The Ethics of Shaping Perceptions of Reality: What Journalists Can Learn From Cartographers and Shamans

Christopher J. Dorsey

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Department of Journalism & Media Studies, College of Arts & Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg


Journalism has the unique ability to shape the public’s perception of reality. Because humans are limited in experience and knowledge, an understanding of the world is shaped by what information is available to each individual. As a major societal institution, journalism has a public forum with which to release relevant, timely and useful information that can influence these perceptions. When it comes to building perceptions of reality, there are potential harms that can arise such as enhancing fear, confusion, stress, and building a worldview that can lead to uninformed or destructive decisions. Essentially, a journalist has as much ability to disable as enable, to inhibit as empower, and to befuddle and confuse as inform or educate. This paper explores what journalists can learn from two other communicative roles—cartographers and shamans— that view, gather, condense and distribute information that can shape perceptions of reality. Both roles have vastly different techniques, but both have codes of ethics that can help journalists morally disseminate information better. From a descriptive ethical analysis of other communicators, a normative ethical prescription for journalists arises as well as an ethical strategy for other communicators in this abundance of information age.