“…with great power there must also come–great responsibility” -Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962 Marvel)
Those words concluded the very first comic to introduce Peter Parker, aka Spider-man, to the world. They have also served as a moral compass for his acts of heroism in the comics that follow. The young teen should also have been told that the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe then he would have been a little more ethical in his day job as a photojournalist. But he’s not the only one. DC comics’ Clark Kent, otherwise known as Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but when it comes to journalism he is also just as transparent.
It’s not surprising that these two moonlight masked vigilantes were drawn to reporting in their daily life. Superheroism and reporting both embody a do-good spirit and are useful in effecting change through words. Reporters, like superheroes are seen as a voice of the people, and a symbol of hope for the population at large. The media is held to high standards by their public and ideally should be relied on for unbiased, honest reporting. However in recent years, public opinion and trust in journalists has decreased greatly. According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and Pew Research Center, in 1985 only 16% of the public gave low credibility to their daily newspaper; by 2005, that number had risen to 45%. Also in 1990, 74% of Americans said they had confidence in the press; 2000 saw that figure fall as low as 58%. With the recent “rise of the nightly cable shout fest”, those numbers should be expected to lean even farther negatively. Even though Kent and Parker do make the attempt to be good journalists, for a reporter to create an alias and roam the streets in a disguise, lying to pretty much everyone they know, their ethics definitely should be called in question.
For 50 years, Peter Parker committed repeated acts of fraud against The Daily Bugle and its editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson. His most egregious transgressions include selling staged photos of himself as Spider-man and attempting to use his position in the media to positively spin the public’s perception of Spider-man. He frequently tries to argue with Jameson about Spider-man’s intentions, trying to persuade him to print articles that will show Spidey in a positive light.
During the Civil War 2006-2007 miniseries, Peter reveals his identity to the world, much to the shock of Jameson, who has long regarded Peter as a trusted, close friend.
After he exposes himself, Jameson tried to sue Parker for “misrepresentation, fraud, breach of contract and several other related charges.” If the status quo was not returned, and Parker’s identity made secret once again, the lawsuit would have been difficult for Parker to crawl out of. According to the website Law and the Multiverse:
“Clearly, Parker had superior knowledge of Spider-man’s identity. Jameson had no clue who Spider-Man was and certainly didn’t suspect Parker. The information was not readily available, as demonstrated by the fact that quite a few people, Jameson included, had tried and failed to determine Spider-man’s identity. And it can reasonably be assumed that Parker knew that Jameson wouldn’t have bought the photos if he knew they were staged and being sold to him by Spider-man.
So Parker’s misrepresentation by omission will suffice. It’s also definitely a material representation (i.e. it would have made a difference in whether a contract was agreed to) because Jameson would not have bought the photos if he knew the truth.”
In 2010, Parker’s unethical reporting finally is called into question in a storyline “about Parker sacrificing his journalistic integrity–getting caught red handed.” Now mayor, J. Jonah Jameson is accused of being involved with the creation of the super villain, The Vulture. As Spider-man, he knows the accusations are false but as Peter he has no proof. To clear Jameson’s name, Parker doctors a photo.
Jameson can’t stand by this misrepresentation and calls Parker out during a press conference. Parker is immediately fired, blacklisted from every news organization in town and shunned by many of his friends in the media. However even though he finally gets his just deserts, he still feels vindicated morally. The staff of the Daily Bugle thanks Parker for saving their jobs and he feels that even though he did something wrong, it was for the right reasons.
During his time at the Daily Planet, Clark Kent constantly reports on himself as Superman. He also gave privileged information to Lois Lane, who has not disclosed her relationship with Superman. His best friend, Jimmy Olsen has also consistently sacrificed his independence as a journalist to become a glorified PR agent for Superman. Clark is putting the entire paper in an ethically compromising position.
It’s unethical for a news publication not to disclose relationships that could be grounds for a conflict of interest with the subject matter. For example, NBC News always mentioned it was owned by General Electric whenever they did a story about their parent company. If it came to light that Kent is Superman, every story the Daily Planet had written about Superman could be called into question and any awards his colleagues or the paper received could be revoked. To make matters worse, Clark frequently uses the privileged information he learns as a journalist to aid his crime fighting.
In DC’s New 52 universe, Kent quits The Daily Planet to become a blogger. At least now in this new online form, he won’t be held to the same ethical standards that could have put his whole workplace in jeopardy.
These transgressions haven’t really been remarked upon in any of the film series based on these super-journalists thus far, although with the recent rumors that director Mark Webb wants JK Simmons back as Jameson in Amazing Spiderman 3 (Oh please, please, please! No matter what criticisms there are for the Remi series, Simmons is literally cartoon Jameson brought to life) and Kent donning his trademark glasses at the end of Man of Steel, its very possible this ethical dilemma could be approached in an upcoming film. Especially with the critical lens that our real-life media has been put under recently, it’s hard to be charmed by a trusted source of “truth” who lies to the public for his own perceived version of truth. It wouldn’t be surprising for the media of today’s fictional counterparts to get a lesson in the responsibility expected of them in the newsroom as well.