Digital Media Ethics Discussion Points

Mason's Outline of Ethical Issues: PAPA

        Richard O. Mason, a professor of management information sciences at Southern Methodist University, has summarized the ethical issues of the information age (Mason, 1996), saying:

"Information forms the intellectual capital from which human beings craft their lives and secure dignity. However, the building of intellectual capital is vulnerable in many ways ... These may be summarized by means of an acronym: PAPA."
         These keywords are privacy, accuracy, property and accessibility.

         Following is Mason's breakdown of each in summary form.

        What information about one's self or one's associations must a person reveal to others, under what conditions and with what safeguards? What things can people keep to themselves and not be forced to reveal to others? Mason says two forces threaten our privacy: the growth of information technology and, more insidious, the increased value of information in decision making. Diverse files relating to a person and his or her activities are integrated into a single, large database, revealing intimate details. These may be formed, used and sold without the affected parties' permission or knowledge. Mason refers to this as the "threat of exposure by minute description" (Mason, 1996). In Mason's model, each additional weaving together of each detail of a person's attributes reveals more and more. In the process, he says, the fabric that is created poses a threat to privacy.

        Who is responsible for the authenticity, fidelity and accuracy of information? Who is to be held accountable for errors in information and how is the injured party to be made whole? Some data available in information systems masquerading as the gospel truth is completely in error. More than 60,000 state and local agencies, for example, provide information to the National Crime Information Center, which is accessed by law officers nearly 400,000 times a day. Yet studies show that over 4 percent of the stolen vehicle entries, 6 percent of the warrant entries and perhaps as many as one half of the local law enforcement criminal history records contain fallacies (Mason, 1996). Today we in the information industry are producing so many details about so many people and their activities that our exposure to problems of inaccuracy is enormous.

        Who owns information? What are the just and fair prices for its exchange? Who owns the channels, especially the airways, through which information is transmitted? How should access to this scarce resource be allocated? There are substantial economic and ethical concerns surrounding intellectual property rights. Any individual piece of information can be extremely costly to produce in the first instance. Yet, once it's produced, that information can be easily reproduced and repeated, ad infinitum. It can also be altered, then attributed inaccurately to the original author in a misleading fashion. Copyrights, patents, encryption, oaths of confidentiality, and such old-fashioned values as trustworthiness and loyalty are imperfect institutions that often fail to protect property rights. There are some equally pressing property rights issues surrounding the conduits through which information passes. Bandwidth, the measure of capacity to carry information, is a scarce and ultimately fixed commodity. Are ethics or financial concerns foremost when positions on this spectrum are being awarded?

        What information does a person or an organization have a right or a privilege to obtain, under what conditions and with what safeguards? At the same time computer usage flourishes among some, there exists a large group of information-poor people who have no direct access to computational technology and who have little training in its use. The educational and economic ante can be quite high when playing the modern information game. Many people cannot or choose not to pay it and hence are excluded from participating fully. In effect, they may become information dropouts. (Mason, 1996)

Summation: Mason (1996) says we must work to see to it that information technology and the information it provides are used to enhance the dignity of mankind: "Information systems should not unduly invade a person's privacy ... must be accurate ... should protect the sanctity of intellectual property to avoid the indignities of "disemmindment" of knowledge from individuals ... should be accessible to avoid the indignities of information deprivation."

Impact: Structuring an Ethics Design

Impact Computer Science: Group's work applicable in all information fields

     It wasn't until the 1970s that philosophers and ethicists began to take a close look at the ethical issues raised by computing technology. Primary scholarly work has now accumulated on topics such as the purposes of codes of ethics, the duties of professionals, intellectual property, privacy and organizational ethics (Impact Computer Science, 1996).

         The report "Consequences of Computing: A Framework for Teaching" was assembled by a steering committee comprised of 25 professors of management, sociology, computer science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and religion from 25 of the finest institutions of higher education in the United States. In its comprehensive, conceptual overview of the field, the report points out that professionals constructing an ethics model for their organization must consider how their decisions will affect the variety of individuals who will use their product. Another important point brought forth is that within any organization there are likely to be differing points of view on the use, regulation, promise and design of the product (Impact, 1996).

        Organizational dynamics have to be taken into account when designing an ethics framework. "Organizational imperatives that require work groups to value production above all else are often the culprits in poor quality," the authors warn (Impact, 1996). In this age of fragmented competition, short-handed newsrooms and 24-hour news, ethics, even when carefully assembled and recognized in a professional code, may often take a back seat.

        It is assumed in most newsrooms that individual responsibilities held as common moral imperatives - avoiding harm to others, being honest, taking action not to discriminate - need not be enumerated in an ethics code. It is difficult to imagine any ethical system that could survive without a basic expectation of this sort. Because journalism is a profession, its adherents have a responsibility to shape the profession in ways that are socially desirable. One vital characteristic of a profession is that it professes to have the best interest of the public at heart (Impact, 1996). Professional responsibilities should be woven into the ethics of the workplace.

        In structuring an ethics design, it's important to use criteria such as logical coherence, agreement with accepted standards and applicability to a variety of cases. Rules should have quality reasons for their existence in the framework (Impact, 1996).

        In setting ethics methodologies, the manager makes a commitment. Ethical reflection begins with the assumption that all design and implementation involves value choices. The authors of "Consequences of Computing" say there are a variety of questionable, naive approaches to ethical reasoning. In their model for compiling an ethics framework (Impact, 1996), the authors say managers should try to avoid:

* Naive Legalism: The equation of ethicality with legality is a tempting way to shorten ethical reflection. While legal issues are important, assuming that "if it is legal, it is ethical," is asking more of the law than it can provide. It denies the legitimacy of principled disagreement with the law.

* Naive Egoism: This is the simple belief that selfishness is the best guiding principle. This makes it convenient to deny one's duties and one's fellow creatures while concentrating only on one's profit. This form offers up a fundamental dishonesty, since it assumes that everyone else will continue to follow ethical norms.

* Naive Agency: The surrender of all moral authority by claiming to be a simple agent of some other entity (e.g. your superior). In the end, even the legal system requires individual responsibility. Sometimes soldiers have to disobey orders.

* Naive Relativism: The belief that all moral choices are relative to the situation and the culture. Because there are a variety of cultures and situational constructs, this view can make almost any decision look reasonable.

        Technology is shaping our society, but society has shaped technology as well. Social, cultural, technological and organizational considerations will affect the construction of an ethics code, and it must be reassessed periodically to keep it current. Value judgments can include decisions to use particular methods, to implement particular features, to meet particular standards and to adhere to particular criteria. Deciding what to leave undone or unsaid is also a key ethical consideration (Impact, 1996).

        Ethical argument should move from intuition about the right and the good, to explicit reasoning, and then be tested by comparison to concrete examples and analogies in the field under consideration (Impact, 1996).

*The Summary of the Online Ethics 2000 Survey: Online news managers say small staff sizes and the Internet medium's demand for speed and scoops erode traditional ethical standards.

*The Survey: The Internet is a runaway train, and journalism professionals with a healthy concern for the value of its cargo of information and the people to whom it is being delivered must tug the emergency-stop cord hard enough and long enough to allow ethical thinking and planning onboard.

*An Ethics Appendix: A summary of ethics suggestions for content providers from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, ACM, American Society of Newspaper Editors and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

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This page was updated June 11, 2000, by Janna Quitney Anderson. For more information, contact