Ethical Responsibility in Media

By: Emma Carlson

Ethics can be a grey area for many people. We all have our own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why. This is all well and good when it comes to personal morals and life philosophies, but when we begin to discuss ethical responsibility and its role in the media, things become controversial. How much ethical responsibility do PR and Advertising professionals have to the public? As people who hold some power in this huge industry, do we have obligations to promote certain things and leave more sensitive issues like sex and body image out of our work, or is that another form of censorship, and therefore violating our free expression?

Before I was an advertising major, I would have probably said that media professionals have no responsibility to their public, and that anything and everything is fair game. I am a pretty blunt and outspoken person, and I don’t believe in sugarcoating things. As a writer and an artist, I am very against censorship, and can therefore see how having guidelines that prohibit certain things in media could be seen as such. But, since becoming an advertising major and learning more about the media, its role in our society, and advertising/PR on a whole, I realize that to a certain extent, promotional media drives and influences our culture.

Being a woman, an example that hits close to home is body image. Our society has become, and continues to become increasingly superficial. The media portrays a woman’s  “ideal body” as skinnier than ever before, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2014,, an eating disorder recovery site, decided to partner with Fractl, a digital marketing agency, to show how the Body Mass Index (or BMI) of the “ideal woman’s body” as portrayed by the media has changed over the past 100 years. According to their study, linked here, “Most models now have a weight that’s considered clinically anorexic.”

According to statistics recorded by ANAD, (The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) only 5% of women possess the “ideal body” portrayed in the media. The full set of statistics can be found here.

So, basically our media is telling 95% of women that their body is not good enough because it doesn’t look like the models used in advertising. Not only is the media telling us this on our clothing and shoe advertisements, it’s telling us this everywhere. “Hot”girls who possess this supposedly perfect body are used to sell everything, from cars to alcohol. Historically we have seen that sex does indeed sell, and I believe many of these such ads are targetted towards men, but that doesn’t lessen their affect on women. Another statistic (cited above) found that “69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.” That is a huge percentage, and a clear indicator of the power our media has, especially on teens and tweens who can be more easily influenced.

Not only does our media have a huge amount of pull on its audiences, in ways, the rise of social media has had a negative effect as well. Social media has made it easier for users with common interests to come together and support eachother. Even when common interest at hand is anorexia/bulemia and the support given is the encouragement to binge/purge. Forums with behavior like this have been around since the beginning of the internet, but the popularity of sites like twitter and instagram and their use of hashtags has made practices like this even more widespread. More information about this can be found in an article published by US Today, linked here.

Reading statistics and articles like the ones I’ve linked in this post makes me incredibly sad. Even more so, because I know just how true they are. I see evidence of this every time a friend complains about wanting to be skinnier, tells me they don’t think they can “pull off” a certain style, or talks about how someones body is “hashtag goals.” As a woman, I know how hard it can be to be constantly told that your body doesn’t look good because it isn’t what is portrayed in a Calvin Klein ad, and as an aspiring advertising professional, I know that we have the power to change this impossible standard and promote love for all body types. I understand that using insecurity is a common way to sell product, but by now it should be apparent that this influence should not be taken lightly. It’s time to stop promoting the idea that a body that is unhealthy to obtain for most women, is the ideal. I really do believe that with great power comes great responsibility, and it has become apparent that our media has the power to set standards of beauty. Imagine what would happen if we recognized this responsibility and used this power to promote body positivity and healthy self-esteem.