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The Golden Mean Theory and Journalists’ Ethics

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As readers, we generally presume journalists are a reliable source for news and information. Given this general assumption, it is important that journalists uphold a certain standard of ethics to ensure they are a trustworthy source for their readers. Spreading false information or withholding certain facts from the public could result in serious consequences, as well as the journalists losing credibility. But, sharing too much information could result in people’s privacy being violated or the story becoming confusing, unclear, and perhaps even false. This dilemma is the reason why it can be hard for journalists to decide what to include in their story and what to exclude from their stories.

The Golden Mean is an important theory by Aristotle, which talks about the balance between excess and deficiency and how if you can find a middle ground between the two, you will be acting morally and ethically. The Golden Mean can be applied to this ethical dilemma because journalists need to balance excess and deficiency so they meet moral standards. This can apply to journalists finding the happy medium between saying too much and not saying enough, or finding the balance between giving all the facts and withholding information to protect who it is about or make the story clearer. It can also apply to finding a happy medium between getting your story out there while taking the time to make sure everything is factual. To do all of this, they can use credible sources, analyze the purpose of information, and anticipate the future audience.

As stated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, it is important for journalists to take responsibility for the information they share, because there is a sense of credibility established by their title as a journalist. It is also critical to take into consideration the credibility of the sources they are getting their information from, since whatever they write -accurate or not- will be directly linked to the writer. It is necessary for journalists to always keep truthfulness at the top of their priority list, even if that means passing up ‘tempting’ quotes and ‘juicy’ facts from questionable sources. This can tie in to The Golden Mean because both themes reference finding a balance between excess and deficiency. Journalists need to find a balance between sticking to the cold hard facts while also making their story interesting and fun to read. One good example of journalists taking responsibility for the information they share is the widespread use of social media in this generation. Social media allows for journalists, as well as the rest of society, to share information at the touch of a button. Instagram, for example, does not have any policies against posting a photoshopped image, or writing something heavily opinionated in your photo caption. Nearly anyone can post what they want and when they want without any consequences (this is of course excluding certain people of power as well as instagram accounts for newspaper companies and other platforms held to such standards). With this, it is important for the people that are held to such credible standards to follow the same rules they would be held to if writing or posting on the Instagram page of the person or company they work for. The key differentiator between amateur writers and professional journalists is how ethics are employed as well as the reach of their work.

Social media has enabled information to be readily shared between people across the world, without much consequence. Journalists, however, are still responsible for vetting the sources of their information and putting accurate content out onto the Internet. Another example are the standards that popular newspapers are held to. The handbook for the values and practices for The New York Times states that they observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing; and the Policy on Confidential Sources, issued in 2004. They acknowledge the importance of checking their facts and sources before putting information out for the public. One difficulty with this is figuring out whether or not to use a quote from an anonymous source. Journalists will need to decide if publishing the anonymous quite will further get the truth out there or cause speculation amongst readers. This difficulty can tie in to The Golden Mean because journalists need to be able to get the truth out there and check their sources without violating the privacy of the people giving the information.

Another important factor to consider is the purpose of the writing. If the information shared relates directly to an issue that is prominent in the audience’s lives, or is about something that is publicly known, the journalist can morally disclose more information. One academic journal analyzed the ethics of information that can be disclosed related to deaths from HIV and AIDS. This article noted two prominent HIV-related deaths that occurred in South Africa in the early 2000s, which were spread openly throughout the public at a time where there was significant controversy about the policy on HIV related news. Journalists shared the specific details related to the victims of this tragedy, although this was not necessary to depict the situation to readers. This is an example of a situation where journalists acted unethically in relation to the Golden Mean because they shared excess information even though the topic was very controversial with the audience and it was not necessary to expose the people affected by AIDS to tell the story. Another example is when an ex-New York Times reporter by the name of Jayson Blair violated the Golden Mean by creating fictional stories and lies for a story. Blair created these fake stories by peppering his stories with details obtained from photographs of the events and material from other news organizations. This is deficient of any sort of ethical behavior because not only does Blair steal the photographs and material from other outlets, but he also lies to the New York Times by trying to authenticate the stories as his. This is relevant to The Golden Mean ethical theory of Aristotle because there is no balance between acting morally while still getting the truth out there. He acted unethically by making up false information to get his story out there, without caring about the consequences.

For any writer or journalist, it is crucial to keep the audience you are writing for in mind. With this, it is also very important to remain both objective and unbiased in one’s writing schematics. Journalists must look to understand both point of views to ensure that they are not creating a story that is merely one sided due to the absence of the other side’s thoughts. If this takes place in the journalism world, the journalists abstain from giving the audience the entire truth and by doing so tend to sway towards the deficient side of ethical behavior as noted by Aristotle. To remain credible journalists in the eyes of our audience, we must promote both sides of the story so that our audience can formulate their own opinion based on the truthful information that we provide. Aristotle created the theory of the Golden Mean by highlighting the importance of balance. This makes sure that one remains in between being extremely ethical and being completely deficient of ethics in their behavior. In his book, The Politics by Aristotle, Aristotle states that “. . . virtue or excellence is a characteristic involving choice, and that it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is defined by a rational principle, such as a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it”.

This is important to keep in mind when writing to an audience because a writer serves as that rational principle that readers rely upon. Part of a writer’s responsibility, in maintaining the golden mean on behalf of their audience, is to make sure that they present both sides to the story and support their claims with credible facts. For example, Cameron Harris wrote a fake story about Hillary Clinton and an ‘alleged’ scandal that claimed she had created fake ballots to secure votes in her election against the current president, Donald Trump. Harris was able to do this because he appealed to his audiences biases towards believing stories that fit their beliefs. Former president Barack Obama commented on the situation by saying that, “we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there”.

So when a writer creates a story, appealing to both sides of the argument will discourage a biased tone, therefore avoiding giving their audience information that will only fit and support their own opinion. Journalists are heavily relied on and expected to be valid sources for news and information. The spread of false information and failing to give readers the truth results in many ethical dilemmas. On the other hand, giving too much information that isn’t necessary to tell the story or may hurt a source or person involved, brings its own set of ethical dilemmas. The Golden Mean, an idea formulated by Aristotle, is a good ideology that journalists can use to judge whether or not to publish something. This idea helps them find the perfect balance, and with finding the perfect balance, journalists will be able to avoid the conflicts with being too ethical and not ethical enough.

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The Golden Mean Theory and Journalists’ Ethics. (2020, April 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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