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We need global ethics in journalism

Media_ethicsAs journalists, our primary allegiance should be to a borderless, moral community of humankind, writes Stephen J.A. Ward, who proposes a model of global journalism based on cosmopolitan ethics.

 Why a Global Journalism Ethics?

Historically, journalism and journalism ethics have been parochial. Journalism ethics was developed for a journalism of limited reach, whose public duties were assumed to stop at the border. As a result, in times of conflict, patriotism as love of nation trumped other journalistic values such as critical truth-telling. 

The sufficiency of this parochial ethics has been undermined by the globalisation of news media and the global connectedness of all regions of the world. The facts are familiar. 

Media corporations are increasingly global enterprises. Technology gives journalists the ability to gather information from around the world. News reports, via satellite or the internet, reach distant countries. 

With global impact comes global responsibilities. The violence that rippled around the world after the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper is one example of global impact. As Ali Mohammed’s cartoons show, our world is not a cozy McLuhan village. News media link different religions, traditions and groups. 

Tensions propagate. A biased and parochial journalism can wreak havoc. Unless reported properly, North American readers may fail to understand the causes of violence in Middle East. Jingoistic reports can portray the inhabitants of other regions of the world as a threat. 

Biased reports may incite war among ethnic groups. In times of insecurity, a patriotic news media can amplify the views of leaders who stampede populations into pogroms against minorities. 

Moreover, a globally responsible journalism is needed to help citizens understand the daunting global problems of poverty and environmental degradation. 

My proposal is that we construct a global journalism ethics by using a cosmopolitan ethics to reinterpret the aims of journalism. 

Cosmopolitan Ethics 

Cosmopolitan ethics, expressed long ago in the writings of Stoics, Christian humanists and Kant, asserts the equal value and dignity of all people, as members of a common humanity. As Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse write: “Each human being has equal moral worth and that equal moral worth generates certain moral responsibilities that have universal scope.”

Our primary allegiance should be to a borderless, moral community of humankind. This principle rules out assigning ultimate ethical value to collective entities such as states or nations. 

It rules out positions that accord no value to some types of people, or establish a moral hierarchy where some people count for more than others. The nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, race, or gender of a person is morally irrelevant to whether an individual is a member of humanity. 

Cosmopolitanism grounds universal principles of respect and freedom on this recognition of our common humanity. The claim of humanity is not the cognition of an abstract principle. 

It is the ability to perceive and value our common humanity in the situations of life. It is respect for mankind’s rational and moral capacities wherever and however they are manifest. It is in our concrete dealings with others that we recognise humanity’s common aspirations, vulnerabilities and capacities, as well as its potential for suffering. 

Cosmopolitanism is a thesis about identity and responsibility. Cosmopolitans regard themselves as primarily defined by the common needs and aspirations that they share with other humans. 

This cosmopolitan identity is more important to their sense of self and ‘ethical identity’ than facts about their place of birth, social class, or nationality. In terms of responsibility, cosmopolitanism, according to Brock and Brighouse “highlights the obligations we have to those whom we do not know, and with whom we are not intimate, but whose lives touch ours sufficiently that what we do can affect them”. 

Cosmopolitanism has received increasing attention because of the debate over the role of the nation-state in a global world. But there are varieties of cosmopolitanism and it is difficult to formulate precisely what cosmopolitanism requires. 

Does equal moral worth entail that everyone should have an equal share of the land? As James Fishkin asks: “Are comfortable North Americans morally bound to contribute to foreign aid to the point of damaging their ability to provide for their children’s university education?” 

Despite these uncertainties, there is a growing consensus among cosmopolitans that, at the least, people everywhere should be able to meet their basic needs and develop their capacities. 

The issue that engages cosmopolitanisms and their critics is not the option between a completely partial ethics and a completely impartial ethics. Most cosmopolitans do not dispute that we have special relationships with friends and family. 

The central issue is the obligation of citizens to nations, and the obligations of nations to other nations, especially underdeveloped states. What do citizens owe to their fellow compatriots and what do they owe to non-compatriots? 

One answer is weak cosmopolitanism: There are some extra-national obligations. Another is strong cosmopolitanism: Our obligations are always global. Our fellow nationals have no claim on us and we have no right to use nationality (in contrast to friendship or familial love) to guide our discretionary behaviour. 

Today, most of the interesting cosmopolitan debate concerns how to find a position between weak and strong cosmopolitanism. 

These attempts to integrate national partiality into a cosmopolitan attitude are similar in form to my attempt to integrate partialities into ethics, to walk between partialism and impartialism. 

In my view, the cosmopolitan attitude does not deny or devalue cultural diversity or legitimate partialities. The cosmopolitan thinker is under no illusion that people will stop loving their family and country. 

The cosmopolitan attitude does not deny that particular cultures and traditions are valuable. Instead, the cosmopolitan attitude is concerned with the priority and limits of our attachments. 

To say that our primary allegiance is to humanity is to say that more partial concerns have a prima facie right to be recognised, but may be trumped by broader concerns. 

The claim of humanity acknowledges the stoic view that we live simultaneously in two communities: the local community of our birth, and a community of common human aspirations. It insists only that, in negotiating our way between these two communities, we should not allow local attachments to override fundamental human rights and duties. 

When there is no conflict with fundamental principles, life can continue to be lived according to partial principles. However, there are situations, such as military intervention in a foreign country or the establishment of a fair world trading system, where we need to assess actions from a perspective of global justice and reasonableness. 

The cosmopolitan attitude limits our parochial attachments by drawing a ring of broader ethical principles around them. 

Cosmopolitanism does not deny that people can have legitimate feelings of concern toward their country or compatriots. But it also insists that moderate patriotism be evaluated from a  cosmopolitan perspective. 

This accommodating view goes further than some, like Martha Nussbaum, seem prepared to accept. Nussbaum associates patriotism with a strong patriotic pride that is “both morally dangerous and, ultimately subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve”, such as national unity in devotion to justice and equality. 

Cosmopolitanism, for Nussbaum provides an alternative to extreme patriotism or a divisive “politics of difference” Kwame Anthony Appiah, however, leaves more room for patriotism in his cosmopolitanism. 

He advances the idea of “cosmopolitan patriots,” and of “partial cosmopolitanism” as a cosmopolitanism “that celebrates cultural differences while ruling out extreme nationalism”. He argues that living in parochial communities narrower than the species is better than living under a world-state.

Appiah believes that cosmopolitans should defend the right of others to live in “democratic states with rich possibilities of association within and across their borders”. 

Similarly, Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen have argued for a “rooted cosmopolitanism” which holds that patriotic sentiment is ethically permissible and valuable. These writers are trying to articulate a framework in which we can recognise the ineliminable impulse in humans to value both the partial and the impartial, to be attached to both the universal and the particular. 


If we adopt a cosmopolitan attitude in journalism, we change the aims and principles of journalism ethics, and we alter our conception of democratic journalism. 

The object of democratic journalism becomes not only the promotion of national democratic community but also global democratic community. 

Cosmopolitan journalists are ‘global patriots’ with a special affection for humanity and its flourishing. The claim of humanity extends the journalist’s loyalty from the public of her hometown and country to humanity at large.

The promotion of a global democratic community contains two goals. One is the use of journalism to promote and protect basic human capacities and needs, to raise the level of global social justice. The other is the more ‘political’ quest of advancing democratic community through the promotion and protection of basic rights and the ability of citizens to participate in political processes. 

Both goals promote the ‘human good’ as the material, social and political goods of a dignified and flourishing life. 

To borrow an analogy from music, a cosmopolitan ethic transposes the discussion of serving the public good into a new ‘key’ where familiar terms take on new meanings. 

Journalism’s social contract to a society becomes a ‘multi-society’ contract. The journalist becomes a trans-national public communicator. 

Journalistic credibility for a local public becomes credibility for a global audience. 

Journalistic independence comes to include independence from the pressures and biases of one’s own nation. Objectivity becomes the ideal of informing impartially from an international stance.

 Global journalism seeks to facilitate rational deliberation in a global public sphere and facilitate understanding among groups. 

The cosmopolitan attitude does not imply that news organisations should ignore local issues or regional audiences. It does not mean that every story involves global issues or requires a cosmopolitan attitude. 

What is at issue is a gradual widening of basic editorial attitudes and standards – a widening of journalists’ vision of their responsibilities and a reinterpretation of the standards used to evaluate stories. 

Media_ethics_beyond_bordersThis is an edited extract by Stephen J.A. Ward from Media Ethics Beyond Borders: A Global Perspective, co-edited by Stephen J.A. Ward and Herman Wasserman. Published by Routledge. Distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. He is the author of the award-winning The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond and Global Journalism Ethics.

Professor Ward has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Waterloo, Ontario. His research interests include history of journalism ethics, global media ethics, ethical theory, objectivity and science journalism.

He is an associate editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, the premiere academic journal on media ethics in North America, a media ethics columnist for Media Magazine and the founding chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists. He is director of two web sites: Science Journalism and Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen.


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