“Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions,” professional golfer Tiger Woods declared in a public statement late last year. Woods lashed out at the media after his personal life became a very public sex scandal. Of course, Woods isn’t the first – and certainly won’t be the last – celebrity to discover their private troubles aired for the world. But is he right? Is it time for public figures to take a stand against intrusive media?
Tom Cooper (MA 1975, PhD 1979), a professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College in Boston, completed media studies at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at U of T. He has been teaching media ethics and writing about it for more than 20 years.
Cooper says Woods got it mostly right – that in general an individual’s personal life should remain private. However, if you choose to become a public figure, you become accountable to your constituencies, Cooper says. “Woods has become a role model to many children and to golfers. When he accepted multiple lucrative endorsements, he became a public figure by his own choice rather than by luck of the draw,” he notes. The media wasn’t without fault, though. Cooper says the amount of coverage was irresponsible; he calls it “smotherage.”
Media ethics is a diverse and growing field that covers a vast number of topics: from the accuracy of information and type of content conveyed through the media to the way the media interact with people and disclose their personal information. Cooper, who has presented his research to the White House and the Federal Communications Commission, found in a poll that American adults were concerned about excessive sex and violence in the media, invasive advertising, bias and sensationalism, decreasing news credibility, and obscene content being made available to children, among other things.
Cooper says improving media ethics will require better government regulation, changing the way the public consumes media and educating youth. “It’s never too early to teach media literacy,” he says, claiming that kindergarten children learn more about the world through television, computers and other media than they do in their first six years of schooling.
Cooper’s critics, meanwhile, see government regulation as an infringement on free speech and freedom of the press. Could problems with media ethics simply reflect problems in society, rather than the failings of media professionals or government regulators? Cooper acknowledges the point. When it comes to sex scandals and celebrity gossip, if the general public is willing to pay for it, the media will continue to provide it, he says.