On Audience Ethics of Internet Communication

Chen Ru-dong, Harada Yasunari, Takeo TATSUMI


In this paper, we show that the studies of recipient ethics not only bear important theoretical significance but also entail important practical ramifications. In the practice of communication, settlement of social problems obviously presupposes sender ethics, but we must also realize that it also presupposes recipient ethics. In the global info-economic world of today, producers of commercial merchandise and senders of information are deemed responsible for whatever might or might not happen to consumers of such merchandise and/or recipients of such information. Before the advent and spread of the Internet, computer ethics emphasized professional ethics of software developers, hardware designers and system operators and touched upon procurers’ responsibility and/or liability, or lack thereof, for duplication of copyrighted materials. Consequently, as a new era arrived when any individual can be a publisher of information via the Internet, information ethics education had to deal with sender ethics for everyone, as was discussed by Takeo TATSUMI and Yasunari HARADA in the article “Why Information Ethics Education Fails,” (International Federation of Information Processing Working Group 3.4, International Working Conference, Educating Professionals for Network-Centric Organizations, pp. 55-63, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998). However, the import of recipient ethics in relation to internet communication was not fully explicated or extensively argued for as such in those discussions.

The formal studies about audience ethics in mass communication, which are not many, began in 1970s, when Richard L. Johannesen published a book entitled Ethics in Human Communication. He put forward two responsibilities for receivers, namely “reasoned skepticism” and “appropriate feedback.” James Aucoin published an important article about audience ethics, which was entitled “Implications of Audience Ethics for the Mass Communicator,” in which he stated that “Audience ethics focus on the responsibilities of audience members as they are exposed to experience, ideas, and facts presented by the mass media.” In recent years, Ru-dong CHEN published two books entitled The Ethics of Language and The Ethics of Communication (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2001, 2006.) and one paper entitled “On Audience Ethics of Communication” (in Chinese, Journalism and Communication Review of Peking University, Vol.2, Beijing: Peking University Press, 2006.) He summarized four moral principles of discourse comprehension and investigated audience ethics in communication of journalism, advertising, literature and the Internet, and summarized some moral principles of audience ethics in these communication areas.

Audience ethics is the audience’s moral components, moral rights of information reception and moral responsibilities in the process of communication. Audience ethics has both practical basis and theoretical gist. Audience members are ethical and they are endowed responsibilities as long as they are engaged in the communication process whether they engage in this process actively or passively.

Audience ethics should contain three aspects: ethics to audience of the society, ethics to the society of audience and ethics to audience themselves. (1) Ethics to audience of the society. Ethics to audience of the society refers to moral right that society endows audience. It is the right of information choice, gathering, obtaining, understanding, reception, separating out, acceptance, evaluation, giving feed back and free and fair use. In the opinion of universal moral, human should have the right of communicating and obtaining information freely and fairly. Any acts depriving the above rights all fall away from human nature and should be condemned. (2) Ethics to the society of audience. Ethics to the society of audience is the audience’s responsibilities for the society and communicator. It includes responsibilities for nations, nationalities, governments, organizations and various communicators. Audience should have responsibilities to keep information exchange fore-and-aft communication. (3) Ethics to audience themselves. Ethics to audience themselves implies moral elements of audience, responsibilities for audience themselves and responsibilities among audience to each other.

Audience ethics, communicator ethics and social ethics have close relationships. Audience ethics is the extension of ethics of communication. Communicator ethics and audience ethics reflect upon each other. Audience ethics and communicator ethics influence and promote each other. Audience ethics is one important part of social ethics. Some audience ethics are components of social ethics. Audience ethics construction is also helpful to the building of social ethics.

Audience ethics has significant communication value. It influences and restricts the communication efficiency and social cooperation. It builds and maintains the communication order and social order. Audience ethics studies have both important theoretical significance and definite practical value.

In this presentation, we discuss that audience ethics is the audience’s moral components, moral rights of information reception and moral responsibilities in the process of communication, as put forward on basis of theories and practice, and consider how this applies to the information exchange via the Internet and how education on information ethics should incorporate this aspect. Audience ethics education should contain three components: ethics to audience of the society, ethics to the society of audience and ethics to audience themselves. Audience ethics can be divided into audience ethics of different audience, audience ethics in different communication areas, audience ethics in process of communication and audience ethics in different media. Education of audience ethics should be integrated into education of communication ethics and education of social ethics in general. It is one important component of both communication ethics education and social ethics education. Establishment of audience ethics through education would improve communication efficiency, social cooperation and social morality in the global information society of today.