The Top 10 Ethics Stories of 2012

The New Year brings opportunities for reflection, planning, and trotting out the tried-and-true columnist’s formula of picking the year’s top stories related to the scope of the publication.

Here are my choices, ranked not necessarily by the importance of the story, per se, but rather by how the story influenced the public’s perception of ethics and how the event was viewed by the mainstream media as an issue centering on moral judgment.

Here we go with rankings from least to most important:

10. The Libor scandal. This story involved lending institutions rigging a key interest rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), in order to artificially boost profits. It had particular impact in the United Kingdom, where it is reported that many customers — fed up with what they view as an institutional culture of cheating — are moving their funds to banks that promise better stewardship.

9. The New York Post‘s photo of a doomed man about to be hit by a subway train. The disturbing cover prompted ethics debates in newsrooms, blogs, front pages, and television talk shows worldwide, centering on whether it was a journalist’s job to help or observe and how it is common for groups of people to assume that someone else will help in a crisis.

8. The “moral hazard” of rebuilding vulnerable areas after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. “Moral hazard” — the term applied to rewarding risky behavior by providing a bailout — has commonly been applied to lending institutions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, though, many political leaders began discussing, in ethical terms, the dilemma of committing government funds to rebuilding areas likely to be damaged again.

7. Corruption in China. 2012 saw a series of stories centering on politicians who fell from favor because of their association with graft, as well as the Chinese populace’s impatience with an ingrained culture of corruption in the body politic. Of particular significance was the central party’s grudging willingness to at least partly acknowledge public outrage over the issue and oust minor (and some major) officials caught with their hands in the till.

6. Negative campaigning during the 2012 presidential race. Polling data showed weighty discontent with negative campaigning and indicated that many thought that the quality and usefulness of political advertising continued to deteriorate. Such stories were perhaps indicative of a larger ethical issue — the increasing polarization and intransigence of political parties.

5. Inflammatory media and the right of free speech. The Innocence of Muslims, a virulently anti-Muslim propaganda film, prompted both massive demonstrations and physical violence as well as a moral debate over the limits of tolerance. Reported in stark ethical terms was the dilemma of whether nations and media that defend free speech should draw the line at material that is likely to incite outrage and violence, and if so, where such a line should be drawn.

4. The resignation heard round the world. Former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith quit in very public fashion, publishing his resignation letter in the New York Times and accusing his brokerage-house employer of manipulating clients, who he said were derided as “muppets” (British slang for a stupid person) in internal emails. While Goldman initially brushed off the development, it later said it took such matters seriously and began an investigation. While the daily news menu through all of 2012 was replete with items about financial shenanigans, the Smith letter seemed to clarify and condense public anger about not only financial misdeeds, but also about a toxic culture that Smith claimed fueled investor abuse.

3. The Petraeus affair. While sex scandals are commonplace media fodder, this one ignited an intense debate centering on the ethical implications of power and privilege. It generated an ethical earthquake throughout the U.S. armed forces, which have instituted several training programs for officers about the moral responsibilities that come with power.

2. Tie: The News Corp. scandal and the aftermath of gun violence in the United States. Both stories had powerful angles in the weeks of analysis that followed breaking developments. In the case of the News of the World‘s hacking into the voicemail of a murder victim, the incident took on astonishing prominence as a government commission attempted to balance the need for a free press with restraints on unethical behavior. Ethics issues also were at the forefront in world-press analyses of shooting sprees in a Colorado theater and a Connecticut school. Beyond the obvious questions dealing with gun control, the shootings prompted ethical disputes and dialogue over how the mentally ill should be handled by the justice system and the ethics of reporting on such a sensitive subject.

1. Penn State. It’s hard to think of a case in my two decades of writing and reporting about ethics that invoked such a stark level of moral introspection. The events surrounding the child sexual abuse carried out by an assistant coach showed the corrosive effects of a culture of corruption and privilege, in which members of an important, powerful, and profitable sports program shielded the perpetrator. In some cases, the shielding may not have been direct: Rather, it involved passing the buck up the chain of command and assuming that someone else would address the problem — a retreat into the blindness of bureaucracy. No recent case, in my opinion, more starkly highlighted the need for moral courage on the part of individuals.

What’s your opinion? Are there any stories you think should have been included in 2012′s Top Ten? Please let me know in the comment boxes below.

There’s obviously a lot of room for opinion here, so let me answer back in advance with a response variously attributed to the correspondence of Edward R. Murrow, Wolcott Gibbs, and H .L. Mencken, all of whom are reputed to have answered all disputes with a form postcard saying, “Dear Sir or Madam: You may be right.”

©2013 Institute for Global Ethics


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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