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Table of Contents

Chaos in the Media

This essay is going to examine the case of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin is a young African American male, who was killed by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman. Even though this situation could be up for ethical debate all by itself, I, along with many other Americans found the media’s bias just as ethically wrong as the initial issue. In the Trayvon Martin case, the media’s exaggerations raise the ethical question of whether or not the media has the right to use the case as a means to attract viewers and play the role of the “judge.” Through the theories of Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism, one will be able to identify the corrupt and bias nature of media in the United States.

The case remains unclear, and no one has been convicted. However, it is clear that the media is using different techniques to suggest who’s guilty and who’s innocent. For example, some networks are showing photos of both Zimmerman and Martin that do not resemble their current appearances. In one particular case, they used a photo of Martin that was taken when he was roughly 13 years old, portraying youth and innocence. Zimmerman’s photo was similar to a mug shot, making him appear guiltier. More recent photos show Zimmerman smiling and looking professional in a suit and tie, while Martin appears as a troublemaker wearing a hooded jacket.

The media sensationalizes stories to gain more viewers, which is degrading and distasteful. NBC altered the 911-dispatcher call in order to make Zimmerman sound like a racist. NBC’s recording of Zimmerman said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” However, the dispatcher asked Zimmerman whether the suspect was White, Hispanic, or Black. In editing out the dispatchers question, the viewer’s mind rationalizes that Zimmerman is racially motivated, instead of simply answering a question (“Media bias in Trayvon Martin case” 2012). CNN originally reported that Zimmerman said “f—ing coon” during his conversation with the dispatcher, however improved audio suggested him likely saying “it’s f—ing cold.”

Rationally, it seems difficult to argue that the media was correct in delivering bias coverage, however Kantian ethics could support a justification for the media’s actions. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE) believes in a deontological ethical theory, which states that to act morally is to act from the right sort of motives. This suggests one’s actions are moral when they are motivated by a desire to do the right thing. Kant describes that the right motives are found in the concept of duty, but only those actions that are done solely in accordance with duty—absent of any other incentive—are moral (“Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” 1785).

To apply Kantian ethics in this case, one first has to try to understand how the US media works. Sadly, it is well known that murders and killings happen in the US daily. That being said, most of the tragedies are not broadcast nationally because they have no real significance to the public. However, Trayvon’s case seemed to have a racial foundation, which made it relevant to the public. Therefore, the media had an appropriate story that showed social corruption and areas of improvement in justice. Without the racial controversy, this story would be similar to every other unheard murder story. Still, while the media may have initially exaggerated the accounts, the media could have acted from right motives, including a duty to prevent violence and inform society of racial injustices.

Kant states that humans have “an intrinsic worth” as rational agents capable of making their own decisions. Kant believes there is a duty to treat rational beings “always as an end and never as a means only”, a position that respects human being’s rationality. By re-confirming the truth in the matter, the media is respecting the individual’s rationality, while still exposing them to societal corruption. To Kant, the duty is to never manipulate or use someone in order to achieve a selfish purpose, no matter how good the purpose (Rachels, 2003). Kant believes that the moral worth of an action lies within the motivation for that action, and for Kant motivation is split between two sources: morality and self-interest. He also believes that morality and self-interest (happiness) are incompatible; in order for duty to be moral, it must be independent of self-interest (happiness). This ultimately leads to Kant’s Formula of Humanity, which is treating humanity, whether yourself or another human being, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end in itself. To treat humanity as an end, according to Kant, we must treat humanity as the most valuable thing in the world. (“Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” 1785) Through the original reports of racial injustice, the media was able to inform the public of crimes that usually are either unreported or reported in very limited areas. Arguably, the report strengthened attention on a societal injustice, and media motivation was to advance society as a whole.

Rachels uses Kant first version of Categorical Imperative as an example of not manipulating people, but rather respecting their rationality. The media may have manipulated; but the media networks apologized and recognized any false coverage, and eventually confirmed the truth. In confirming the truth, the media allowed rational beings to decide for themselves, what they believed. Kant went on to say in his “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785), “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In this case, the media’s maxim was to inform the public of injustice. At first the coverage seemed bias and unfair, but after validating the truth, the media gave the rational individual the choice to decided.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE) was a social reformer and political activist, who served as a Parliament member of the British Government. Mill’s believe that the goal of actions is to maximize utility, and utility equals happiness. For Mills, happiness is equivalent to pleasure and the absence of pain (Kessler, 2007). Mill’s greatest happiness principle says, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” This teleological ethical theory focuses on the consequences of an action. Mill added two other principles to the theory: Principle of Universality, which seeks to maximize overall happiness for the most amount of people, and Principle of Impartiality, which meant no one person’s happiness is weighted more then anyone else (“Utilitarianism”, 1816). Under Utilitarian jurisdiction, the media would be guilty of weighing their own happiness above the happiness of the public citizen. Chris Hayes, the host of “Up With Chris Hayes,” said: The first week after it became national news, Act 1, seemed to be built on a shared agreement that what happened was outrageous and upsetting no matter what the facts ended up showing. But then came the backlash and now you’ve got people picking sides (“A Shooting, and Instant Polarization”, 2012)

Initially, everyone seemed to have some cohesion, but once the media took over and highlighted it as a racial conflict, chaos broke out. The nation became extremely unhappy and divided. A Twitter account was created named “@killzimmerman” and Zimmerman received numerous death threats via email. He has not returned to his home or job since.

President Obama even involved himself by saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”—which brought the case to the highest national level (“A Shooting, and Instant Polarization”, 2012). Ultimately, the case became more about racism and media coverage than about Trayvon Martin’s life. Besides the networks, who gain money through their ratings, no one is happy. Everyone is divided, and no one knows what to believe. Now, people are upset because of racism, poor media coverage, or personal involvement. Mills suggests that each person’s welfare is equally important. In referring to equal concern, Mills says everyone must be “strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” In this stance, the media would have to be impartial viewers of their own show with no inside information (Rachels, 2003).

On utilitarian grounds, the sacrifice of an innocent person is justifiable as long as it maximizes overall happiness (“Utilitarian”, 1816). If the nation viewed Martin as an unarmed teenager and Zimmerman as guilty of racial violence, then clearly the nation would be happy with Zimmerman locked up. Under Utilitarianism, Zimmerman’s innocence means nothing compared to the maximum happiness of the public. Therefore, if the media’s coverage led to Zimmerman’s conviction of life in jail, the media could justify it by arguing that the coverage produced maximum happiness. However, the utilitarian’s focus is on the consequence of an action. So, if there were no reports of bias coverage, then the public would have been perfectly happy with racial injustice and penalizing Zimmerman, innocent or not. But, since the public was informed on bias coverage, suddenly the consequences of the media’s action became unethical because the coverage did not bring about the maximum happiness. This shows an area of weakness for the utilitarian because actions have lasting consequences. In other words, originally the media might have thought that slightly tweaking the information would start a healthy revolution. Initially, the coverage brought unity and a desire to fight injustice, but then the public discovered the unjust act of the media networks, which diminished the previous happiness to nothing. In continuing to look at this form of chain reaction, it is interesting to think of a timetable for what the greatest happiness implies. The media may seem like the bad guys right now, but maybe in ten years some new racial law will come out bringing more happiness than presently exists.

In conclusion, there are numerous ethical issues involved in this case, both directly and indirectly. Kantian Ethic’s shows that one’s motives are difficult to measure, and that everyone has different motives. Also, one could argue that the media’s maxim was to act with misleading or unreliable news, which would clearly not be accepted as a universal law. Utilitarianism argues for whichever choice produces the maximum amount of happiness. In this case, I personally believe that the most amount of happiness would come from telling the truth to the public. Mills also states that not one person’s happiness is greater than another’s. Thus, the media producer’s happiness is not greater than the normal civilian. Lastly, in using a universal law of honesty and the greatest happiness principle, the media should not have altered the evidence or manipulated the public, rather allow the “rational being” individual decide on guilt and innocence in this case.

Bibliography

Media Bias in Trayvon Martin Case. Prod. Fox News. YouTube. Fox News, 04 Apr. 2012. Web. 31 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJohlh3N7aQ>.

Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and Robert Paul Wolff. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969. Print.

Rachels, Stuart, and James Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and Oskar Piest. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.

Carr, David. “A Shooting, and Instant Polarization.” New York Times. New York Times, 1 Apr. 2012. Web. 31 May 2013.

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