For decades television series like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise and Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and The Newsroom have chosen to take on both contemporary and timeless ethical issues through the compelling art of storytelling. Even Mike White’s The White Lotus presents present-day ethical scenarios for viewer consideration. Movies such as The Shawshank Redemption and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight address matters of ethics and morality. These are only a few examples of leaders in the entertainment world using their talent and their massive platform to make audiences think beyond the superficial story and really examine moral philosophical scenarios, theories, and topics.
For example, this suspenseful scene from the above-mentioned Nolan film puts a modern and Gotham-style spin on the classic trolley problem of moral philosophy:
Television and movies, whether broadcast, on cable, in theaters, or streaming, command an enormous audience of captive and engaged viewers. The result is a tremendous reach and power for creators of these artforms. As Uncle Ben told a young Peter Parker / Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility” (The Amazing Spider-Man). This sentiment is hardly original to to Spiderman, though. We see a similar declaration in the New Testament: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48 NAB).
Considering the giant platform writers, directors and producers of television and film have, one must ponder what obligations come with this dominance in media. It is arguable that these creators inherit a certain social responsibility to use their power not only to entertain, but to educate. (Remember the three primary functions of the mass media: inform, educate, and entertain.)
Certainly not every film or every episode of a TV series should preach ethics, but perhaps the great responsibility that comes with the power of television and film is to present moral, philosophical, and sociological issues to its audience in the relatable, digestible format of storytelling.
The Amazing Spider-Man. Number 38. Marvel Comics. 2002.
The New American Bible. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. usccb.org