Monday, January 19, 2009

What are the ethical issues of promoting prosocial messages in popular media?

Brown & Singhal (1997) ask this interesting question. They are writing about all prosocial media, but what would be the ethical issues here? Would there be ethical issues to address when using popular media to promote anti-prejudice messages? In their book chapter Brown and Singhal explore the general ethical issues and suggest some guidelines for writers, producers, etc.

They write: "Producers of prosocial messages need an ethical framework for social influence" (p. 212). They go on to give the 7 ethical dilemmas that they writers, producers, researchers, etc. may face. They offer up a framework -- 7 dilemmas to consider.
  1. prosocial development dilemma -- "how to respond to those who argue it is unethical to use media as a persuasive tool to guide social development"
  2. prosocial content dilemma -- "how to distinguish prosocial from antisocial media content"
  3. source-centered dilemma -- "who should determine the prosocial content for others"
  4. audience segmentation dilemma -- "who among the audiences should receive the prosocial content"
  5. oblique persuasion dilemma -- "how to justify the 'sugar coating' of educational messages with entertainment"
  6. sociocultural equality dilemma -- "how to ensure that the prosocial media uphold sociocultural equality among viewers"
  7. unintended effects dilemma -- "how to respond to the unintended consequences of prosocial media" (p. 212).
Borrowing on Lasswell's old maxim describing communication, Brown and Singhal summarize these dilemmas in one question: "Who is to determine for whom what is prosocial and what is not?" (p. 212)

O.K. let's look at these one at a time in the context of the anti-prejudice research discussed in this research blog. First, would it be unethical to use the media to fight prejudice (i.e., promote an anti-prejudice message)? Personally it seems to me to be unethical not to use the media. If you see injustices in the society shouldn't you do what you can to help right the wrongs (including using the media)? I guess maybe the problem is in what is an injustice and who determines that. Are there some types of prejudices that it would be unethical to fight because some groups of people would not see the message as being prosocial? What can be said of these more specific examples: a TV program that fights racial prejudice and a TV program that fights gay prejudice? If a group in society did not see a TV program that fights gay prejudice as acceptable (or prosocial), then the producer of the message can found to be unethical? In terms of a TV program that fights racial prejudice, what if a group, say the KKK, objected to TV program, would that then mean the creators of the TV program committed an unethical act?

In a short paragraph about this Brown and Singhal only bring up the example of abortion. Would a TV program that promoted a pro-abortion message offend a segment of the audience and thus be unethical? Is prejudice different than abortion?

More on this later.

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