Hypertext Essay – Trustworthiness of Sources: Role Morality & The Nature of Information

The lack of canonical sources presented by the networked media landscape creates inherent problems for applying the traditional epistemic criteria we generally expect the disseminators of information to be committed to; trustworthiness, independence, reliability, accuracy and objectivity.

To explore this we have to step back and establish a normative framework for identifying and evaluating the ethical issues that surround the media. To do this we will look at Role morality and Universal Public Morality as defined by Spence, Alexandra, Quinn and Dunn (2011). This will help establish why media institutions, particularly the practice of journalism, have been granted authority by media consumers to be seen as valid communicators of information; in short why we have collectively consented to the existence of canonical sources before the internet, and why they will the central stage of the public sphere (Carson, 2013).

  •     Role Morality: The Primary role of a professional practice is determined by it’s ultimate professional objective, this in turn determines ethical rules and principles that particular practice is committed to.For example, a police officer, by virtue of their professional objective, must be committed to the principle of justice and the rule of law.Journalists, as professional disseminators of information, are committed to various ethical principles, which should include truthfulness, reliability, objectivity, independence and trustworthiness. This role morality is part of the reason journalists, and the media, have been generally trusted sources in traditional mass communication platforms.
  •     Universal Public Morality: The role morality of a practice is constrained by the requirements of universal public morality.Essentially these are the principles, rules and values everyone is committed to by virtue of being ‘rational human beings and members of the social collective that constitutes civil society.’ This morality is universal it applies to everyone simply due to our common humanity.These ethical theories are where the buck stops, to give context, an assassin may define his ultimate objective as killing for a fee, therefore his role morality would be defined by this, committing him to murder as moral in his role, however we wouldn’t accept this as objectively justified reason to kill as it’s prohibited by universal public morality.

The roles of media determines the role moralities of the media, which are constrained by universal public morality.

– Media, Markets, and Morals. Edward H Spence, Andrew Alexandra, Aaron Quinn, and Anne Dunn (2011), Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.

So if we follow Spence’s definition we determine that, broadly, the ultimate goal of media is the dissemination and communication of information to the public.

To understand this goal, and therefore the role morality of media, we need to take one more step and look at what we define information to be. Once we do this, we identify certain epistemological and ethical commitments that information by its very nature requires, and thus imposes on the media and journalists.

The provision of information is a fundamental exchange for humans to engage socially with one another, it is a public phenomenon. Information is created in transfers of knowledge, codified to help if pass from source to audience and be understood (Samuli Leppälä, 2012) (Spence, Alexandra, Quinn, and Dunn 2011)

In defining information as knowledge codified it becomes apparent that there is an interaction between coder and decoder, provider and receiver, and, that both provider and receiver are hoping to transfer the truth of that knowledge. Knowledge involves belief, but not just belief, knowledge is known, or is “true belief”. Therefore for something to be information, it must be true or at least truthful, otherwise it is misinformation.

Belief is hinged on trust, therefore identifying the veracity of sources is essential to the successful transfer of information, this becomes more difficult in the absence of professional role morality with information sourced from wiki platforms, user ratings and ranking systems, and citizen journalism in the network world. If information is a type of knowledge, it must comply with the epistemological conditions of knowledge, specifically, that of truth. Therefore if the media’s professional purpose is to disseminate information, it is by virtue of this role, dedicated to the principle of truth, but with many ‘lay’ people contributing to the creation and distribution of information how can we establish their dedication to truth?

Good journalistic practice is based on diversity of perspectives from those who supply information and informed opinions to public. In this regard the networked structure of new media offers huge potential and the move away from canonical sources offers huge potential for newsgathering, disseminating diverse information and for the act of dissemination itself.

But in an age of user-created content and citizen journalism, where we see networked efforts to investigate events by crowd sourcing information, if we now have instant access to vast unregulated networked sources of “information”, can we trust the veracity, credibility, and reliability of these sources of information we now access on the Internet? Who can we trust, and why? Who provides an authoritative, accountable and ethical quality control of Internet information?

Here’s a somewhat negative outlook on Role Morality that does not define it as confined by Universal Public Morality, but illustrates conflicting issues within traditional media, where the ultimate objective of the media outlet may become profit rather than dissemination of information:

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