Mass Communications Law

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Beyond the law – ethics

As we learned from the beginning of the semester, the law seeks to codify rules of conduct that is allowed or permissible in society. In other words, the law records the rules of behavior that some social group says it will tolerate or not tolerate. That code, or list of rules is backed by political authority, meaning, a person found guilty of violating the rules will then be subject to some kind of penalty imposed by society. Penalties range from censure to loss of privileges (a license is revoked) to fines, imprisonment or even death.

The law defines what society regards as allowable behavior.

Beyond the law are ethics – questions of what is right or wrong. In the closing scenes of Absence of Malice, deputy U.S. Attorney General Wells (played by Wilford Brimley) summarizes some of what has been going on during the course of the movie with these words: “It ain’t legal, and worse than that … it ain’t right.” Those words underscore the distinction between what is legal and what is ethical.

In our society, ethics is the province of philosophers, theologians and professional organizations. Thus lawyers have a set of standards governing what they call "professional" or "ethical" behavior above and beyond the law. Similarly, the American Medical Assn. publishes a book-length Code of Medical Ethics.

In media practice, journalists have had codes of ethics since 1923. The most widely distributed code is that of the Society of Professional Journalists. The American Advertising Federation adopted a code in 1984.The Public Relations Society of America code speaks of "ethical guidance" and "professional standards."