Category Archives: Journalism

Media Coverage of People with AIDS

Richard Wilson, John Carroll University

This essay examines the ethical dimensions of AIDS media coverage in the early 1980′s. Through critical analysis and application of Carol Gilligan’s ethic of care (1982), this essay dissects how media coverage in the early 1980′s reflected male-based ethics, which rely heavily upon notions of justice. Since AIDS first struck the male homosexual community, an already marginalized segment of society, coverage was minimal and in theory, the homosexual P.W.A.’s (People With AIDS) were “deserving” of the illness they received because of their non-traditional sexual behavior. The media’s choice to under-cover the AIDS epidemic clearly demonstrated adherence to justice-based ethics. Consequently, the lack of coverage resulted in the widespread proliferation of the AIDS epidemic in the United States that ultimately permeated the heterosexual community. The suggestion and proposition is made for media to operate under Gilligan’s care-based ethics as a solution to remedy past media damage. Furthermore, future application of care-based ethics would help to foster greater understanding, compassion, love and peace for all P.W.A’s, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.

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Corporate Interests and Their Impact on News Coverage

Julie A. Demorest, John Carroll University


There is no denying that news media is big business. The complete coverage of stories and investigative reports are certainly at risk with the rise of media as a business, rather than strictly a service to the public. Over the past few years, there have been a number of cases where television stations or news publications have killed news stories or forced reporters to slant stories due to pressure from advertisers or those in power at the news. This paper will attempt to examine the relationship between social responsibility and news editors, and apply ethical theories to explain what should and can be done. Should editors have the power to kill or slant stories, depending on their own interests or those of their advertisers?

Literature Review

A number of books and articles investigated the relationship between corporate and advertising interests and news coverage. In the May/June 2000 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Lowell Bergman wrote an article entitled, “Network television news: With fear and favor.” Bergman sums up his findings by saying, “Executives of the network news divisions say that they will report any story of public interest and import without fear or favor, without considering its potential commercial consequences. They say that, but they do not believe it” (p. 50).

Karl Idsvoog’s journal article, “TV sitting on stories to improve ratings,” claims that “the decision on when (or if) to run a piece is no longer determined just by asking is the report concise, clear, and well produced; is it fair, thorough and accurate? There are now more critical questions. What’s the lead-in? Where do we place the promotion? Will it deliver better numbers on Monday or Wednesday?” (Idsvoog, p. 38). However, he adds that “in the long run, adhering to a higher standard of ethics delivers a higher standard of performance” (p. 39).

Carol Guensburg examines the ethical dilemmas of news reporting that involve the media agency’s owner in the December 1998 issue of American Journalism Review (p. 10). In “When the story is about the owner,” she determines that it is up to the individual journalists and news operations to continue reporting important stories, regardless of the impact they may have on corporate or advertising interests (Guensburg, p. 11).

American Journalism Review‘s October 1998 article by Jane Kirtley, “Second-guessing news judgment,” looks at the issue of FCC regulations of news coverage (p. 86). She notes that having the governmental agency get involved in news coverage would likely lead to the consequence that “broadcasters will be discouraged from covering controversial issues at all” (Kirtley, p. 86).

In addition to these and many other articles referencing corporate interests in the media, an organization called Project Censored does annual research to “explore and publicize stories of national importance on issues that have been overlooked or under-reported by the mainstream news media” (Jensen, p. 14).


The relationship between social responsibility and news editors must have a very delicate balance. As stated, news is a business that depends on high ratings and advertising dollars for its survival. However, the news media is also a social organization responsible for informing and educating the public. Corporate interests are important, but the guiding principle for news organizations should be the responsibility to inform the public. News editors have the huge task of determining what stories are told on their news programs or in their publications. The interests of upper management, owners, and outside advertisers make the editors’ decisions even more difficult.

In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission said that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest” (Kirtley, p. 86). Yet, it happens – all the time. Two particular cases are especially applicable. The first involves Lowell Bergman, former executive producer of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” As executive producer, Bergman was intimately involved in the 1995 Brown & Williamson situation, when “60 Minutes” decided not to air a report on Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand, former vice president of Brown & Williamson, claimed that the company kept the truth about tobacco’s harmful properties hidden from the public (Bergman, p. 50). He claimed that CBS self-censored itself to avoid a potential lawsuit from Brown & Williamson. Bergman also added that while working for ABC news he discovered that it was against “ABC code” to do an enterprise story about a major advertiser or supplier or to do a critical story on the owner of an NFL team (p. 51).

The second example directly showing how corporate interests impact news coverage took place in 1997. Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, award-winning investigative reporters for WTVT-13 in Tampa, Florida, were fired in December 1997 after they refused to broadcast false reports. Akre and Wilson had been working on a series of reports about a controversial growth hormone being injected into dairy cows for months, and the reports were scheduled to air beginning February 24, 1997. On the eve of the first broadcasts, the reports were pulled from the airwaves after Monsanto (maker of the hormone) complained to Fox Television, parent company of WTVT-13. WTVT management reviewed the reports, found no errors, and rescheduled their broadcasts. Monsanto lawyers sent a threatening letter to Fox’s news division head, and the reports were postponed once again. In the nine months that followed, Akre and Wilson were ordered to rewrite the story with false information more than 80 times, none of which were acceptable to Fox executives. Akre and Wilson threatened to tell the FCC “of a false, distorted, or slanted news report which she reasonably believed would violate the prohibition against intentional falsification or distortion of the news on television.” They were ultimately fired in December 1997. (Trigoboff, p. 27).

Instances such as these, where corporate interests override the public’s need to know,” most likely occur quite frequently. “Almost all media owners have friends who are given preferential treatment in news stories – friends whose ranks include advertisers, politicians, relatives, and acquaintances” (Armao, p. 46). Media critic Ben Bagdikian noted in an article that media organizations often pull back stories when they might offend advertisers (Winch, p. 132). He also stated that “no commercial power should dominate the news – just as no state power should” (Goldstein, p. 25).

In Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Matthew Ehrlich explained one of the factors accounting for trivial, superficial, and often inaccurate reporting – the “competitive ethos,” which he defined as a “powerful, taken-for-granted set of norms within the community of television newsworkers” (p. 196). People who work in the news business have an unwritten set of codes, and they tend to base their work on them. One of those “codes” is that news is “whatever the competition is covering” (Krajicek, p. 184). This leads to a homogenization of the news, with all programs taking on a similar shape.

Another problem with news coverage is that media managers often appear to design news “based on what interests the public rather than what is in the best interests of the public” (Winch, p. 131). Sensationalism in news has certainly been a deterrent to credible and accurate reporting. The great news anchor Walter Cronkite has said that “the networks now do news as entertainment” (McCartney, p. 44). The public wants to see the wildest, craziest, and most outlandish news stories – not necessarily the stories that would have the greatest impact on their lives.

The “competitive ethos” factors listed above indicate one of the reasons why the role of the news editor is so crucial. It is up to the news editor and his team of editors to determine what is important to the public on a “need to know” and “right to know” basis, with “want to know” and “don’t necessarily want to know, but need to show it to the public to gain ratings” much less important.

In his book, The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian says that “because the country’s top editors are being integrated into the management imperatives of the corporation, journalists, through their editors, become less responsible for the integrity of the news and more for the profitability of the whole enterprise. That is not journalism. It is advertising and marketing. Combining journalism with advertising and marketing ultimately will destroy the integrity of the news” (Edge, p. 197).

There is no clear-cut answer to the social responsibility and corporate interests conflict. Adopting a communitarian ethic based on the needs of society would probably make editors’ decisions easier. Communitarianism insists that “mass-media structures make a decisive break with individualistic capitalism” (Christians, p. 14). Deni Elliott’s three nonnegotiable principles of journalism should apply to news editors and management as well, and are especially applicable to determining content of television news (Christians, p. 55). Her first principle is that “news reports should be accurate, balanced, relevant, and complete” (Christians, p. 55). Truth is the most important factor in news, so if a story is not honest, it should not be news. The second principle is that “journalists share the principle that reporting should avoid harm” (Christians, p. 55). While journalists should only report stories that avoid harm (and not cause it), they should also be careful to report stories that would possibly cause, or allow, harm to occur if not reported. Elliott’s third principle for journalists is “to report information that viewers and readers need to know” (Christians, p. 56). As stated previously, it is essential that the news media provide vital information to the American public. The media has a social responsibility to share its wealth of information, especially when the news would have a direct impact on lives.

The pragmatic thought of John Dewey could be applied to this ethical dilemma as well. In his book, Democracy and Education, Dewey identifies four Theories of Morals: the inner and the outer, the opposition of duty and interest, intelligence and character, and the social and the moral (Dewey, 1916). The opposition of duty and interest is directly applicable to the corporate interests/news media dilemma. The opposition of duty and interest is defined as distinguishing the difference between acting on principle and acting on interest. Dewey explains acting on principle as acting “disinterestedly, according to a general law, which is above all personal considerations (1916). Acting on interest is “to act selfishly, with one’s own personal profit in view” (Dewey, 1916). A news organization choosing to run a story that negatively impacts an important advertiser would be seen as acting on principle. The news organization would be acting without interest and above their personal considerations of how their jobs and profits might be impacted. Choosing not to run the story would be acting on interest, with personal and professional profits in clear view.


This paper attempted to explain that corporate interests are having a large impact on what the news media report to the American public, and theorized about how the situation could be changed. Adopting a communitarian ethic would allow the news media to more accurately and completely report the news that is important to the daily lives of Americans.


Corporate interests are important, but the guiding principle for news organizations should be the responsibility to inform the public. In The Messenger’s Motives, John L. Hulteng stated that “the central, ruling ethic of journalism is to report the news of the world dependably and honestly” (p. 171). Given that corporate interests do play a role in what appears on television news and in newspapers, what should be done? The news giants and advertisers aren’t going to go away, so the public and news media need to share the social responsibility. The American public needs to realize that the news media aren’t always giving the complete story. They should not rely solely on television and print news media for information, but should look elsewhere for alternative sources of news. The news media have considerable impact on what we know, and they need to realize the impact that their work has on the lives of the American public, and report the news as accurately, completely, and objectively as they can, for the good of the people. A communitarian ethic based on Deni Elliott’s principles and John Dewey’s theory of the opposition of duty and interest would be a good start.

Works Cited

  • Armao, R. (2000). The history of investigative reporting. In M. Greenwald & J. Bernt (Eds.), The big chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment (pp. 35-49). Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
  • Bergman, L. (2000). Network television news: With fear and favor. Columbia Journalism Review, 1, 50-51.
  • Christians, C.G., Ferr?, J.P., & Fackler, P.M. (1993). Good news: Social ethics & the press. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Edge, M. (2000). And “the wall” came tumbling down. In M. Greenwald & J. Bernt (Eds.), The big chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment (pp. 197-210). Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
  • Ehrlich, M.C. (1995). The competitive ethos in television newswork. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12, 196.
  • Goldstein, T. (1999). Does big mean bad? In B. Levy & D.M. Bonilla (Eds.), The power of the press (pp. 24-27). New York: The H.W. Wilson Company.
  • Guensburg, C. (1998). When the story is about the owner. American Journalism Review, 10, 10-11.
  • Hulteng, J.L. (1985). The messenger’s motives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Idsvoog, K. (1994). TV sitting on stories to improve ratings. Nieman Reports, 1, 38.
  • Jensen, C. (1996). Censored: The news that didn’t make the news and why. New York: Seven Stories Press.
  • Kirtley, J. (1998). Second-guessing news judgment. American Journalism Review, 20, 86.
  • Krajicek, D.J. (1998). Scooped! Media miss real story on crime while chasing sex, sleaze, and celebrities. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • McCartney, J. (1997). News lite. In B. Levy & D.M. Bonilla (Eds.), The power of the press (pp. 44-54). New York: The H.W. Wilson Company.
  • Trigoboff, D. (2000, August 28). Reporter wins in milk suit. Broadcasting & Cable, 130, 27.
  • Winch, S.P. (2000). Ethical challenges for investigative journalism. In M. Greenwald & J. Bernt (Eds.), The big chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment (pp. 121-136). Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
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The Ethical Implications of Monopoly Media Ownership

Accessing the Media, Freedom of Expression and Participating in Society

Patricia Lancia, Wilfred Laurier University

At the end of World War II, 80 percent of daily newspapers in the United States were independently owned,1 yet even then The Commission on Freedom of the Press, also known as the Hutchins Commission, perceived the significant threats to freedom of expression posed by the scope and power of “the great agency of mass communication.”2 Over 50 years later, the North American communications environment is characterized by near monopolistic control of every facet of the media by only six firms3 – down from just 50 corporations in the early 1980s when Ben Bagdikian wrote his groundbreaking book The Media Monopoly. With their intertwining boards of directors and uncountable synergistic partnerships, these six media behemoths exercise significant control over the dominant, public modes of communication in society and the communication agenda in general. They also represent quite possibly the greatest challenge to individual free expression in contemporary times. It seems that not much has changed since the Hutchins Commission formed in 1943.

Insofar as newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, music and the Internet constitute the dominant, public modes of communication in society, access to the media as tools of communication has significant ethical implications. If only some people are given the opportunity to express themselves in society, if some people are denied access to tools for self-expression and, therefore, denied the ability to actually exercise their rights as citizens and as human beings, then the groups that allow that to happen are acting unethically. It is the intention of this paper to show that the current media monopoly environment interferes with the right to free expression of the vast majority of people in society – by eliminating viable alternative sites of communication, by limiting direct access to media outlets as tools of communication, and by preventing the creation of independent media outlets – and is, therefore, unethical.


Freedom of expression goes beyond merely having the right to say what you want to your friends or to stand on a street corner and yell in the hopes that people will listen. Personal expression is an essential part of what it means to be human and it is a crucial part of any social or democratic process. The central importance of this right is reflected in the fact that both the Bill of Rights in the United States and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee the rights to free association, assembly and expression and the right to publish and disseminate opinion. On the international level, the United Nations recognizes these rights in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.4

Expressing oneself is worth nothing, however, if one is not heard. Several authors and governing bodies, including members of the United States Supreme Court, have recognized that freedom of speech means nothing without the possibility that people will hear you. U.S. Supreme Court justice Brennan, best summed up this position in 1973 when he wrote:

[F]reedom of speech does not exist in the abstract. On the contrary, the right to speak can flourish only if it is allowed to operate in an effective forum … For in the absence of an effective means of communications, the right to speak would ring hollow indeed. And, in recognition of these principles, we have consistently held that the First Amendment embodies, not only the abstract right to be free from censorship, but also the right of an individual to utilize an appropriate and effective medium for the expression of his views.5

Stephen Holmes also touches on this point in an article on liberal constraints on private power. Holmes uses the example of broadcast-industry regulation to show that just as property rights require government enforcement of trespass laws, free speech and free press rights require state action aimed at securing the preconditions for effective freedom of expression.6 He goes on to say, “the First Amendment does not merely have the negative purpose of liberating individuals from government censorship. It also has the positive purpose of creating an informed public capable of self-government.”7 Owen supports the need for regulation of private concentrations of power when they interfere with the ability of individuals to exercise their rights. He writes: “the spirit of the First Amendment will be taken to mean not merely a negative constraint on the power of government, but a positive obligation to intervene in various carefully defined ways when freedom of expression is threatened by private agglomerations of power.”8 According to Herbert Schiller, it is the shift from government to private corporate power as the main threat to free expression that distinguishes our era.9 So, even though freedom of expression laws are often thought to prevent government suppression of individual rights, they can just as easily be interpreted to prevent suppression by private groups, in this case by media conglomerates and the people and corporations associated with them.

The point is, expression rights must be weighed against other rights in determining which acts need to be regulated. In the case of media ownership, the expression rights of the vast majority of people in society must be weighed against the property rights of the few people and corporations that control the media. A similar argument is made for the existence of regulations against hate speech, in which case the expression rights of some are limited in the interest of securing the rights of many to live in a safe, nonviolent environment.

On this point, John Stuart Mill argues that society has an obligation to interfere in the rights of individuals when their actions threaten injury to others, when freedom of expression will do more harm than good. In “On Liberty” he writes:

the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each [person] should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists first, in not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights.10

In her work “Burning Crosses, Political Expression, and the First Amendment,” Amy Ihlan also argues in favor of limiting hate speech by arguing against the protection of burning crosses as a political act. She bases her argument on the fact that “a burning cross is not so much the expression of a political ‘idea,’ or a set of ideas collected into a ‘viewpoint’ as it is a blunt, brutal act of power and dominance, an act of hatred and violence, a potent threat of more violence to come.”11 Such acts threaten to destroy the kind of open and democratic participation the First Amendment ought to protect,12 so they should be limited in the interest of the public good and personal freedom.

Weighing free expression rights against property rights is much more problematic, however. Holmes reaches back to Lockean theory to show that a person’s right to deny access to their property is rescinded in case of dire necessity of that property by others.13 Since few other viable options exist for or are available to the vast majority of people to express themselves in, access to media outlets in the current communication environment can be deemed a “dire necessity” (this point will be elaborated on in more detail in the third section of this paper). Judith Lichtenberg also argues for the superiority of free expression rights over property rights, citing the qualified nature of property rights. Lichtenberg points out that in cases where no comparable alternative exists for the exercise of free expression rights, property rights are overruled. On this point, Lichtenberg cites the case of Marsh v. Alabama (1948) in which the right of a Jehovah’s Witness to distribute religious literature on the sidewalk of a company-owned town was upheld because no public alternatives existed for the exercise of free speech.14How these issues apply to the current media environment will be explored in more detail later in this essay.

The important idea to note in these cases is that the right to free expression must be weighed against the rights of others to live in a safe environment and to determine how their property is used. In the first case, the rights of people to live in a safe environment outweigh free expression rights. Even though censorship in these cases hinders free expression, it is justified on the basis of minimizing harms against others and because hate speech contributes little, if anything, to public discourse. In the second case, property rights are valued less than the right to free expression and will be overruled when they interfere with or hinder expression and public discourse.

Both of these cases speak to the purpose of free expression laws. Not only do they guarantee an individual’s right to self-determination, they are also designed to encourage a wider variety of ideas in the public sphere. Many authors talk about “the marketplace of ideas” and about ensuring diversity in the information that is available for discussion,15 but free expression is about more than having a variety of ideas to listen to. Free expression is about more than passively taking in what other people have to say. Free expression is about active participation. Free expression is about being able to participate in social discourse, so we can learn and grow as individuals and so we can help shape and direct the community we live in. However, our community is no longer simply the local neighborhood or even the city we live in. Given the fact that laws and policies are created and instituted on national levels, and given the realities of globalization, the public sphere in which social discourse occurs is broader than ever before.


Jurgen Habermas defines the public sphere as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.”16 All people are guaranteed access to it, and it is participation in the public sphere that defines people as citizens.17 All people are guaranteed the right to participate, but they become citizens when they exercise their right. Every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body, every act of participation in public discourse, constitutes part of the public sphere. The public sphere is founded on the idea of citizens as participants, as members of a public body, not just as people who assemble to form a group.

One’s public sphere can no longer be limited to the neighborhood or town that one lives in, it can no longer be limited to the people that can be communicated with face-to-face, since life as we now experience it can and must take into account people around the globe.18 Free expression is a necessary part of being able to participate in the discourse on these kinds of issues, and it is these kinds of transnational issues that force us to expand the idea of the public sphere to the global level.

Given the global scale of many social issues, people must conceive of themselves as transnational citizens. To accommodate this, Mark Kingwell, in The World We Want: Virtue, Vice and the Good Citizen, argues for a conception of citizenship based on global participation. In our developing transnational world, ideas of citizenship that are based on blood (the tribe you are born into), belief (the adherence to a body of ideologies) or law (groups formed through constitutional procedures and access to a body of rights) no longer apply. Instead, Kingwell argues that we need a new model of citizenship “based on the act of participation itself, not on some quality or thought or right enjoyed by its possessor. This participatory citizenship doesn’t simply demand action from existing citizens; it makes action at once the condition and the task of citizenship.”19

The expansion in our conception of the public sphere and the participatory nature of transnational citizenship has several implications for the media. First, as the distance between people grows and the number of people in one’s community increases, the media are needed as tools to disseminate information and opinion. Second, as society grows and becomes more complex, it is the broader, institutionalized discourse found in the media, not small-scale communication such as face-to-face conversations, that shapes society and affects social, political and economic policy. Third, in the current media environment, entirely “public” spaces are dwindling in number and size and are no longer viable alternative sites of communication. The media have supplanted “public” sites of discourse and, therefore, play a more central role in participation in the public sphere. Issues of free expression in the public sphere, then, are intimately linked with access to the media.

As far as participation in the public sphere is concerned, face-to-face interaction is the most accessible method of communication. However, as societies grow, face-to-face communication with everyone in the public sphere is no longer feasible. The media must be used as tools of communication in the public sphere and Habermas explicitly recognizes this fact. He writes, “in a large public body, this kind of communication requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it. Today, newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere.”20 They facilitate participation in the public sphere – which at the very least means the communication of basic information – by carrying human expression across greater distances to a greater number of people. At the most basic level then, media outlets are conduits of information and opinion – be it news, entertainment, opinion, sports coverage or any other category.

As part of their responsibility to disseminate information about the world, the media also have a responsibility to publicize information and views from as wide a variety of sources as possible. This means recognizing that objectivity, while it is an admirable news value, is impossible. No reporter or information gatherer is entirely objective and they should not assume that the information they collect and provide is the only interpretation. A more appropriate news value would be balance – providing information from several sides of the same story while acknowledging that the story can never be written or produced in a completely detached manner. In a way, the issue of diversity of information sources is related to access to the media. If access to the media is limited to a select group of newsmakers or officials, then it is only those people who will be the sources of information.

Access to the media is also important because it is in the media that the vast majority of public debate occurs. This is not to say that town hall meetings and debates among friends do not shape opinion in some sense, but the discourse that influences the majority of society and that shapes policy occurs in the media. The debate happens in opposing newspaper editorials, opposing letters to the editor, opposing books on the same subject, opposing magazine articles in opposing publications. Public discourse occurs in a story on television that contradicts or expands on a story in a newspaper. Public discourse is, for the most part, what is disseminated in the media. University professors, for example, are required to publish their research because debates happen between academic publications and much less through face-to-face conversation. Federal elections and political debates are waged through competing advertisements and news stories, not so much through face-to-face debates.21 And while the Internet is touted as a tool that makes one-to-one conversation possible no matter what the distance, media coverage of the protests outside the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999 probably did more to get the counter-corporate, leftist, world governance message out there than protestors speaking to one person at a time ever could.

This is not to say that small-scale, grassroots communication isn’t valuable in smaller environments. Grassroots movements are still politically important in the sense that they prepare people for debate on the larger stage. But grassroots activists often do not affect policy until they are allowed to voice their views in the larger public sphere (i.e. through some form of media). Without access to the media as a tool of communication, then, the vast majority of citizens are denied the opportunity to participate in discussions that affect the policies of the environment in which the larger public sphere exists and in which they live. The current media monopoly environment reduces access in a number of ways, all of which will be addressed in the third section of this paper.

The reason access to the media is needed is not just a matter of the size of the public sphere or the location of the debate, however. For the most part, viable alternatives to the media are no longer available. This is true in terms of the availability of non-commercialized space as well as the ability of people to create their own alternatives to the established media. In No Logo, Naomi Klein discusses at length the trend of attaching brands to anything and everything. Advertising has become so pervasive that “nearly every major city has seen some variation of the 3-D ad takeover, if not on entire buildings, then on buses, streetcars or taxis.”22 Fully-privatized, branded towns and neighborhoods now exist23 and public spaces in which to discuss community issues have been replaced with privately-owned spaces that appear to be public. Lichtenberg uses the example of the downtown core being replaced by the shopping mall to illustrate how small, independent media are no longer viable alternative forums for public discussion. She writes:

There are obvious analogies between the modern American shopping center and the mass media. Both mass media organizations and shopping centers consist of large private organizations that serve (one as an essential part of its role, the other accidentally) as forums for discussion and debate; both have largely driven out smaller competitors. Each has assumed an essentially different function from those of the institutions out of which it has evolved. The shopping center is more than a collection of private stores; it includes the spaces between and around them, and so replicates not just the businesses of Main Street but the municipality as well. Analogously, the mass news organization is not simply a larger version of its predecessor … it has become not only an actor but the stage as well. Alternative channels of communication to the mass media are not comparable to it, and so not satisfactory.24

Since completely public, advertising-free spaces are dwindling to the point of non-existence, or have been for the most part replaced by privately-owned spaces like shopping malls, and since the number of people with direct access to the media has been reduced by the monopoly-ownership environment, the alternative to using existing media as tools of communication is for people to create their own newspapers and magazines, Internet sites and recording studios, radio programs, television shows and movies. Given the current media environment, these alternatives are not always possible.


The existence of a media monopoly, or at least an intricately connected media oligopoly, is well documented. Apart from Bagdikian’s work, Edward Herman and Robert McChesney have documented the global corporate media consolidation trend in The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. It is not so much the existence of a media monopoly as the ethical implications of such a monopoly that is of interest here, however.

Monopolistic media ownership interferes with or restricts the exercise of free expression in a number of ways, mostly through restricting access to media outlets. In the most concrete terms, as media outlets are consolidated and ownership is concentrated, staff are cut and the real number of people working on or contributing to a given media outlet is reduced. More indirectly, the cost of using the media prevents or discourages people outside the media industry from accessing the media as tools of communication. Finally, the current media environment stifles freedom of expression by making it extremely difficult for new, independent media outlets to be created and to survive. The end result is a situation in which public discourse is dominated by the voices of corporations and those individuals who have the resources to access a profit-motivated media system.

The whole point of monopolistic media ownership is to increase profit. As Bagdikian points out, “short-term profits are now imperative in the major media almost without regard for the future of media institutions.”25 Maximizing profit can be done in a few ways: by vertically integrating companies to control input costs and reduce expenses, by increasing revenue through increasing the cost and amount of advertising, and by taking advantage of economies of scale (in both advertising and distribution). Regardless of how it’s done, Bagdikian writes:

Newspapers and other media bought by large corporations as investments come under new pressure for maximizing profits. The parent firm competing in world markets must attract shareholders with high dividends and gross revenues, and distant owners remain insulated from local objections to changes made in order to extract maximum profits.26

Vertically integrating a company and cutting costs is the main thrust behind consolidating media ownership. By controlling everything from content production to marketing and distribution, media companies can control what they pay for each service and can cut costs by eliminating duplicate staff.27 As Herman and McChesney point out, “the profit whole for the vertically integrated firm can be significantly greater than the profit potential of the individual parts in isolation. Firms without this cross-selling and cross-promotional potential are at a serious disadvantage in competing in the global marketplace.”28 Take the case of BCE Inc.’s purchase of CTV and The Globe and Mail this year. Jean Monty, chairman and chief executive of BCE Inc., stressed that “cross-pollination will take place between the new enterprise’s different parts and that content created on one platform will be refitted and used again on another.”29 Media corporations benefit from the cost savings of combining overlapping services, but reducing the number of staff at a given newspaper or television station also reduces the number of reporters and content providers who have direct access to the media. This is turn reduces the number of different voices and opinions that are or can be heard. Currently, a person’s best chance at being heard in the media comes from working at a media outlet. As the number of employment positions dwindle, so too do the opportunities to work there.

Making the media inaccessible can also include reducing the amount of space dedicated to reader-supplied opinion and setting the price for print space or air time out of reach for the vast majority of people. This is done through increases in advertising prices, increases in the amount of time and space dedicated to advertising and a reduction in the amount of time and space dedicated to factual information and discourse. Since media outlets are staffed by professional content providers, the most likely options for regular citizens to guarantee their view will be heard is by submitting opinion pieces or purchasing advertising time. But submitting an opinion piece may be difficult since the amount of space or time dedicated to non-advertising content has been consistently decreasing over the last 60 years. Take the newspaper industry, for example. In 1940, daily newspapers in the United States averaged 31 pages with 40 percent dedicated to advertising. By 1980, daily newspapers averaged 66 pages with 65 percent advertising.30 Since submitting an opinion piece does not guarantee that it will be printed or broadcast, purchasing advertising is the only guarantee people really have that they will be heard. And the cost of purchasing advertising can be prohibitive for many people. The reality of this situation is apparent to anyone who studies the media industry. As Schiller points out, “what American voices, other than corporate ones, can afford to pay half a million dollars or more for a thirty-second commercial on national television?”31 Not all media advertising costs as much as Schiller suggests, but the fact that media time needs to be purchased at all means that many, if not most, people are denied access to the media.

The cost of advertising is part and parcel of the desire by media conglomerates to take advantage of economies of scale. In terms of advertising, media chains have an advantage in attracting advertisers because they can offer a wider circulation or audience reach through multiple media outlets. A business advertising on the CTV network, for instance, won’t get only one television station – it can get 18 stations across Canada.32 Such advertising strategies often cost less to the advertiser than it would to advertise with multiple, independent media outlets. Owen notes two other types of economies of scale – economies in transmission and economies in competitive advantage – and both are closely related. Economies of scale in transmission are derived from reducing the average copy cost. The first copy of a newspaper may cost tens of thousands of dollars, but every copy after the first costs less because the “first copy” cost is divided among the distribution size.33 By merging two newspapers in nearby markets, for example, the overall cost of the combined distribution can be reduced by having only one newspaper and eliminating the other “first copy” costs. Economies of scale are also found in the competitive advantage created by wider distribution. The larger the scale of the operation, the wider the profit margin, the more competitive a media outlet can be when it comes to undercutting or outperforming other media outlets. This affects the ability of a media outlet to attract advertisers, as has already been noted, and it often determines which media outlets are able to survive. Owen writes:

The larger the audience, the greater the competitive advantage. Large newspapers will tend to drive out smaller ones; two smaller newspapers can both gain by merger; a new motion picture distributor must have great difficulty obtaining a viable foothold in the industry; a UHF station that can only reach some of the homes in its market will do poorly compared to a VHF station that can reach all homes.34

The competitive advantage created by economies of scale contributes to the third way in which the current media environment infringes on the rights of individuals to free expression – it creates an environment in which it is extremely difficult for people to create and distribute their own alternative, independent media. If people do not have access to the established media as tools of communication and purchasing advertising space or time is too prohibitive, then the other option is for them to produce their own media communication tools. A person can start their own magazine, create a website, distribute leaflets or publish a community newspaper. With the advent of digital cameras and the availability of rental equipment, it’s even possible for a person to make their own short film. And in principle there is nothing preventing anyone from exercising their right to publish their views outside of existing media, which makes those who take a negative liberty approach to freedom of expression quite happy. In principle there are no barriers. In practice it costs money to have flyers or small magazines copied and distributed. In practice it takes a computer to create a website and, even if a person uses a public library computer to get free internet access and gets free space on the web, it takes resources to draw any sort of attention to one website in a sea of millions of web pages. In practice most people need to rely on some form of advertising revenue to produce a community newspaper or magazine, at least in the start-up phase when readers may not be willing to pay full subscription prices. The reality of independent media outlets having to compete with outlets owned by large media corporations is that the corporate-owned outlets can afford to charge less for advertising, they can afford to undercut independents in order to put them out of business, and they can also offer a wider range of services because of the economies of scale and competitive advantages associated with being part of a media conglomerate.

Radio and television have not been included in the do-it-yourself category because both generally require licenses from national regulatory agencies, such as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Apart from the cost of applying for CRTC approval for a radio or television station, independent media competitors can also expect opposition to their applications from existing media conglomerates. In the case of Jan Pachul’s application for a low-powered television (LPTV) station in the Toronto area, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, CTV, CHUM, the Canadian Television Association and Rogers Cable appeared before CRTC hearings to speak against his Star Ray TV proposal.35 Granted, they spoke up because the CRTC does not currently have a policy on urban LPTV stations, which broadcast in very localized regions using UHF or VHF bands. Still, the opposition to Pachul’s proposal seems excessive considering the mission of Star Ray TV is to “fill a current gap in broadcastings’ efforts” by “providing a platform for the local community to express, on an ongoing basis, local civic issues, and to portray the narratives of local residents.”36 More than 40 groups and private individuals made submissions to the CRTC on Pachul’s behalf, but his application was denied by a vote of 3-2.37 While Pachul intended to provide a media outlet that the public in the Riverdale and Beaches neighborhoods of Toronto could easily access, corporations with media outlets in the Toronto area used their entrenched power to speak against the project. As of October, Pachul was still illegally broadcasting for the sake of “diversity in programming” and “giving the average person a voice.”38

Jan Pachul isn’t the first person to break the law for the sake of personal expression. Graffiti art, and its equally illegal culture-jamming cousins, are often-cited examples of communication that occurs outside conventional channels. If anything, such acts are a testament to how difficult it is to communicate, to be HEARD, in the current media environment. They are also evidence of the fact that to be heard in one’s community, to communicate in the public sphere, one must use more than face-to-face, one-to-one communication – one must access the media. Whether it’s using a billboard, a community newspaper, a record label, a city radio station, a local magazine, a public-access cable channel or an alternative film movie theatre, people have a need to communicate and they need to be heard by more than just themselves. While not everyone wants to communicate on the regional, national or international level, the opportunity does not even exist for the vast majority of people to take advantage of. By denying access to the tools of communication – through the prohibitive costs of inserting content, through the hostile environment in which independent media outlets must operate, through limiting the number of people who work in the media – the current monopolized media environment infringes on the rights of individuals to express themselves freely. It is for that reason that such a monopoly is unethical.


  1. Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, page 4.
  2. The Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books, page 3.
  3. Bagdikian, page viii.The International Declaration of Human Rights, page 7, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to see, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
  4. This quote is taken from Bruce Owen’s book Economics and Freedom of Expression: Media Structure and the First Amendment, page 1.
  5. Steven Holmes, “Liberal constraints on private power?: reflections on the origins and rationale of access regulation,” page 44.
  6. Ibid, page 47.
  7. Owen, page 2.
  8. Herbert Schiller, “Information Deprivation in an Information-Rich Society,” page 16.
  9. John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” page 253.
  10. Amy Ihlan, “Burning Crosses, Political Expression, and the First Amendment,” page 270.
  11. Ibid, page 264.
  12. Holmes, page 24.
  13. Judith Licthenberg, “Foundations and limits of freedom of the press,” page 117-118. In this case, Gulf Shipbuilding owned the streets and sidewalks of Chickasaw, Alabama. The company also provided police protection, sewerage and other services normally undertaken by municipalities. The court found that insofar as the private corporation adopted the functions of a municipality, it assumed the obligations of a municipality with respect to free speech.
  14. In its non-economic form, “the marketplace of ideas” can be attributed to Milton and suggests that ideas compete for intellectual domination, with the presumption that truth will eventually win out. Owen takes the marketplace metaphor more literally, discussing the market in which ideas are bought and sold. The marketplace metaphor is a common one, however. For instance, the report of the Hutchins Commission (A Free and Responsible Press) uses as one of its founding principles the idea that civilized society is a working system of ideas that lives and changes by their consumption. Free speech is often defended insofar as it contributes to a wider variety of ideas in the marketplace. People are given the opportunity to shop among the ideas that most appeal to them or are supported the best. As Lichtenberg puts it, “much of the value of a person’s contribution to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is its role in stimulating others to defend or reformulate or refute” (page 111).
  15. Jurgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article,” page 136.
  16. In this context, citizenship is not limited to a person’s country or nationality. Citizenship is based on participation in a public body, and that public body can be as small as a person’s local neighborhood or as big as the planet (as in the idea of global citizenship). As such, membership in a public body is not predetermined by birth or where one lives, it is determined by the act of participating in public discourse.
  17. Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies provides an excellent account of many of the most prevalent and high-profile international issues being confronted right now. The book includes many stories of people acting as global citizens, taking into account how their actions in North America and Europe affect the rest of the planet. While Klein focuses on the backlash against the perceived corporatization of everything from elementary schools to public spaces, her work shows how people have become aware of what goes on around the world and how they are responding to it. Whether it is a city council passing a resolution not to do business with companies operating in countries that violate human rights (see page 410-411. Klein says the move by Berkeley set off a domino effect across the United States and that at last count “twenty-two cities, one county and two states had selective purchasing agreements relating to companies in Burma, and a handful of cities had disqualified purchases from companies with investments in Nigeria.”) or university students refusing to have their school clothing manufactured in sweatshops.
  18. Mark Kingwell, The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen, page 12.
  19. Habermas, page 136.
  20. Even when political debates rarely do occur (maybe once or twice in a federal election), they are highly orchestrated and structured media events that allow for little real discussion between candidates.
  21. Klein, page 37.
  22. Ibid, page 154-156. Celebration, Florida is a town completely owned by Disney. The planned development arrives complete with picket fences, a Disney-appointed homeowners’ association and a phony water tower. It is “an idealized re-ation of the livable America that existed before malls, big-box sprawl, freeways, amusement parks and mass commercialization.”
  23. Lichtenberg, page 124.
  24. Bagdikian, page 201.
  25. Ibid, page 199.
  26. Owen, page 16.
  27. Edward Herman and Robert McChesney, The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, page 54.
  28. Katherine Macklem, “The Media Colossus,” page 34.
  29. Bagdikian, page 135.
  30. Schiller, page 17.
  31. Macklem, page 36.
  32. Owen, page 16.
  33. Ibid, page 17.
  34. Scott Simmie, “Do-it-yourself TV,” page D10.
  35. Star Ray TV Mission Statement,
  36. Simmie, page D10.
  37. Simmie, page D1.


  • Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
  • “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” from Law and Morality: Readings in Legal Philosophy. Eds. David Dyzenhaus and Arthur Ripstein. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • Commission on Freedom of the Press, The. A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947.
  • Habermas, Jurgen. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article” from Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. Eds. D. Kellner and S. Bonner. Routledge, 1989.
  • Herman, Edward and Robert McChesney. The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. London: Cassell, 1997.
  • Holmes, Stephen. “Liberal constraints on private power?: reflections on the origins and rationale of access regulation” from Democracy and the mass media: A collection of essays. Judith Lichtenberg, Editor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Hoyt, Mike. “With ‘Strategic Alliances,’ the Map Gets Messy” from Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2000). wysiwyg://43/
  • Ihlan, Amy. “Burning Crosses, Political Expression, and the First Amendment: The Case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul” from Philosophical Perspectives on Power and Domination. Eds. L.D. Kaplan and L.F. Bove. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.
  • Kingwell, Mark. The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 2000.
  • Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2000.
  • Lichtenberg, Judith. “Foundations and limits of freedom of the press,” from Democracy and the mass media: A collection of essays. Judith Lichtenberg, Editor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Macklem, Katherine. “A Media Colossus” in Maclean’s. September 25, 2000: 34-37.
  • Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty (1859)” from Law and Morality: Readings in Legal Philosophy. Eds. David Dyzenhaus and Arthur Ripstein. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • Owen, Bruce. Economics and Freedom of Expression: Media Structure and the First Amendment. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1975.
  • Schiller, Herbert I. “Information Deprivation in an Information-Rich Society” from Invisible Crises:
  • What Conglomerate Control of Media Means for America and the World. Eds. George Gerbner, Hamid Mowlana and Herbert I. Schiller. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.
  • Simmie, Scott. “Do-it-yourself TV” in The Toronto Star. Sunday, October 8, 2000: D1 and D10.
  • Star Ray TV Mission Statement.
  • Taras, David. Power & Betrayal in the Canadian Media. Orchard Park: Broadview Press, 1999.
  • Taylor, Charles. “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty” from Law and Morality: Readings in Legal Philosophy. Eds. David Dyzenhaus and Arthur Ripstein. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • The International Bill of Human Rights. New York: United Nations, 1978.
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Media Ethics with a Life at Stake: The Sam Sheppard Murder Trial

Marah Eakin, Ohio University

In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled “The massive, pervasive and prejudicial publicity attending petitioner’s prosecution prevented him from receiving a fair trial,”freeing Dr. Sam Sheppard from prison and condemning the media for their handling of a trial 12 years previous.

The 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard (see Appendix 1 for summary of case information) has achieved tremendous amounts of notoriety since the decision was handed down. It’s been called a “Roman Holiday” for the media. The case, with all its intriguing details, made a very sellable story for newspapers, and eventually turned into a veritable “feeding frenzy” of information.

The real question is “did the media go too far?” Did their treatment of the case infringe Sheppard’s right to a free trial? Did their desire to get scoops and sales outweigh their journalistic ethics? To this writer, the members of the media covering the trial checked their ethical knowledge at the door, yielding to public outcry and possibly ruining a man’s life.

The Sheppard trial is a prime example of media mishandling of a criminal investigation. Paul Holmes, author of “The Sheppard Murder Case,” said the manhunt and trial were “the gaudiest, most publicized, and most controversial murder trial in the United States in modern times.”

  1. Criteria for a media-friendly criminal investigation

  2. A murder in an idyllic upper middle class suburb. A prominent family. A beautiful socialite wife, who just happens to be barely pregnant. Potential police botchery. Illicit love.

To some journalists, the above combine for a coherent and captivating story. Scandal sells newspapers.

The Sheppard trial was one of the earliest trials that the entire nation followed – both in the papers and on the rapidly evolving television set. Networks and big name reporters covered the story. What could be better than a gruesome murder in a small town?

However, we must question the ethical background that these decisions are based on. Is it better for the American people to have their appetites for gossip quenched or to have a fair criminal justice system? By basing their stories on gossip, hearsay and editorializing, the Cleveland media dropped the Rawls veil of ignorance in lieu of condemnation before conviction.

The media in the Sheppard case profited from the misfortune of others, known commonly as a “Roman Holiday.” By making assumptions for the sake of moving a story along and making new headlines destroys the credibility and objectivity of the press.

  1. Editorializing the Headlines

When The Cleveland Press, one of the largest Cleveland newspapers, ran front-page banner headlines screaming “Quit Stalling – Bring him in,”the journalists declared their bias – clearly against Sam Sheppard.

In fact, The Cleveland Press was clearly the most opinionated and unfair newspaper involved in the entire trial. Running articles with unusually large headlines and enormous photos drew attention to the trial. In fact, they ran some of the most scandalous and scathing editorials – some of which had direct influence on the outcome of the trial. At what point does a front page editorial lose its status as opinion and become seen by readers as fact, based on placement alone?

The day the “Quit Stalling” editorial ran, Sheppard was arrested and placed in jail. Such editorials created such a public frenzy that a murderer could be free in their midst that the pressure on law enforcement agents would be so great that, regardless of evidence, it is possible that police would feel obligated to seize Sheppard.

When the trial would later commence, jurors weren’t sequestered, nor was the trial moved to a more neutral location where the publicity wouldn’t have been so dynamic. In fact, the possibility of a completely objective jury pool is almost laughable. It can almost be assumed that the popular media coverage, including some of these editorials had to have been at least viewed, if not absorbed, by jurors.

At the same time, it’s obvious that the media was not entirely at fault. The independence of the legal system must be taken into account, including the assumption that the jurors were not swayed by the press or by public sentiment.

  1. Jury fashion and Cameras in the Courtroom

As evidenced by the June 6, 1966, Supreme Court Sheppard v. Maxwell decision, Sam Sheppard was not given a fair trial.

The jurors were thrust into the spotlight even before the trial began. In fact, The Cleveland Press published names of all the people in the jury pool. Later they would do an article on the dapper fashions of the female jurors, “bringing color to the courtroom,” including pictures of the ladies.

According to Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, “Despite his awareness of the excessive pretrial publicity, the trial judge failed to take effective measures against the massive publicity which continued throughout the trial or to take adequate steps to control the conduct of the trial.”For example, one end of the press table was less than three feet from the jury box. The proximity of the journalists to the trial’s participants eliminated privacy between Sheppard and his lawyers, as well.

In today’s age of immediate news coverage, spurred on by America’s fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial, it’s hard to imagine a case with such a carnival atmosphere. Still, it can be argued that perhaps the legal system has learned from its’ mistakes – In the Simpson trial, the accidental glimpse of a juror by a TV camera was practically grounds for a mistrial. In contrast, in 1954, the Sheppard jurors ate daily at the same restaurant with almost all principal participants in the case.

Following the realization that Sheppard had an affair with Susan Hayes, a fact he admitted, the media began to let their imaginations run rampant. The Cleveland Press began fabricating stories and speculating about Sheppard’s other extra-marital activities.

“As the trial progressed, the newspapers summarized and interpreted the evidence, devoting particular attention to the material that incriminated Sheppard, and often drew unwarranted inferences from testimony such as he had sexual relations with numerous women; that his slain wife had characterized him as a ‘Jekyll-Hyde;’?and that a woman convict claimed Sheppard to be the father of her illegitimate child. At one point, a front-page picture of Mrs. Sheppard’s blood-stained pillow was published after being ‘doctored’ to show more clearly an alleged imprint of a surgical instrument.”

It is unquestionably wrong, however, for the press to become active participants in a court case, regardless of public demand for up-to-date and “close to the action” coverage. When the media interferes with the legal system, it does harm to every American who may go to court, as well as itself. It’s unconstitutional, and it’s unethical. When the media crosses lines and decides innocence or guilt, it becomes not simply a purveyor of information, but rather a jury instead.

  1. Gripping the Nation

  2. Coverage of the Sheppard trial was front-page news across most of America for the six months following the murder.

  3. Despite all the ethical dilemmas surrounding the Sheppard trial, many members of the media still believe they were doing nothing but their job. Editor of The Cleveland Press at the time, Louis Seltzer wrote in his memoirs “The question confronting The Press as a newspaper? was? Shall we permit a protective wall to shield a solution to this murder, by saying and doing nothing, or ? Shall we move in with all of our editorial artillery in an effort to bring the wall down, and make it possible for law enforcement authorities to act in their normal and accustomed way?? As Editor of the Press, I would do the same thing over again under the same circumstances.”

Unquestionably, newspaper circulation increased during the time of the trial, and news wasn’t hard to come by. But the real question lies in the ethics of such comprehensive coverage. Not only were the papers covering the facts, but the Cleveland papers also ran features about not only juror fashion, but romance between the defense attorney’s son and a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, visiting reporters at the trial, and various other famous murder cases in relation to the Sheppard trial. Criminal trials are, in fact, interesting, but at what point must the line be drawn between news and drivel?

  1. Conclusion

The immersion style reporting that the media did, namely the Cleveland media, clearly compromised the rights of Sam Sheppard. Whether he was guilty or not is irrelevant, really. The fact remains that fault lies both on the media’s drive for sensational stories and the legal system’s reluctance to impose restraints.

In a twenty-nine-page ruling written by Justice Tom Clark, the Supreme Court ruled that Sheppard had been deprived of a fair trial “because of the trial judge’s failure to protect Sheppard sufficiently from the massive, pervasive, and prejudicial publicity that attended his prosecution.” The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling was the first decision to recognize that the press could prevent a defendant from receiving a fair trial consistent with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

By the 1990s the opinion had been cited nearly two thousand times by other courts. “It became a precedent for such famous cases as those of O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith and the officers accused of beating Rodney King, and it came up whenever prejudicial publicity threatened to taint the right to a fair trial.”

As journalists, we must question whether what we report is fair. The entire newspaper is responsible – for the life of a person, for the reputation of a reporter, for the vitality of a business, and for public perception of a profession. Even if news is factual, to what extent must we report it?

While coverage of a trial, acceptably extensive if the trial is important, is acceptable, responsible journalists cannot allow themselves to be driven by their gut reaction and popular hunger for gossip – they must think through their decisions and report only what is ethical and just. Cases like the Sheppard trial allow journalists to learn from past mistakes to create a better reputation for the future.

Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 US 333, 335

Holmes, Paul. (1961) The Sheppard Murder Case. New York. David McKay Company, Incorporated.

Sanders, Keith Page (1964). The Cleveland Press Coverage of the Sheppard Murder Case in Relation to Sensational News Treatment. Unpublished masters thesis.

Sam Sheppard: The Supreme Court Speaks. (1998). Retrieved March 11, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

McKnight, Keith. (1996, July 2). Sheppard goes to trial during a different legal era. Akron Beacon Journal.

Thomas Clark, “Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966),” <>. 1994-1999.

Seltzer, Louis B. (1956). The Years Were Good. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.

F. Lee Bailey with Harvey Anderson, The Defense Never Rests, (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971), 81.

Janice Shuetz and Kathryn Holmes Snedaker, Communication and Litigation: Case Studies of Famous Trials, (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 177.

Cynthia L. Cooper and Sam Reese Sheppard, Mockery of Justice, (New York: Penguin Books Inc., 1997), 157-158.