The National Communications Commission recently punished Sanlih Entertainment Television for misusing historical video footage in a documentary on the 228 Incident by fining it NT$1 million and ordering the station to improve its internal editing and oversight system. What was unusual was the commission's order telling Sanlih to invite experts on media ethics to teach an eight-hour course to all departmental managers within two months.
Although this kind of punishment has been used in Britain, it was new to Taiwan. This has the public wondering: Will a media ethics course work? Can you really teach ethics just because you are a media communications expert?
A US study analyzing the effectiveness of teaching news media rules and ethics concluded that short-term classes in ethics may not build a solid foundation for ethical behavior but they can help improve reasoning and decision-making.
In other words, ethics isn't simply a dogma about morality and standards.
Moral standards can be in conflict with one another. For example, an overemphasis on media ethics may limit freedom of the press, while freedom of the press may endanger national security. As such, ethics is significant as a method of dialectical reasoning, or moral reasoning. This not only has practical implications for the media, but also involves personal choices about the meaning of one's life and values.
Although ethics education has its flaws, looking at the emphasis placed on teaching philosophy in advanced democratic societies shows that it is a key foundation in elevating the public mind. Teaching ethics alone does not guarantee an improved media, but without it, improvement is impossible.
This brings us to the next question: What kind of ethics courses have the journalism and communications departments in various universities and vocational colleges established, and who is teaching them? The answer is disheartening. There seems to be no ethics course in most schools' curriculum, and practically no media ethics academic with a strong background in moral philosophy.
Four years ago, the School of Journalism at National Taiwan University tried to invite two outstanding professors to teach such a course, but no student signed up for the class. There are also some communications instructors who regard ethics education as unimportant because they do not understand philosophy. Neither are there philosophy teachers who are involved in teaching media ethics.
In short, media ethics is a wasteland in this country.
Given the lack of media ethics experts, who will teach such a class? True, the nation has some excellent journalists and documentary makers who insist on sticking to journalism's core value -- truth and public welfare. Their example can have a positive effect that others can emulate. However, they still lack a sound grounding in moral philosophy.
Plato's ideal rulers were "philosopher kings." To realize this ideal, he thought that if philosophers could not be rulers, then rulers should be taught to be philosophers.
If we were to follow Plato's reasoning, we should encourage philosophers to do media research, or encourage media workers to study philosophy. Communications education and the academic world should work together to find a way to foster media ethics scholarship.
If we don't plant the seeds today, there may be nothing to harvest tomorrow.
Flora Chang is a professor at the National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Journalism.
Translated by Marc Langer
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