Law and media ethics

Law and media ethics


There are subdivisions in the media ethics that include print media, broadcast media, theatre, film and many others. Media ethics is dominated by the journalist ethics because it is the largest field in media. The professionals in the media should seek the truth for the public and report the truth with integrity and in a fair way. They are supposed to operate and act as trustees of the public and they have independence. The media professionals should always be ready to account for their actions in the cause of their work. The research paper gives the details of a case between the Federal Communications Commission and Fox Television Station which was alleged to have used an indecent language in its broadcasts. The paper also gives details of defamation and the importance of free expressions of media.

Description of the case

Federal Communications Commission versus Fox Television Stations is the case that we are to use in the description of law and media ethics. According to Supreme Court, (2009), the case concerns some utterances that were made by live broadcast in two different cases and the utterances were aired by Fox Television Stations, Inc. The first aired utterances occurred in 2002 during Billboard Music awards. It involved a singer called Cher who uttered bad words according to FCC because of being criticised. The second time was in 2003 in Billboard music award and it involved principals in the Fox Television who were called by the name of ‘’The Simple Life’’ and they used a bad language in the broadcast. The children were exposed to the language and the parents took the complaint to Federal Communications Commission.

At first, the staff in the commission did not take the utterances as offensive but later notices of liability for the broadcasts were released by the commission to the broadcasts that were indecent in 2006. When given an opportunity to respond because of the indecent language that was used, they said in the first order that the broadcast was within the subject matter and that it involved literal description. In the second order it was explained that the broadcast were offensive under community medium and standards. The utterance that was made by Ms. Richie was found to constitute pandering and to be Vulgar and shocking even after being warned by Ms. Hilton of using bad language. The statement by Cher was also found to be partly offensive because she expressed her hostility in a metaphoric way to the people who criticised her. The utterances were aired during music award shows which are considered to be aired at prime time. The show was to draw many audience including children because they wanted to see their favourite music stars. Two Million children were listening to the broadcast when the utterances were made. The incident was witnessed by national wide audience.

Under the Commission dicta and the staff rulings, both broadcast were indecent as asserted by the order. This is because the 2003 broadcast used more that one offensive word which was planned. The 2002 broadcast was because the word used was not as an intensifier but it was to describe sexual act to the critics. In both events it was clear from the Golden Globes Order that there was no doubt that the language that was used by the broadcast was indecent. There was an otherwise in the dicta that was being used by the commission and it stated that findings of indecency were weighed against if there was no repetition which was under the new policy. It was explained in the order that it did not make sense and that it was artificial for the commission to have prior strict dichonomy which was between descriptions and expletives of excretory or sexual functions. The Fox television station would have been granted an automatic exemption for the fleeting or isolated expletives but this would have led to many more expletives from the media and they would air them any time as long as it is one at a time. This would have a blow on the children and the viewers of the broadcast. In the review of the remand order, Fox Television Stations went to the court of Appeal where the agency’s findings and the orders were reversed and under Administrative Procedure Act the reasoning of the Commission was found to be inadequate. A reasoned explanation was supposed to be provided by the Commission for its fleeting expletive regime. The Television station was granted Certiorari by judge Leval as he deserted.


The case was judged with the standards that are laid down and the governing principles. The order that found the broadcast indecent was under the commission’s new enforcement policy. The findings were neither capricious nor arbitrary. The commission on the case of Cher broadcast did not have enough explanation in the Remand Order and that is why they did not access penalties. They relied on the Golden Globes Order and they knew that they were making changes to remove the doubts that were available. The commission failed to distinguish between non literal and literal use of words that are offensive in media. The decision of the commission required repetitive utterances by the broadcast to make the decision of the indecent utterance. The commission enforcement policy was stepped up because of the advanced technologies that encourage the broadcasters to easily use the offending words in the cause of broadcasting.

Governing principles in the case

A system was established to limit the broadcast licenses under certain conditions by the communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. The system was to maintain and to control the media which included the radio channels and television channels in their transmissions. After some time, the broadcasters who were licensed were granted exclusive use of valuable and limited public domain and in turn they were to accept an enforceable public obligation. One of the burdens of the public obligations was to ban the indecency utterances by the broadcast which was a statutory proscription. To help in enforcing the indecency ban, the Commission uses various means which includes licence revocation, civil fines and denying the involved parties license renewals.

Under the Administrative procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq, the setting of the agency action that is capricious or arbitrary may be set aside and the agency is supposed to give an explanation for its action that is satisfactory. In this case, the judgement of the Commission was overturned by the Court of Appeal because they relied on circuit precedent which requires the agency to satisfactory explain its actions. There is no basis in the Administrative Procedure Act that requires agency changes to be reviewed subject to more research. An opinion from the state firm stated that not all policy changes in the agency must provide justified reasons that are more substantial than the reasons that are required in the adoption of a policy. In our case, the actions of the Commission of changing the rulings required a reasoned analysis. For an agency to provide an explanation that is reasoned because of its action, it is a demand that it should display awareness that it is about to change the position. This demand assists the agency not to depart for the policies that are prior or to disregard the rules in the books.


The Federal Communications Commission issued notices of liability to Fox Television Station because of the use of indecent language in the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003. This was after they reversed from the first stand they had. The case was appealed by Fox Television to the court of Appeal. The court of Appeal held that the FCC did not give a proper justification in reversing its position. It was held that the order was neither arbitrary nor capricious. The difference in the ruling of the FCC and the Court of Appeal has led to involvement of the Supreme Court in the ruling and the Supreme Court is expected to clarify the powers of the Government in controlling indecency language and utterances in the media which includes Television and Radio. This is a third circuit concerning the case.


The law of defamation protects organizations and people from being attacked and it also protects their reputation. It hinders the freedom of speech to the media and people who describe other people in a defamatory way. The people who publish malicious comments or who say false things can be sued through the law of defamation. Defamation can be oral and it can also be published. Anything including court cases that injure the reputation of a person can be termed as defamatory. In our case, Fox Television may sue the FCC for defamation if it is ruled by the Supreme Court that the Television station did not use defensive words or utterances. The ruling of the court case might destroy the reputation of the Television station which is defamatory to the Station.

Indecency in broadcasting has been linked to the media and media ethics. As illustrated by Moore and Murray, (2008), there have been criminal penalties on the cable televisions that are connected with media. The provisions regarding the indecent programs are contained in The Cable Television and Consumer Protection and Corporation Act of 1992. In the case of FCC and Fox Television Station, the media is supposed to follow the law and the Acts that contain the indecency acts, freedom of expression and defamation.


In the case of FCC versus Fox Television Stations, they are supposed to exercise the freedom of speech and they can use it to defend themselves. The media in all its subdivisions is supposed to have freedom of expression as a cornerstone of democratic society. Freedom of expression is important in the development of community for the radio station, television stations and the newspapers. As Lauk and Epp, (2008), stated, freedom of speech for the media helps in the reconciliation processes and also in establishing the social bonds. Some of the expressions that are damaging are prohibited by the government in the international law and they are not considered unlimited. The three part test that is supposed to be contained in the restrictions of freedom of expression include being recognised as legitimate, the laws must be necessary and proportionate and also they must accomplish the aim of being legitimate. With the freedom of speech in the media, one of the legitimate aims is to protect the rights of other people which control defamation, protection of health and morals and also the protection of national security. The case of FCC versus Fox television station was supposed to protect the morals of the people even with freedom of expression. Social pressures makes people hesitate to speak freely because of the pressures from people and not the fear of the government.  The freedom of speech of the media also involves the freedom of political speech where they are supposed to speak political issues and it is contained in the second amendment theory. The media can speak about the community and the country without being interrupted by the government. In the fourth theory, the public can voice the opposing views in issues of the public. It has guaranteed access to the public issues in order to voice their views in different media. This purpose of the first amendments can be seen in the market place of ideas and also in the political theories speech.

The relationship between the media and the law is well seen in the freedom of expression which is a liberty guaranteed for the media in the constitution. Being in the constitution it shows that there is a relationship between the media ethics and the law. The guarantee is in the first amendment of the constitution and the legislative bodies and the courts hesitate to impinge the expression freedom for the press. Freedom of expression promotes democratic discourse and it is in the interest of the first amendment. It promotes internet freedom of the media and gives access to digital media.  Print sources and telecommunications are governed by the state and the federal laws. The federal Communication Commissions is used to regulate foreign and interstate communications which includes wire, cable, radio, satellite and television. Cases in FCC can be appealed to the state laws that may be the court of Appeal or the Supreme Court as in the case: Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium versus Federal Communications Commission, (1997). The Supreme Court reversed part of the circuit decision and affirmed part of it.

In the case of FCC and Fox Television Station, it shows that the media and the law are related in that there is an act that can be used in the determination of the case and in the ruling of the case. The broadcast decency Enforcement Act of 2005 contains the law that is supposed to be used in the ruling of the case.  The Act states that under this section the penalty for each Act should not exceed $ 500,000 in each violation.


The media and the law are connected and the laws that govern the media are included in the constitution. There is a relationship between the law and the media ethics. The media law is under federal and the state law. FCC deals with the cases when the media infringe the law. Freedom of expression in the media is an important issue because it facilitates the development of the community.


Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium v. FCC and Alliance for Community Media V. FCC, 518 U.S. 727,116 S. Cr. 2374, 135 L. Ed. 2d 888(1997).

Lauk and Epp, (2008), Freedom for the media? Issues of journalism ethics in Estonia.  Academic Journal. Vol. 47, p59-65, 7p

Moore. R. L and Murray. M. D. (2008), Media law and ethics. Book. 3rd edition. Pp. 461- 516.

Supreme court, (2009), FCC versus Fox Television Stations, Inc. Viewed on 27th April 2011.,5&as_vis=1


Written by