Ethics case study

A Bloody Business

On the 30th of May 2011, the ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast an “explosive expose of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia” (ABC, 2011).

Presented by Sarah Ferguson, the program revealed footage of Australian cattle being mistreated at the hands of Indonesian abattoir workers and highlighted the poor conditions in place at 11 different slaughterhouses across the country. Building on information gathered by Animals Australia, the Four Corners report also spotlighted the role of the Australian live trade industry in the training of Indonesian abattoir workers as well as its invention and installation of metal restraining boxes considered by leading experts to be a violation of humane standards (Ferguson, 2011). The story exposed the Industry’s attempt to cover up the terrible conditions in Indonesia and also put pressure on the Australian government to take action to rectify the appalling situation.

The Four Corners report entitled, “A Bloody Business” (Ferguson, 2011) raised a number of ethical issues inherent to the case. Firstly, there was the prominent issue of animal cruelty. Secondly, there was the issue of the Australian industry having prior knowledge of the terrible conditions in Indonesian abattoirs and not taking action; instead trying to cover up the state of affairs for over a decade (Ferguson, 2011). These ethical issues were not specifically relevant to Sarah Ferguson and her team, as they are not examples of ethical issues in the field of communication; however, they are noteworthy because they are examples of external factors professional communicators have to think about when deciding whether or not to publish their material.

The fundamental ethical issue involved in this case, was the decision made by Sarah Ferguson and her team to actually broadcast this report. As professional communicators, they were faced with the question of whether they should release their findings to the public, or due to the sensitive nature of the subject, refrain from publishing the report. The expose contained graphic footage that some audience members might have found disturbing; it also broached on religious and ethical issues, such as the requirement in Indonesia for cattle to be slaughtered according to Islamic law (Ferguson, 2011). Additionally, a number of stakeholders, including Australian cattle farmers and exporters, Indonesian abattoir and feeding house workers, the Australian government and members of the Australian live trade industry would all have potentially faced ramifications as a result of the publication of this report. Likewise, Sarah Ferguson herself may have been exposed to certain consequences following the release of the Four Corners report. As a professional communicator, she would have had to consider any legal repercussions her story may have had, in particular, if she was at risk of defamation.

According to communication expert, Dr. Rhonda Breit, “…defamation occurs where a person communicates (in any form including words, images, gestures, video, illustrations) material which has a tendency to damage the reputation of another person” (Breit, 2011). Throughout the Four Corners report, Ferguson interviewed, named and eluded to a number of different individuals, some of whom were presented in a negative light. By publishing her report and including these potentially defamatory comments, Ferguson put herself at risk of being sued for defamation. This is another example of the intricate web of ethical issues surrounding the primary ethical dilemma faced by professional communicators; that is, whether to publish their material or not.

As Dr. Breit explains, “…deciding whether to publish a story is hard. Such decisions involve much more than looking for a good angle. They entail understanding what you know; recognising what you don’t know; being able to interrogate the underlying assumptions and motivations that frame your construction of the problem; and understanding why you have acted in a particular way” (Breit, 2011). “Therefore, deciding what to publish involves a reflection on the personal (micro), professional and organisational (meso), and societal (macro) levels” (Breit, 2011). Essentially the decision whether or not to publish a story will depend on a combination of the communicators own personal morals and ethics and those of the organisation they are working for.

The ethical theories most relevant to this case are deontology and virtue ethics. These two theories are similar in that they are both concerned with doing the right thing and share common, internalized themes, such as honesty, fairness and compassion (Cranley, 2011). Sarah Ferguson’s decision to broadcast this expose was primarily deontological. Deontological ethics is “…an approach to ethics that judges the morality of an action based on the actions adherence to the rule or rules. It is sometimes described as ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’ or ‘rule-based’ ethics” (Cranley, 2011). According to deontological ethics, “…a decision is right if it conforms to relevant duties, principles, rights, responsibilities, rules and codes” (Cranley, 2011).

Sarah Ferguson was acting according to the key principles of deontological thought; her decision to publish the report was based on the idea that it was her duty to reveal the situation to the public and to expose the live trade industry. In a radio interview with Amanda Blair from Five AA Adelaide Radio, Ferguson confirmed this as her reasoning behind broadcasting the material. In response to the radio host claiming that A Bloody Business was “a tough story to watch, (Fiveaa, 2011) Ferguson replied, “Look it was, and it was also a tough story to make, but you have to make exactly those decisions when you come across something that you think needs to be exposed. What do you do? The worst thing would be to walk away and say, ‘people can’t take this.’ It’s not up to me to decide what will happen, but it is up to us to put that information out there and get people to decide for themselves” (Fiveaa, 2011).

Sarah Ferguson believed it to be her duty to reveal the appalling conditions in Indonesian abattoirs to the Australian public, to expose the Australian industry and to put pressure on the Australian government to take action in Indonesia and this reasoning is prototypical of deontological thought. An important component of deontological ethics are W.D Ross’ prima facie duties (Breit, 2011). Ross was a Scottish philosopher who declared that “there are several prima facie duties that we can use to determine what, concretely, we ought to do” (Garrett, 2004). A prima facie duty is a duty that is binding and together, the list of duties is intended as a guide to live one’s life by. Sarah Ferguson was acting according to Ross’ prima facie duties, particularly the ideas of justice, fidelity and non-malfeasance (non-harm) (Cranley, 2011). She was determined to reveal the truth; that is, that the Australian live cattle industry have attempted to cover up the situation in Indonesia for over 10 years. Likewise, she saw it as her role to facilitate justice for the animals being subjected to inhumane treatment.

Although deontological ethics is centered on doing the right thing by adhering to relevant duties and responsibilities, it has weaknesses as an ethical theory. It is somewhat idealistic, as it is based on reason, which isn’t always the most important component of the decision making process (Cranley, 2011). Sometimes professional communicators need to rely on impulse and emotion when faced with an ethical dilemma. Additionally, Ross didn’t provide a framework for which duties should be used in certain situations. This can sometimes lead to confusion as it is unclear which duty is the correct duty to apply, therefore this can further exacerbate the difficulty for professional communicators to make an ethical decision (Cranley, 2011).

Comparatively, the essence of virtue ethics is that “…an action is right if it aligns with how a good person would act” (Cranley, 2011). As an ethical theory, it is different from deontology because it emphasises “…motives and moral character, moral education, moral wisdom or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep conception of happiness, the role of emotions in our moral life, and the fundamentally important questions of what sort of person I should be and how we should live” (Quinn, 2007). Sarah Ferguson exhibited traits of virtue ethics in her coverage of the live cattle trade with Indonesia. Journalism as a trade adheres to values similar to those particular to virtue ethics, including honesty, fairness, independence and respect for others (Cranley, 2011). It can be argued that Sarah Ferguson and the Four Corners team attempted to adhere to this code of ethics and were generally successful.

While virtue ethics is centered on morals, it also has flaws as an ethical theory. “There are a number of theoretical objections against virtue ethics, two of which are most notable,” (Quinn, 2007) “…the ‘justification problem’ and the ‘virtue-conflict problem’” (Quinn, 2007). Virtue ethics opponents argue that without a decision process, there is no way to chose between competing virtues (Quinn, 2007) “Consequentialists and deontologists question how one might possibly prioritize between the plural, conflicting, and often incommensurate values prominent in virtue ethics” (Quinn, 2007). Virtue ethics is often used in collaboration with another ethical theory, rather than a foundation for ethical decisions.

Virtue ethics is similar to a third ethical theory; consequentialism, in that it is aimed at developing the qualities that a person needs to flourish and live a good life (Cranley, 2011). Sarah Ferguson exhibited these traits in her coverage of the live cattle trade. She wanted to do the right thing and produce a positive outcome. That is not to say, however, that her decisions were based on concept inherent to consequentialism ethics, such as utilitarianism and altruism. The Four Corners team were thinking about the consequences of releasing their report, hoping it would put pressure on the Industry and the government to end live trade with Indonesia; however they weren’t thinking about the consequences for other stakeholders. For example, the report had repercussions for Australian cattle farmers, producers and exporters; Indonesian feeding house and abattoir workers, as well as their families; and members of the Australian live trade industry.

Following the release of the report, the Australian government put a ban on live trade with Indonesia, pending an investigation into training practices and infrastructure in Indonesian abattoirs. A lot of people lost trade and even their jobs and livelihood as a result of the Four Corners report. The team unintentionally revealed the weakness of utilitarianism, that is, how hard it is to maintain a balance between telling the truth and minimizing harm to vulnerable people. In contemporary society, Journalists see themselves as having a comprehensive and extremely critical position within society. Amongst other responsibilities, their duties include- acting as watchdogs, exposing crime and corruption, educating the masses and giving the public a voice (Cranley, 2011). The Four Corners team capitalized on all of these concepts throughout their coverage of Australia’s live cattle trade with Indonesia.

I believe that the Four Corners broadcast was presented expertly and Sarah Ferguson and her team should be commended for their adherence to the expectations within the code of ethics for Journalism. However, I believe that this example of an ethical issue confronting a professional communicator offers other resolutions or alternative approaches. I believe that in her report, Sarah Ferguson was too focused on exposing the corruption of the Australian live trade industry to take into consideration the impact her story may have had on other players involved in the situation. During her decision making process, she could have possibly drawn on some of the elements of consequentialism ethics.

Consequentiaism focuses on the outcome of a situation and is generally about maximising positive outcomes (Cranley,2007). Although it is not an infallible ethical theory, consequentialism does have a number of strengths. It compels journalists to think about the impact their publication will have when it is released. I believe that Sarah Ferguson may have benefited from such an approach when it came to the construction of her report. As previously mentioned, altruism and utilitarianism, two components of the theory of consequentialism possess flaws. However, when balanced with justice, they can actually provide journalists with a useful guide to making ethical decisions (Cranley, 2011). Altruism and utilitarianism are concepts that are about making decisions based on what is best for other people and have roots in democracy (Cranley, 2011). I think Sarah Ferguson should have thought about the consequences her report would have on cattle farmers and traders in Australia who lost business as a result of her expose. Likewise, a consequentialist approach may have prevented the loss of jobs for Indonesian abattoir workers who were filmed during the Four Corners visit.

I believe good journalism constitutes an honest and fair approach to any given situation and I think the strongest journalists are those who are able to look at a story objectively. Journalists should consider all stakeholders in the situation and be able to present the story from an unbiased viewpoint. I don’t think Sarah Ferguson presented the story A Bloody Business from an impartial perspective; therefore the entire story was tainted with her own opinions and feelings about the issue. It should be noted however, that due to religious and cultural differences in Australia and Indonesia, the issue was a sensitive one to cover as the concept of ethics differs dramatically in different countries. It is hard for Journalists who are working in a global paradigm to successfully take into consideration the ethical concerns for all stakeholders involved.

Every individual has a different understanding of morals and ethics; therefore it is difficult to deem what is correct and incorrect when it comes to reporting on issues that transcend cultures, religions and physical borders. In my personal opinion, the best way to approach the decision making process as a professional communicator is to find a way to balance the effective components from each of the three ethical theories discussed in this essay. Also, a strict adherence to the law and to the journalism code of ethics helps communicators compose a publication that is both ethically and legally sound. Deontology, virtue ethics and consequentialism are very old theories, however they are not completely outdated. This essay proves that with the right approach, contemporary communicators can draw on them for inspiration and guidance throughout th

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