Professor Gibson
Discerning the Digital Dilemma

Introducing Discerning the Digital Dilemma: Navigating the Gradient Scale of Digital Media Ethics

Hello, Ethical Content Creators,

I am excited to launch a new series, Discerning the Digital Dilemma. We are quickly approaching an era when artificial intelligence (AI) will seamlessly blend with daily life. It will become more challenging, if not impossible, for an average person to discern if the video, image, or text they are reading results from human creativity or machine output.

If we, as a society, can no longer determine the truth merely by viewing media, we will need to change how we discern and work ethically. However, deciphering the truth from digitally created content will become increasingly complex.

As AI challenges our capacity to discern truth, we must ponder content creators’ ethical obligations. This series will examine specific issues, from Kate Middleton’s Photoshop disaster to my rule of thumb for writing with AI.

I am not here to give you all the answers but to attempt to capture my thoughts in (almost) real-time as a new media specialist. My husband says I do not have any bad ideas; just ones I am not done with yet. Consider this series full of ideas that I am “not done with yet.”

I hope what I produce is helpful to you in your journey. Please do not expect this to be a polished output; rather, it will be a look into my mind as I wrestle with these issues alongside you.

Before we jump into a specific topic, let’s first look at aspects that will become part of my proposed ethical framework for new and emerging media.

An Ethical Framework

If I have learned one thing, no issue is unique. If you look hard enough, someone has wrestled with this problem before. Many precedents within specific industries can be adapted to our new digital world. To start, several concepts and constructs need to be considered as we navigate the murky digital waters.

When building an ethical framework, we must take into consideration its flexibility. Two years ago, I never imagined AI would be a part of my daily life. Twenty-three years ago, I barely understood social media. And long before that, I spent my summer learning to code websites (this was pre-Yahoo!). The point is we cannot predict what will come next; that is a fool’s errand, so we must build a framework that can adapt to emerging technologies and society’s understanding of these technologies.

The following aspects and precedents are essential considerations for our framework.

The Reasonable Person

Let’s start with advertising. When you get a burger from McDonald’s, it rarely looks like the one plastered in images across the window. Is this unethical? Well, not really.

Traditionally and legally speaking, in advertising, a single rule of thumb exists to determine if an ad is considered false advertising or mere puffery. If an ad could potentially confuse a reasonable person, it is deemed false advertising. This is regardless of its actual intention. The court simply asks, “Would a reasonable person find the ad misleading?”

I don’t know about you, but I do not expect my burger to look like the picture. This idea does not rely on the information being false; after all, we all know making a product look more appealing than it actually is comes with the territory. But, it gives room for the idea of puffery or a little bit of exaggeration. It also considers whether the exaggeration is confusing based on the specific person, place, or even situation.

We all exaggerate. It is part of putting our best foot forward. Women wear false eyelashes to accentuate their eyes. My Instagram posts show my children smiling all the time. I cut all the “umms” and “uhs” from my podcast. Exaggeration is a part of life, and a reasonable person understands this.

As simple as it seems, the idea of a reasonable person is also a powerful legal concept. It allows for flexibility in determination while also allowing the audience’s sophistication to change over time. As society develops and people become more “tech” savvy, what a reasonable person deems to be true or not will also need to change.

But we cannot stop there because the reasonable person rule has a fatal flaw. It relies on the perception of what individuals read, see, and witness firsthand. What if a reasonable person can no longer determine truth based on what they read, see, and witness? We are headed in that direction sooner than we would like to admit. And when we cross that line, the reasonable person concept, by itself, can no longer determine falsity.

So, let’s add another layer to our ethical framework.

Artistic Vision and Factual Accuracy

Let’s focus on another industry, one close to my expertise: documentary filmmaking. Located somewhere between journalism and fiction filmmaking, documentary filmmakers have navigated this ethical gradient line for decades.

Emerging media offers the opportunity for near-limitless expression and artistic vision but also blurs the line between fabrication and factual accurate portrayals. This balance of artistic vision and factual accuracy is not a new problem.

It goes back to the birth of the documentary. According to the story, John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board of Canada, coined the term “documentary” to describe Robert Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana. The film features a Samoan boy who “re-enacts” his life. Grierson defined the documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality.” Even in its inception, the non-fiction genre blurred the line into what we would now call docufiction.

However, this chase for reality, or a truthful portrayal, goes back to the invention of film. Early cinema, such as the work of the Lumiere brothers, offered a single wide shot and a portrayal of some type of reality. The cinema verite movement in the 1960s tried to capture “fly on the wall” moments of actuality. All of these attempts, at some point, have to admit that the mere presence of a camera changes the situation. It is a tension that documentary filmmakers have navigated from the beginning.

This tension and the discussion of its ethical implications have reemerged among documentary filmmakers with every new form of media, from handheld cameras and animated documentaries to even augmented reality. AI is bringing the same question to the masses. Our ethical framework must allow us to navigate this tension and construct guidelines for dealing with situations that vary in goals, some more artistic and others more journalistic. The BBC will require a more factual approach, while Saturday Night Live clearly falls more within the artistic category.

The Gradient Scale

So here is my proposition: the gradient scale of ethics. I developed this scale and have utilized this framework in the classroom for almost 16 years. While I created it to wrestle with non-fiction ethics, with a few modifications, it is perfect for addressing the ethical challenges posed by these emerging technologies. In this evolving digital landscape, ethics must be seen as a spectrum (or gradient) allowing us to engage in nuanced inquiries about the ethical use of computer-generated content.

The scale has three primary considerations the content creator must acknowledge.

  1. Be aware of the “deal” your content makes with the audience.
  2.  The audience’s understanding and sophistication can/will change over time.
  3.  Elements of visual and non-visual storytelling occasionally convey unstated messages to the audience.

Let’s break down each one.

Be aware of the “deal” your content makes with the audience. 

Every creator makes a deal with the audience. These deals can be made through the genre choice, the method of release, the medium utilized, the persons attached, the storytelling method, the caption, and other aspects related to the content’s delivery. These deals can be intentional or unintentional. When you go to a movie, you have certain expectations as an audience member. If those expectations, even unintentional expectations, are not met, you leave feeling betrayed. The creator must be aware of these deals and strive to make ethical choices based on them. Each piece of content makes a different deal with the audience. A documentary is rooted in truth. Biopic dramas have an element of truth but can be more subjective and artistic. Animated films have free reign to create a reality. Fantasy has reign to create a new reality. If you break the deal with the audience, even if you were unaware of the agreement, they feel betrayed and hurt.

This idea can be adapted to new media. The New York Times must be rooted in factual accuracy. Beauty influencers need to air toward accuracy without using filters. Influencers often are given more leeway from their audience (which was not always the case) as our understanding of what they do has grown over time. At the same time, virtual reality allows creators to develop new worlds.

The audience’s understanding and sophistication can/will change over time. 

Looking back at the early film, you can understand how our sophistication has changed. As the audience shifts, your ethical standards must change as well. What is ethical today may not be ethical tomorrow, and vice versa. Reenactments, for instance, were once considered unethical. Today, with particular visual cues, they are considered ethical. Society will change, and our standards must adapt to this change.

We have already seen this with our understanding of how producers create reality television or how an influencer’s house appears online. The content creator needs to understand and determine the current sophistication of the audience regarding the technology being used. For example, it is possible that utilizing AI to write will become commonplace and expected in the near future. However, currently, the sophistication is not quite there.

Elements of visual and non-visual storytelling sometimes convey unstated messages to the audience.

How you compose a shot, the lighting you select, or even the editing tells the audience something about the nature of the event. The music you use also makes a statement. Remember, at times, what you do NOT use also can speak volumes. The content creator must consider all these elements and truthfully consider what these aspects are communicating to the audience.

The final part of the sliding scale is to understand where, along the gradient, your content lies. This placement is essential to the rules or standards you must adhere to. The lines between accuracy and vision blur quickly. It is important to remember that new media is inclusive. We will adapt to new technology and utilize new ideas to tell stories. So, the answer is complex. Content can have vision but also strive for accuracy.

Ethics for new media storytelling is a push-and-pull between a factual or artistic interpretation of events. An animated documentary might have factual elements (unscripted interviews), but at the same time, it would push the boundaries with fictional representations that allow the storyteller to infer or interpret events for the audience. However, animation or other blatant interpretations might be out of place in a 20/20 or Dateline program. In these journalistic programs, the audience expects the storyteller to step out of the way and allow visual and audio proof to stand independently.

The New Digital Landscape

Discerning the Digital Dilemma will help you peel back the layers of ethical complexity surrounding AI and digital content creation. The digital and ethical landscape is not static; it will continue to shift. We must maintain a commitment to questioning, learning, and adapting. Technological advancements must go hand-in-hand with ethical discernment; that is the only way we can ensure that our journey into the future of AI is guided by a moral compass as advanced as the technologies we wield.

Please join me as I navigate these murky waters and consider every pixel and every line of code. I am kicking off this series with the Kate Middleton Photoshop scandal in the post: Photoshop and the Princess.