Communication ethics through handbooks


Porfirio Barroso and Laura Calvache (Spain)


Inspired by a thesis that appeared a decade ago in the U.S., we propose to present an in-depth study of the lessons that have most often been included in ethics handbooks throughout the twentieth century for the purpose of establishing a series of conclusions concerning the evolution of the major topics dealt with in the discipline of Computer Ethics over the century, as well as to demonstrate a legitimate basis for the choice of the ethics themes that are currently taught at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and Information and Communication Technologies of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.

At the present time, we are witnessing a loss of confidence in the media as a consequence of their attempts to capture the public by any possible means. Thus, we consider it necessary to establish suitable ethical normative rules and their regulation on the worldwide level, although differing from one continent to another, one country to another, since the evolution, the history of each region is characterized by different socioeconomic, political, cultural and religious variables. To explain this proposal, we provide a brief summary of the situation of the ethical normative rules and their regulation in different regions such as Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Of all the handbooks analyzed, we have selected only those that address a wide view of journalistic ethics, excluding those presented as monographs of specific aspects of ethics and deontology and, thus, could bias the results of our study. Ultimately, out of a total of 182 manuals, we excluded 101; of the remaining 81, 67 dealt with computer ethics and 14 with ethics theory. As the fruit of the analysis of each of these handbooks, we provide a statistical outline of the recurrence rate throughout the twentieth century of the fifty topics that are currently taught in courses on ethics and computer ethics, as well as the changes in the space devoted to each lesson. This information is presented in two differentiated blocks: on the one hand, ethics (concept, division, sources, etc.) and, on the other, computer ethics, in the attempt to establish a detailed chronology of the evolution of the importance placed on the different themes addressed by each over the last century, based on the date of publication of the selected handbooks. For this purpose, we established three time periods starting in the year 1960 and ending with the present, 2002.

The topics studied within the realm of ethics, according to their rate of recurrence, are basically as follows:

  1. Concept and nature of ethics.
  2. Sources, method and division of ethics.
  3. The ethics of Kant or deontological ethics.
  4. Axiological ethics or the ethics of values.
  5. Utilitarian ethics.
  6. Existentialist ethics.
  7. Situation ethics.
  8. Ethics of indefinite responsibility.
  9. Discursive, dialogic or communicative ethics.
  10. Minimum ethics or world ethics.

In the realm of computer ethics, the number of topics studied is greater, but the following are those frequently referred to in handbooks:

  1. Truth, objectivity, exactness and precision in information.
  2. Codes of ethics, practices, honor and deontology.
  3. Respect for intimacy and private life.
  4. Defense and freedom of information and responsibility.
  5. Professional secrecy and confidentiality.
  6. Duty of rectification.
  7. Right to honor.
  8. Equality in treatment. No discrimination.
  9. Deontology and personal ethics.
  10. Obligatory nature of professional ethical norms.

Our aim is to present a thorough quantitative study involving content analysis and comparative analysis, concluding with a qualitative assessment of the results, presenting the keys to the evolution of the teaching of ethics and demonstrating that the lessons in the early handbooks offered little or no opportunity for the students to weigh the moral, philosophical or cultural principles that they introduced, while those published more recently (from 1970 on) justified the existence of the discipline of Computer Ethics, defending the need to discover which should be the most important defining moral principles of this subject matter. These principles, converted into lessons included in the program, will be the guidelines that will later confer upon the course its academic legitimacy.