“Vulnerability” as the key concept of a communicative ethics for the 21st century

By Hugo Aznar and Marcia Castillo-Martín on November 11, 2018

Photo: Rawpixel/unsplash.com 

At a recent IAMCR Conference (Eugene, Oregon),1 the authors presented a paper proposing that vulnerability could – or should – be the key concept of what they call the second generation of media or communicative ethics. This second generation began to appear during the last decade of the past century, but they propose that its development and dissemination are just now one of the most crucial tasks for the ethics of communication.

Before presenting this new generation, we will go briefly over the past generation. This can help us to understand better the task that we now have to confront. Setting precedents aside, this first generation was born during the beginning of the 20th century as a consequence of a series of events which occurred during its three first decades. These events are well known and we can look back on them in a schematic way.

The first was political democratization: a process which took place during the 19th century, and was completed in the first decades of the new century with universal suffrage, including the vote for women. This gave unprecedented relevance to electoral processes, and to mass parties and their leaders, competing for people’s votes. Because of all this, public opinion, and political communication and advertising became a matter of huge interest. 

The second was the First World War and, closely related, the Soviet Revolution. Both placed at the top of the public agenda worries the questions of the impact of propaganda and misinformation, and their influence for conducting democratic societies in a globalized world.

The third was the appearance or, better still, the awareness of the appearance – because this event was also taking place from the middle of the 19th century as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution of what Graham Wallas and Walter Lippmann after him called the “Great Society”. The Great Society was characterized by the power of the big corporations, the influence of remote and very complex effects, and what we now call globalization. A world in which people’s lives were affected by remote facts, quite beyond the local proximity that had dominated people’s experience until then. This made the information carried by the media crucial for understanding and managing this new, distant and complex world. The last event was the consolidation of the industrial press, which sold millions of copies, earned huge quantities of money, and became extremely powerful. This was the first straight evidence of the nascent century of mass media, with illustrated magazines, cinema, radio and TV following the press. All this also placed the question of the power and behaviour of mass media at the very centre of the concerns of the new century.

Walter Lippmann can be considered the most representative author of this crucial moment because in his works of the 1920s he grasped with great sagacity the problems related to these changes and the giant challenges they posed to the naïve conceptions of democracy, public opinion and information of the two previous centuries (Lippmann and Merz, 1920; Lippmann, 1920, 1922, 1927). For the first time, he sited journalism and public opinion, and their relationship with contemporary democracy, at the centre of public preoccupation and at the very heart of two nascent disciplines: political sciences and journalism studies.

The crucial role of journalism and the principle of truthfulness
Under these new conditions – Lippmann insisted – a society needs valid information to evaluate its challenges and tasks, and to be able to take efficient decisions in complex situations. All the more so in a democracy in which public opinion plays a central role. Consequently, journalism became crucial for such a society. But, what kind of journalism?

Instead of propaganda, editors’ ideology, manipulation or the crude ignorance of news workers of that time, at least three things were essential for the new emerging world and the press that it needed: i) to define the criteria of truth and objectivity in journalism, in order to make the information that flows in society more valid and useful; ii) to improve the professional qualifications of journalists; and iii) to increase the responsibility of media and journalists’ performance (Lippmann, 1920).

These became the subjects of the nascent study of journalism and of emerging media ethics. Accordingly, the principles, criteria and norms for establishing journalistic truth, honesty and responsibility were formulated in the first decades of the 20th century. These moral criteria tried to assure the informative function of journalism, essential for a democracy and well formed public opinion. Norms to assure truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity; testing of information; verification of facts and testimonies; attribution of information and identification of the sources; fair methods of collecting information and materials; separation of facts and opinions; distinction between news and advertisement or propaganda, and so on, became the common content of the first codes of journalism ethics that appeared in those decades. These codes would be disseminated all over the world during the rest of the century.

This moral content and these codes of ethics of journalism would shape what we have called the first generation of communicative ethics. Nowadays these norms of journalism ethics are well established. They are recognized by all, journalists and media outlets, and indeed by many educated people in our developed societies. So, these basic journalistic norms are beyond doubt and we do not need to work on them in regard to their sense, content and function.

Obviously, we do not want to say that the ethical questions related to the information function of journalism are out of date. On the contrary, these questions are as crucial for our societies today as they were a century ago. Problems as serious as the effects of new technologies, like the Internet or bots; new uses, like Photoshop or Twitter; or news forms of propaganda or disinformation, like fake news. It is no surprise that our times have been declared the era of post-truth. These problems are quite fundamental, but none requires changing the established norms of journalistic ethics. They only need to be adapted to the new contexts, technologies or processes. 

We do not want to suggest that these new challenges are easy to confront and resolve. They are quite complex and they test journalism as we have known it up to now. But they are not questions of principle: they form part of the same first generation of journalistic ethics, which related to the information function of journalism. They really present us with difficult tasks, but not in a different sense from those posed in the past century.2

A new task for communicative ethics 
What we would like to suggest is that another big task faces us for the communicative ethics of our time. We need to complement the basic principles and norms of journalistic ethics concerning the truthfulness and reliability of information with a more broad communicative ethics, what we call a second generation of communicative ethics. 

Why do we consider this new generation so necessary? In this case, the answer can be found in the mass media field itself: because of the role and importance that social communications have attained after a century of evolution. What was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century was that the role of the media was crucial to our contemporary political life, especially for democratic societies. As a response, the first generation of communicative ethics was developed. But what has been increasingly acknowledged since the end the past century is that the role, importance and influence of social communications have jumped to a new level. Social communications now occupy the centre of our societies and these increase the capacity to influence (sometimes to determine) other social systems: not only politics, but also culture, education, economy, sport, art, and many more (Bourdieu, 1998; Luhmann, 2000).

In addition to being a social agent and a social power between others more, social communications have become the environment in which a vast part of our personal and social life takes place. This being true, we have to provide a new response from communicative ethics in this new situation. As occurred at the beginning of the past century, we need to develop a second generation of communicative ethics which complements the first one.

The first generation established the ethical requirements to make the information provided by the mass media fully reliable. This information function is the specific social function that they have to perform in our societies. Now we have to look at the second function that every social system has to fulfil to exist and to win legitimacy as such: the principle of beneficence. This means that every social system, in addition to its specific function – to provide information in the case of mass media – also has the duty to contribute to a better society, to social justice, to the good of the people.

The principle of beneficence in social communications
This principle of beneficence can be performed at two different levels. In a minimum or “negative” sense, in which it is made equivalent to the principle of non- malfeasance. At this level it only demands that the activities of the social system do not harm the people or increase any of the wrongs of the society. 

In the field of social communications this principle is embodied in norms of omission of bad practices like not practising harm discourse, not promoting violence, not contributing to discrimination through gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, and avoiding stereotyping. These basic norms were progressively incorporated to the codes of ethics of journalism from the last two decades of the past century, as a transitional step between both generations of communicative ethics.3

But there is also a positive way of accomplishing the principle of beneficence: that the activities of the social system, in our case social communication realized by media and journalists, contribute to make society better and fairer. To some extent, this positive performance is not so demanding, so compulsory as are the norms of omission and the previous norms concerning the informative function of journalism – what we have called the first generation of communicative ethics. But we would like to suggest that realizing this most demanding version of the principle of beneficence is – or has to be – the guiding principle of the second generation of communicative ethics.

The question is what does this positive principle of beneficence imply in the field of communicative ethics. And we can find the answer in the very same historic moment in which was raised the necessity of the first generation of communicative ethics. But we have also to look at another proposal: the one made by John Dewey (Dewey, 1927).

Dewey considered the cited works of Lippmann very visionary, provocative and challenging, but he proposed an alternative role for social communications because he also had a different view of democracy.4 The aim of democracy was not only to assure an efficient political way of resolving collective problems. True democracy had to be also a way of bringing about a more full realization of the individuals themselves. And for this social communication has to be a way to build an effective community through the communicative participation of the individuals. Social communication through the media should be the principal means to articulate an effective social community on a large scale.

If we understand the aim of the social communications in this broader sense, we need another principle of ethics in correspondence with it. The criteria of this broader communicative ethics have to be oriented to make the participation of the people easier, to promote their sense of being a part of the public debate, a part of the social community in dialogue. As this requirement could be too extensive in big societies like ours, Dewey formulated it in a more limited way. That in public debate over a social question, over a matter in which a decision has to be discussed and adopted, the equal participation at least of those affected by the situation or by the decision to be taken has to be a requirement of justice.

And this should be the way in which we can establish a new principle of communicative ethics for the media: to give voice to those affected by a situation, and especially to those in a situation of vulnerability, because this is the prime way in which they can make their voices heard and improve their situation.

In this way, we can make the proposal of vulnerability the crucial key of a second generation of communicative ethics. To make visible and to give a voice to those in the worst situations, in vulnerable conditions. In fact, this has been the ultimate motivation of a notable number of codes of communicative ethics formulated in the last two decades. Codes with recommendations about how the media and journalists have to behave regarding questions such as violence against women, terrorism and its victims, protection of minors, immigrants, the elderly and people living with disabilities, and so on (Aznar, 2005). In all these codes, the core aim is always the protection and improvement of people in a position of vulnerability. 

Thus, the nascent second generation of communicative ethics has vulnerability as its key concept. And it can be as effective as the first generation was in setting the norms of reliable journalism. We can conclude with a recent example: how making the cries of immigrant children at the US border audible through mass media – the voices of the most vulnerable in this situation – forced the most powerful man on the planet to change his position. 



Aznar, Hugo (2005): Ética de la comunicación y nuevos retos sociales. Barcelona, Paidós.

Aznar, Hugo  (2011): Comunicación responsable. Barcelona, Ariel.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998): On Television. New York, The New Press. 

Dewey, John (1927): The Public and Its Problems. Several editions.

Jansen, Sue Curry (2009): “Phantom Conflict: Lippmann, Dewey and the Fate of the Public in Modern Society”, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 6, pp. 221-245 (DOI: 10.1080/14791420903049751). 

Lippmann, Walter (1920): Liberty and the News. Several editions.

Lippmann, Walter (1922): Public Opinion. Several editions. 

Lippmann, Walter (1927): The Phantom Public. Several editions.

Lippmann, Walter and Charles Merz (1920): “A Test of the News”, The New Republic (Supl.), n. 296, pp. 1-42.

Luhmann, Niklas (2000): The Reality of the Mass Media. Cambridge, Polity Press.



1. The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) is a worldwide professional organisation in the field of media and communication research.

2. We have dedicated most of our work in the field of communicative ethics to investigating and promoting what we consider the best response to confront the majority of these challenges: media and journalist accountability systems or, as we prefer to call them, the mechanisms of self–regulation (Aznar, 2011).

3. We can consider as one of the first and most representative examples of this incorporation the seventh article of the IFJ Code of Ethics, added in 1986: “7. The journalist shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media, and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins”.

4. Recently this interchange of ideas has been presented as a “debate” between both authors, although in fact it was not such. The most informed work on this, Jansen, S. C. (2009).

Hugo Aznar is Professor of Ethics of Communication and History of Political Thought at CEU-Cardenal Herrera University (Valencia, Spain). He has written several books on communicative ethics. His most recent works are the edition of two collective books: De la democracia de masas a la democracia deliberativa (Barcelona, Ariel, 2014) and Ortega y el tiempo de las masas (Madrid, Plaza y Valdés, 2018). His activities can be followed in the blog Delibecracia (https://blog.uchceu.es/delibecracia/).

Marcia Castillo-Martín is Teacher of Language of the Advertising (Esic Marketing and Business School, Valencia) and of Production of Texts (European University of Valencia). She has published a series of articles and books on the image of women in the first third of the 20th century and on gender violence such as Las convidadas de papel. Mujer memoria y literatura en la España de los años XX (Alcalá de Henares, 2001); or, as co-editor, Marcadas a ferro. A violencia contra a mulher, uma visão multidisciplinar (Brasilia, 2005). Nowadays she is co-directing the documentary Seven Leagues, which narrates the experience of a company of dance for children with cerebral palsy.

November 11, 2018
Categories:  Media Development

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