Title

Ethical decision-making in the digital age: the case of graphic images in Kenyan print and online newspapers

Date of Award

1-30-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Digital Journalism (MADJ)

First Supervisor/Advisor

Rhoda Breit

Second Supervisor/Advisor

Emeo Nyakundi Nyamboga

Department

Graduate School of Media and Communications

Abstract

This study examined how the online environment has influenced ethical decision-making in Kenyan print and online newspapers with regard to graphic images. A review of the literature showed scant academic attention has been paid to the role ethics play in the selection of images for publication despite acknowledgement of the increasing power and cultural diversity of audiences. The theoretical framework of the study was based on Gatekeeping Theory and Spiral of Silence Theory. Through indepth interviews with senior editors and a review of internal and external guidelines and policies, the research revealed that audience demands for ethical decisions from editors are transmitted mainly through the corporate hierarchy. However, media houses have developed few effective internal systems to guide newsroom decision-making, relying mostly on vague prescriptions buried in editorial policies and ethics codes, which in practice are rarely consulted by newsroom decision makers. Further, the systems developed for the cycle of print production, including scheduled editorial meetings and the use of photo editors to filter images, have proven to be inadequate for the fast-paced world of online news production. The research also revealed that when confronted with graphic images, editors’ resort to their own intuition and experience as well as consultations with colleagues rather than on methodical ethical reasoning. This creates geographical and cultural blind spots which, when coupled with the internet’s expansion, diversification and empowerment of audiences, as well as the lagging development of a media ethics for the digital age, can have potentially serious adverse consequences for editors and the media enterprises themselves. Recommendations from the study include training of editors in the use of methods such as the Potter Box model of reasoning in day-to-day decision-making as well as the development of practical procedures for fast sourcing and selection of images for online publication especially as relates to breaking news. The study also contributes to the literature on Network Gatekeeping Theory, suggesting the need to take into account the hierarchical nature of networks, and demonstrates how the Spiral of Silence Theory can also account for the effect of online audiences on newsroom decision-making. Finally, the study emphasizes the role of ethical decision-making in image selections and recommends that news values research takes more cognizance of ethical considerations.

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