Code of Ethics Step One: Define Who It’s For

The headline of this post is rather pointed and confident. That’s because I taught media ethics at Missouri State University for 18 years and have my way of thinking about these things. But…

A code of ethics is a guide to conduct, focused on decision making, agreed upon by a group of people to promote particular values of a common endeavor. There’s much chicken-or-egg unpacking to do there (in that equally pointed and confident statement). My way to begin unpacking it is to decide who a code is for and then follow the trails one discovers.

I gave an assignment over many years in my media ethics class in which I asked students, working in groups, to write a code of ethics for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The first bit of advice I offered them is to define who they are by defining what they do — consequently, define who it’s for so others who do what they do will understand the code as made for them. Or, rather, identify the practices and values that others will recognize.

So what is it they did during their years at Comedy Central? It wasn’t journalism, although they did present facts. And it wasn’t just satire. It was certainly comedy (different from satire). To make matters more complicated, these guys had agendas of various sorts.

I’ll skip to the good part: The best group in the best class that ever completed this assignment created a term for Stewart and Colbert. They called them “medialitical infotainers.”

With that “image” in mind, with that job title, with that “who,” it’s now possible to begin writing a code of ethics — a guide to what we ought and ought not do.

Photo of Jon Stewart by Elke Sisco. Photo of Stephen Colbert by Derek Steen.
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