Using the Internet as an Ethics Resource Tool

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Despite the fact that it was originally invented by military officials to communicate with one another in the event of a nuclear holocaust, is the basis for warnings by (mostly) conservative social critics that it is a plaything for those interested in corrupting young minds with a steady stream of easily accessible child pornography materials, is the subject of a relentless barrage of mass media hyperbole not seen (perhaps) since the introduction of "Magic Eye" 3-D images, and is considered either the future of mass media or a colossal waste of time and resources, the Internet has earned its place as a valuable resource for information about ethics.

The Internet with its millions of users and databases around the globe must seem like an enormously confusing array of facts, figures, and graphic elements to the uninitiated. It's fine to surf or browse around the World Wide Web in order to kill time between more important activities, but how can you ever expect to use this resource in any meaningful way? The question probably comes from someone who wouldn't have a clue how to find a specific book in a library or bookstore and would be forced to start with the first book on the nearest shelf and check all the titles in the entire building, ask a helpful member of the staff, or give up the hopeless task in frustration. The answer probably comes from someone who has knowledge of the Dewey decimal system and knows how to use an online search engine. And just like locating a book on the sixth floor of a book depository, locating specific information on a particular subject somewhere on the Web can be just as easy.

Say you wanted to elaborate on the right to privacy concept as stated in Media Ethics Cases & Moral Reasoning by Christians, Fackler, and Rotzoll by only using resources found on the Internet.
/1 At the opening of chapter five titled "Invasion of Privacy," there is a three-page introduction that has three official bibliographic cites. Note sections are common in most articles and books because they substantiate the academic credibility of the authors-you want to know that the authors have not simply fabricated their ideas without going through a thorough literature search. However, most readers do not go through the time and trouble necessary to check every source. We simply trust that the quotation or factual tidbit is accurately represented and does indeed come from the cited material.

Such is the huge difference between the print and hypertext worlds. If this book were available on the World Wide Web with hypertext links included in the manuscript, it would be possible to immediately check many of the sources cited by the authors. And who knows where you might end up after exploring a site on the Web related to your topic of interest? Furthermore, once you jump to a related link, all the text on that page is available for searching with the "Find" command.

As an example of the usefulness of the Internet, the major points in pages 115-117 of Media Ethics are listed below with an accompanying Web site using the search engine, AltaVista./2 To read the actual pages from the textbook, click here:

* Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis gave this concept legal formulation in their famous essay "The Right to Privacy," in the December 1890 Harvard Law Review. The entire essay is available at a site mintained by Stephen Laniel:

* Thirty-eight years later, Brandeis still maintained his concern .... You can find information about several landmark cases from a site titled, "Teaching about Landmark Dissents in United States Supreme Court Cases" by Robert Leming, Director of the Indiana Program for Law-Related Education at the School of Social Studies Development Center of Indiana University at:

* ... the word "privacy" does not appear in the Constitution.... See for yourself by searching the entire manuscript and view scanned originals at the Emory University School of Law site:

* ...the first eight amendments and the Fourteenth Amendment.... Also from the Emory site, read the amendments and get information about their development from:

* Privacy cases within this broad framework are generally classified in four separate, though not mutually exclusive, categories.... Read more about privacy law from chapter eight, "Invasion of Privacy" of the RCFP First Amendment Handbook from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at:

* The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1964.... Jump to "Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court" put together by Brian Sheldon of the Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School at:

* New York Times v. Sullivan. Listen to the original recorded oral arguments using the "RealAudio" program at:

* Subsequent opinions.... View a list of at least 22 cases that reference the New York Times case from the Cornell Web site listed above.

* Thomas Jefferson. Read the transcript of his first inaugural address at:

* John Stuart Mill. Find out about the utilitarian philosophy from a site maintained by Lawrence Hinman at:

* Alexis de Tocqueville. Read the entire manuscript of his book, Democracy in America from a Web site produced by Thomas Roche at:

* John Dewey. Visit the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale at: http://www/

* Walter Lippmann. See the Walter Lippmann House, home of the Nieman Foundation on the campus of Harvard University at:

There are several reasons why establishing an ethics of privacy that goes beyond the law is important in the gathering and distribution of news. The theme of the entire Media Ethics book revolves around the issue of what is legal versus what is ethical or moral. Use the AltaVista search engine to search for related Web pages related to this issue./4

The World Wide Web offers hundreds of other resources for those seeking ethics materials. One of the best clearinghouses for links to ethical sites is called "Ethics on the World Wide Web." This site offers over 125 links in 14 categories-associations, business ethics, codes of ethics, computer ethics, courses in ethics, environmental ethics, general listings, governmental ethics, listservers, media ethics, medical ethics, military ethics, movie and TV sources, and science ethics. The "Ethics" database is located at:

Media organizations included in this Web site include the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Club, Newspaper Association of America, Nieman Foundation, National Press Photographers Association, Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Organization of News Ombudsmen, Minnesota News Council, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Media Center, and Media Watchdog. Many of these organizations have their own search engines. For example, if you make a query with the keywords "right to privacy" at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center site, you will get a list of at least 60 documents produced by the Center.

And then there's electronic mail (e-mail). There are hundreds of discussion groups on specific topics conducted via e-mail. Once you subscribe (it's free) to a list, you can read and post messages to the entire group. Barbara Croll Fought keeps a list of media-related discussion groups and how to subscribe to them at: These discussion groups (or listservs) are excellent resources to solicit comments from media professionals and academics. For example, the following message was posted to AMEND1-L, CARR-L, COMLAW-L, INTCAR-L, IRE-L, JOURNET, NEWSLIB, NICAR-L, NPPA-L, RTVJ-L, and SPJ-L:/5

The contrast between what is legal and what is
ethical or moral is never so apparent as in the
issue of the right to privacy of ordinary citizens
from exposure by the harsh light of the media.
This difference is eloquently stated in Christians,
Fackler, and Rotzoll's Media Ethics Cases &
Moral Reasoning

I'm writing an article for a media ethics journal
and would like to know of one of your own
experiences either professionally or personally
in which you had to wrestle with the legal/ethical
quandary in relation to someone's privacy.

Thanks in advance,

Within three days of the posting, almost twenty responses on the topic were received. These messages ranged from "war stories" by writers and photographers with reactions to their experiences by other listserv members to a student's research paper on the broad subject of privacy rights.

Complete transcripts of many of the messages received can be found at:

Many times a message will provoke discussion by members of the group that leads to further insights and connections regarding the topic. You can use e-mail and the telephone to ask follow-up questions of the respondents.

With computer software programs such as
PageMill and HotDogPro, creating your own pages for the World Wide Web has never been easier./7 Whatever particular interest you may have in the field of ethics, you can produce a database of links that will be of use to some other Web surfer anywhere in the world. Furthermore, whenever you write an article concerned with media ethics for a class, presentation, or publication, turn your text file into a hypertext version that can be used on the Web. Submit your file to your local Internet provider to add to the Web server or to the "Ethics on the World Wide Web" site mentioned above.

The Internet can be a valuable and useful resource for ethical communications through such components as the World Wide Web, online listservs or discussion groups, and e-mail. Unlike its printed companion, the Web offers easy and quick access for those from around the world and provides instant connections to other sites that can further enlarge the study of media ethics.

1/Clifford Christians, Mark Fackler, and Kim Rotzoll, Media Ethics Cases & Reasoning Fourth Edition (White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers, 1995), 115-117.

2/There are other search engines available, many can be found at

3/Although several search engines were employed, the author could find no online repository of writings by Walter Lippmann. Perhaps such an omission is an opportunity for a young media scholar to create a valuable Web site.

4/Use the "Advanced Search" section of AltaVista with the keywords: legal near ethical and "right to privacy".

5/AMEND1-L, all about First Amendment issues; CARR-L, Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting; COMLAW-L, the law and regulation of cable, broadcast, and telephony; INTCAR-L, international computer-assisted journalism; IRE-L, general discussion about investigative reporting; JOURNET, journalism course content, resources, teaching strategies, and ethics; NEWSLIB, all about researching news stories; NICAR-L, information about computer-assisted reporting; NPPA-L, National Press Photographers Association discussion group; RTVJ-L, radio and TV journalism interests; and SPJ-L, discussion group run by the Society of Professional Journalists.

6/You can learn how to make Web pages with a few simple commands by using an online how-to guide at: