stand out from the common coverage, articles need to be more and more shocking. But are we really that emotionally numbed? Have we already seen so many shocking things that only a dead baby can make us feel affected? Taking on responsibility by choosing which kind of articles you want to read, can have a huge impact. In the end, you as the reader, the consumer of media, decide about the future of media coverage.

For the next couple of weeks we will publish ideas worth spreading in cooperation with the Wienvestigativ initiative of the journalism students of the University of Vienna. This blog post is written by guest author Salome Lixl.

Photo credits: Cover image by Pixabay

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