Bivins, Thomas. Mixed Media.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Wirth, Eileen
Pub Date: 03/22/2004
Publication: Name: Communication Research Trends Publisher: Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture ISSN: 0144-4646
Issue: Date: Spring, 2004 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Mixed Media (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Bivins, Thomas
Accession Number: 130975595
Full Text: Bivins, Thomas. Mixed Media. Mahwah, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Pp. xii, 229. ISBN 0-8058-4257-8 (pb.) $29.95.

This quote from Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow's collaborator on See It Now who resigned as president of CBS News over coverage of the Vietnam War hearings sums up the essence of this book. It is obvious that the author wants to help journalists, public relations professionals, and advertising personnel learn how to make ethical professional decisions based on understanding and weighing competing classical philosophies. Unhappily there is a large gap between ethical theory and professional praxis that this book is unlikely to close.

This heavily footnoted book that includes a substantial bibliography opens with a discussion of what constitutes an ethical issue followed by a chapter on who are moral claimants. It presents complex models for each of the three fields listing and weighing the competing claims of employees, stockholders, clients, the general public, news sources, and so forth. As I struggled through this tedious, complicated chapter, I tried to envision any of the city editors I worked for in 11 years on a daily newspaper making it past the second page. Ditto my supervisors in corporate PR. All I could think of was the city editor who refused to read any memo longer than a paragraph. In the fast-moving, brutally practical world that these news, PR, and advertising professionals inhabit, the abstruse, complex analysis that Bivins recommends is virtually unimaginable.

This is too bad because there is good material in this book if the reader has more patience to pursue it than any decision-maker I ever worked for. The book is essentially a short course on the philosophical underpinnings of ethical decision-making on media issues. According to the author, a basic philosophical clash between the libertarian and social responsibility models of media underlies many of the ethical dilemmas that communications professionals face.

"Roughly speaking libertarianism holds that freedom should be unbounded; there should be no restrictions on an individual's freedom to do what he or she pleases" (p. 40). In contrast, in the social responsibility model, "businesses are seen as operating at the behest of the public; thus their rights are really privileges--and privileges come only at the expense of reciprocation in the form of agreed-upon responsibilities" (p. 41). Learning even this much philosophy can provide a framework for making ethical decisions about issues such as the interesting case studies that many chapters present. Some cases are familiar to readers. Should reporters lie about their identity to investigate an issue? Did tennis great Arthur Ashe's right to privacy outweigh an alleged public right to know about his AIDS diagnosis because he was a celebrity?

Readers who persevere through the models will eventually find readable and common sense summaries of major points such as:

But philosophy is tough going for the uninitiated--probably a high percentage of working journalists--and "truth" is no simple concept. A chapter on "Media and Professionalism" examines that issue along with root questions such as the nature of professions and whether any of the media occupations might qualify. Here the fields appear to diverge. Journalism has never aspired to professional status because it resists the idea of an official exam or credentials to qualify (a violation of libertarianism) while public relations professionals are more likely to seek such status. Once again, a complex discussion ends in a common sense conclusion: "Being a professional assumes a level of ethicality beyond that of societal norms . . . the media may garner the benefits of professionalism by merely acting as if they were professions" (p. 70).

I found this discussion interesting because of my academic background and readings in the literature of professionalism. My former city editor (a Marine veteran who once threw a chair to express exasperation with something) might have used barracks language to describe his vast unconcern with the topic.

A major section of the book briefly digests the ethical theories of major philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, John Stuart Mill, etc.) whose ideas are relevant to media ethics. This chapter also outlines the philosophical battles between competing schools of thought such as the social contract and utilitarianism, free speech, virtue ethics, and so forth. It's almost like reviewing all of Philosophy 107 or Political Philosophy 302 in one chapter. The material is probably germane to a battle over whether to run a particularly gruesome photo in a newspaper but I tried to imagine any city editor I worked for mentioning John Stuart Mill or Aristotle in those circumstances. Not likely.

The author raises some interesting issues such as the different possible meanings of truth in journalism vs. truth in PR and advertising and the relationship between persuasion and facts. PR and advertising practitioners who resent the equation of persuasion with falsehood might appreciate some of what Bivins says.

The book's final chapter is perhaps the most useful to professionals. It contains a checklist for moral decision making, asking good and useful questions that a city editor might even ask. For example, "What immediate facts have the most bearing on the ethical decision you must render in this case?" (p. 174) "List at least three alternative courses of action" (p. 176). Each of the checklist items is followed by a compact explanation of what specific questions to ask and what evidence to examine. At last the author offers a practical framework that could help a professional under pressure resolve an ethical dilemma based on reason and principles instead of hunch or instinct.

When I finally reached this chapter, I wished that the author had adopted a classic journalistic strategy: lead with the conclusion. Had he done so, I think there is a fair chance that some media professionals might use this book to resolve their ethical dilemmas, or at least to ponder them. They could search the book for the material they need to understand some issues on the checklist while skimming over less relevant parts of the book. Journalists, especially, are pros at skimming reams of complex material to find what they need. It's a basic survival skill. Sadly, I fear that few media professionals will reach the concluding chapter unless someone advises them to.

Overall, this was a challenging book to read and evaluate. There is a great deal of excellent information including an appendix containing eight ethical codes or statements of principles from various groups of journalists, public relations, and advertising professionals. There are the wonderful and readable case studies covering episodes of questionable ethics. Some of these, such as the Arthur Ashe vs. USA Today example leave even libertarian journalists very uncomfortable about their advocacy of unfettered media freedom.

The book might be more useful as a college media ethics text than as a guide to ethics for professionals. I wish the author would write a second version more attuned to the mindset of the audiences he most wishes to reach. Bivins obviously knows his material. The professionals could benefit from his wisdom and expertise--but not as it is offered in this book. Think of my chair-tossing city editor. That's the audience Bivins is trying to communicate with. This book will not do that.

Eileen Wirth

Creighton University
"Stop thinking about what you have the right to
   do and start thinking about what is the right
   thing to do."--Fred Friendly


The media are obligated to a vast array of
   claimants and must discharge those obligations
   satisfactorily in order to act ethically. And while
   obligations may differ among the various media,
   commonalities do exist in such areas as truth
   telling and prohibitions against harm. (p. 44)
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.