The Ethics Of Reality Television Questionable Media Essay


Reality television is an ever popular genre viewed by millions of people all around the world. It is a form of entertainment that no other television genres could outshine. However, the question has now arisen as to whether the ethics of reality television shows are indeed questionable by the society.

Based on the evidence, it is clear that the ethics of reality television are most certainly doubtful when they defeat their purpose of portraying the realities of life to the nation. Moreover, reality shows neglect the welfare of participants and refuse to acknowledge the effects it has on its audience in the United States of America and Great Britain, Europe.

Therefore, it is time for reality television shows to rethink their actions in violating their ethical code for the benefit of the show. They should realize that people are now aware of the ethics involved in the production of reality television shows and will definitely question them. Thus, the ethics of reality shows should be preserved.


“In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”

– Kant, I

(BrainyQuote 2010)

Reality television connects people to the real world. Shows like Survivor, Amazing Race and The Bachelor have captivated audiences all around the world with its drama and raw emotions of ordinary people and not of paid actors. Adults, teens and even children as young as five years old are glued to their television as soon as these reality shows air. Reality shows, just like any other television programs has its ethics that needs to be responsibly preserved and honored.

Lately, new reality shows are widely sprouting but their ethics have altered to meet its demand in today’s world. As stated in ‘’, the media have realized that the so-

called “reality” shows are in fact profitable and therefore has grown in the recent years, (n.d., p.1 of 5). Although these ethics may have changed to attract more viewers in this modern age and to boost television ratings, some of these ethics are still judged upon by society.

Even though, a number of reality shows strongly follows its ethical and moral code, society never fails to pose the age-old question, which is, are the ethics of reality television shows questionable?

As years goes on, we see that the ethics of reality television shows are definitely questionable. There are many issues that relates to this statement which are the authenticity of reality shows, its effect on participants as well as audiences in the society.

The reasons why the ethics of reality shows are questionable are shown in this report. The evidence and issues discussed in this report is confined to the United States of America and Great Britain, Europe as most of the reality shows are created in these countries and thus provides a wide range of evidence in the completion of this report.

2.0 The Authenticity of Reality Television Shows

Reality television shows are meant to portray the essence of reality. These shows are created to show the audiences about all the different life situations that they can relate to with their own lives. Thus, ‘reality’ should be the main component of these shows. However, most reality shows nowadays, like ‘Who wants to be a superhero?’ and ‘Survivor’ are deceiving its audiences in the name of ‘reality’. The authenticity of reality television shows are slowly fading in this modern time due to the development of high tech equipments. Killborn argued that the deceiving reality shows are bringing viewers further away from reality rather than closer.

2.1 Editing tricks are a major part

Most reality television shows are not authentic as producers encourage the use of editing tricks to produce shows with higher ratings. The reality of life is not exciting or thrilling enough to capture viewers’ attention. Producers of these reality shows, create a better viewing pleasure by using sophisticated software to enhance the visual effect of these simple shows. Thus, a virtual reality is created by them. “Similarly, virtual reality simply provides reality deprived of its substance, without the ‘hard, resistant kernel’ of the real” (King, G 2005). There are also times where the scenes in reality shows are not accurate. The time and place stated in these shows does not coherent with its reality. Sometimes two different scenes from two different places are combined together to add the dramatic effect. Most of the time, audiences would not know the truth behind these scenes. For example, in the reality series called ‘Joe Millionaire’, a lot of editing was done and even the participants did not know about the editing until they themselves watch the show. A make-out scene in the woods was edited using sound effects from a different scene on that show as stated by Paul in Reality Reel Media. Another example is seen in Survivor where body doubles were used in certain shots. ‘Gervase (a cast of Survivor) admitted that he did spend some time during the day doing nothing but was blown out of proportion on the show’, (Paul 2004). In conclusion, audiences are not watching a reality show but a movie that disguises itself as a reality television show.

2.2 Scripted to be dramatic

Survivor, Real World, the Bachelor and other reality shows are all scripted shows. A scripted show cannot be real as the incidents and drama in the show are written out and are acted by participants. These scripts are prepared to add twist and turns in a reality series. Dramas in real life are too bland and are not enough to obtain the attention of viewers who are always busy in today’s fast pacing world. Drama is added by asking participants of a show to act out a certain way. When the scripts ask them to cry, they cry. When the scripts ask them to get into trouble with the other participants, they get into trouble. The participants do not argue with the scripts because they do not want to be discredited from the show. For example, as stated by Paul, Brian Dunkleman from American Idol 1 refused to exaggerate the situation with Simon as directed by the directors of that show. Thus, he was left out of American idol 2. Some reality shows even have scripts that determined the winner of the show even before it airs. Audiences think that they might be a part of selecting the winner but in reality they do not. In the last episode of Joe Schmo, Hutch the jerk was scripted to win, (Huff 2006). Several reality shows have real participants with no scripts but the show is then manipulated by the host who follows a script. Killborn believed that one of the responsibilities of the host is to add the dramatic appeal of the show by playing off participants against each other. In conclusion, scripted reality shows are not real and do not give justice to the term ‘reality’ in reality television.

Emotions and talents portrayed are real

In shows like American Idol, the emotions of participants are real and so are the talents. Each season, thousands of people from all over America audition by singing their hearts out in front of judges and the camera to get the chance to be the next American Idol. Their voices are real and not edited in any way. They are also judged upon by professional judges who know about the music industry. The emotions that overwhelmed them as they get the ‘golden ticket’ to Hollywood are priceless. Some can be seen crying as they come out of the audition room and some can be seen leaping with joy as they wave the ticket in the air and hug their loved ones. None of these can be imitated in anyway.

However, not all shows are like American Idol. Shows like the Bachelor and Beauty and the Geek does not portray real emotions and talents. These shows use carefully hand-picked participants. They want participants who shape their talents and manipulate their own emotions for the sake of the show. For instance, if the show wanted a participant to be good at skating, they will just ask the participant to practice skating a few days before shooting the scene. Producers of these shows want participants who look ordinary but able to perform any task given to them without hesitation. Most of these participants do not have any talents. They are forced to develop certain talents just for certain scenes. Thus, these talents are not real.

‘What they are seeking is an ability to project an aura of real-life ordinariness coupled with an ability to accomplish a series of tasks with some measure of aplomb…’,(Killborn 2003).

In conclusion, emotions and talents are sometimes real in reality shows but most reality shows fake the emotions and talents in order to save time, money and increase its ratings.

3.0 The negative effects on participants

‘Speaking at the Guardian Edinburgh TV Festival, Dr James said he feared that people could actually be “damaged” by taking part in programs like Big Brother and Temptation Island.’

(BBC NEWS, 2001)

The ethics of reality television also includes the well-being of its participants. Participants are the ‘actors’ of a reality show. Thus, they are an essential part to any reality show. A participants’ responsibility is to attract audiences to watch their show, thus enabling them to gain fame and fortune. However, participants are just treated like money-making puppets by producers. This greatly affects the participants in a negative way. Most participants in nowadays reality television are psychologically and physically tortured. Besides that, their personalities are portrayed wrongly by the media. Therefore, it is quite certain that the ethics of reality television shows based on the interest of participants are indeed questionable.

3.1 Psychological damage

On February 17, 2005, Najai, a contestant of ‘The Contender’ committed suicide when faced with defeat as reported on PRWeb. The thought of losing and being humiliated in front of millions of people, drives participants of reality shows to a psychological breakdown. These participants strive for fame and fortune but what they do not realize is that on a reality show, the cost of fame and fortune is their pride and humility. After all, one of the reasons why people watch reality shows is to see these participants humiliate themselves in front of millions of people.

Besides that, participants also lose hope and faith in their life after being on a reality show. For example, a contestant on American Idol lost all faith in life when he did not receive any positive feedback after all his hardwork in improving himself on the show as stated in PRWeb. How many people must lose faith and hope in life before producers of these shows realize the effect their reality shows have on its participants? It is likely that producers of reality shows would not care for their participants now or in the future. To them, it is all about the money that these reality shows rake in.

‘Something like this is done for no other reason than to embarrass people or humiliate them or scare them. The producers don’t care about human feelings. They don’t care about being decent. They only care about money.’ (, nd)

3.2 Fake Profiles of Participants

Do you know that almost all participants of reality shows like ‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother’ are not the same in real life as they are seen on television? They are portrayed wrongfully on television in order to fit the script created by the show. stated that Manigault-Stallworth, a contestant on ‘The Apprentice’ became “the most hated woman on television” because of the way she behaved or shown to behave on that show. They did not film her when she was smiling or when she was doing something positive, they only captured her bad side and even edited the footage to make her seem like an evil and cruel character that people love to hate.

The television world is littered with people who have appeared on reality shows and then complained later that the way they were presented in no way reflects them in real life, (Huff, R.M 2006). Participants of reality shows have to live with these so called ‘characters’ that they were labeled by the show in their everyday life. Unlike actors, once a participant is presented in a way, they can never change it. Society sees them as the characters they were on television. This effects participants negatively especially in their careers. Most participants cannot get a proper job after appearing on a reality show because of their fake profiles that were created on the show. Friends and family are shocked as well when they witness their loved ones behaving differently on the show compared to real life. Some families are left in shame by the society when one of their family members is portrayed negatively on a show. Therefore, it is undeniable that reality shows affects participants negatively and thus goes against its ethics.

Instant Fame and Fortune

There’s only one thing that all participants look forward to in any reality show and that is fame, followed by fortune. Participants get instant fame from the moment they appear on a reality show. Shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘So you think you can dance?’ give ordinary people from everyday life at least 15minutes of fame during their auditions. This fame, even though small, can give participants great amount of satisfaction. Not only that, reality shows also gives participants individual empowerment. They feel more alive after participating on a reality show especially if they were the winners of the show because of all the publicity they obtain from it.

However, fame and fortune is not a good thing for some participants. Some gain bad fame but no fortune what-so-ever from their participation. Their reputations are tarnished because of the strive they had to win the money. It is true that money drives people to do great things but money also drives people to do stupid and god forsaken stunts. People will cry, fight, hurt themselves and even strip naked in front of a camera if it will give them a chance of winning the money. Thus, when the show ends, all that is left with the losing participants are bad fame and no money. Karim believed that the reasons why participants are obsessed with being on a show are the fame, the fortune and the rise in their social status but they do not realize the negative effects of this obsession. This obsession can bring out the worst of people and that’s exactly what the producers want when selecting their participants.

Therefore, reality shows may bring fame and fortune to participants, but they also affect participants negatively and could ruin their life in society.

4.0 Negative impact on audiences

Reality television has become so popular that almost half of the world’s population spends their free time watching it. Reality television shows holds no age boundary and thus people of all age and social status are obsess with these shows especially those that are rich and young. The graphs below show the relationship between ages, social status and education with the frequency of reality show viewing:

(Adapted: Soong, R 2003)

(Adapted: Soong, R 2003)

However, many of these audiences do not realize the effects that reality television shows have on them, most of which are negative. Audiences get too attached with these reality shows and find it hard to differentiate what is right and wrong when watching these shows. Therefore, the ethics of reality television are questioned when they affect its audience negatively.

4.1 Moral values are neglected

Why do we bother to learn and teach moral if it is all thrown out of the window in the making of reality shows? Reality shows encourages negative values such as cheating, stealing and lying in order to be rewarded with money, (G Band New Media Class 2003). Almost all reality shows encourages these bad behavior, from ‘Survivor’ to ‘Real World’. This is because participants show there true human nature when money is waved in front of them. However, if everyone who watches these shows upholds these negative values, what would the world come to? People will get into fights, call out names, sneak behind one’s back and the world will be filled with heartless people climbing up their social ladders. Moral values and trust would be a thing of the past.

Rationalization, an important moral value is also emptied out from children’s mind due to reality television. Civitillo stated that reality shows presents danger to society as children who see stunts done by participants does not realize that it is staged and done under the watchful eye of professional stunt coordinators. Children think that just because the stunts are done by ordinary people, they could perform it as well. For example, in MTV’s ‘Jackass’, the character Johnny Knoxville perform a painful stunt of being a human barbeque and this stunt was imitated by children all across the world after the show aired despite the show displaying “Do not try this at home” before every stunt, (Civitillo, V 2001). However, the producers of this show do not want to acknowledge the connection between their show and the number of children casualties around the world. Thus, the ethics of reality television are questioned when they put their audiences’ lives at stake.

4.2 Emotional attachment

G band new media class stated that people sometimes hate watching reality shows because they do not want to end up believing that they are involved with the participants of the show. They are afraid of being emotionally attached to the participants. It is hard not to form bonds with the participants even though they are half way across the world. The moment you start rooting for a particular participant to win on a show, you are already forming a bond with that person. You get sad when they lose and excited when they win challenges on the show. This is common for audiences to experience. However, the ethics of reality television are crossed when audiences fall into deep emotional attachment with these participants. This is when audiences get into fights with one another over the outcome of the show. They believe that they are defending their friend rather than just a contestant of a reality show.

Producers of reality shows tend to dramatize their show by revealing secrets and inner thoughts of participants. They expose the personalities and characters of the participants so much that the audiences believe that they know the participants since childhood, as if they were their best friends. Thus, they form strong relationships with these participants. A relationship like this could psychologically damage an audience especially when they realize that the participant they like is not who they think he or she was. Therefore, this negatively affects the audiences.

New skills and Knowledge

Reality shows provide audiences with a wide range of general knowledge that can help them in their everyday life. Shows like ‘Survivor’ teach viewers how to survive in an unpleasant situation. Viewers learn what are poisonous in the jungle and what type of food you can survive on if you are ever stranded in a jungle. Besides that, viewers also learn new skills when they watch reality shows. ‘American idol’ has encourage its viewers especially teenagers to learn singing. Children and teens start to pay more attention in their performing arts after watching reality shows like ‘So you think you can dance’.

On the other hand, reality shows have diverted viewer’s attention away from global issues. People are more focused on watching reality shows rather than concerning themselves with the issues in their life. Truth It stated that people spend their time invested in watching reality shows but do not care about the issues in the United States and around the world. Viewers also use reality television as an escape from the realities of their lives, (Killborn 2003). Issues of everyday life are neglected but fake issues are what concern the audiences these days.

Therefore, reality television does affect audiences negatively. Thus, it is true to say that the ethics of reality television are questionable.


We watch reality shows almost everyday in our life. We love watching it as it is entertaining and a great way to pass our time. Producers make these reality shows and people watch it. It is a simple relationship. Then, why are the ethics of these reality television shows continue to be questionable?

The ethics of reality shows was once on its right path. However, the new age specifically the age of the materialistic world, has made the ethics to take a turn to a wrong path. The ethics have diverted so far from its rightful path that the authenticity of reality shows fades away, not to mention the effects it has on its participants and audience.

As Thomas Jefferson once said “Money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nation.”, (BrainyQuote). The trust that people have on reality television should not be exploited for money. Producers of these shows should protect the trust of their audience and not their bank accounts. Do we want to live in a world that lies to us through our television? Or do we want to live in a world where reality television shows can be trusted to portray the reality of life without affecting anyone negatively?


Reality television is becoming more and more popular these days. However, the more popular a reality show gets, the more the society questions its ethics. Thus, further work has to be done to preserve the ethics of reality television in order to silence the questions posed by the society. The following recommendations have been made to solve the problems of reality television shows ethics based on the evidence shown throughout the United States of America and Great Britain, Europe.

One of the ethics of reality television that is questioned by the society is its authenticity. People despise being deceived by reality shows that undergo a lot of editing and are sometimes scripted. Therefore, this report recommends further work to:

Preserve the authenticity of reality shows by creating shows that is more believable and closer to reality.

Avoid the use of technology to edit or enhance a reality show. Thus, making these shows more like real life where editing and enhancement are not possible.

Portray the spontaneity of reality. Scripted reality shows are just like the movies. People want to see genuine reactions to real life situations where nothing is predictable and thus bringing the element of surprise to the audience.

Another problem people face when dealing with reality television is its effects on its participants. Participants who volunteer themselves for these shows should be treated fairly and not exploited for the shows benefits. Thus, further work is recommended to:

Care for the health and welfare of those who participate. Participants are people too and therefore producers of reality television should take care of participants’ physical and mental health throughout production.

Maintain humanity when creating a reality show. Participants are to portray their true selves in a reality show. Their personalities are not supposed to be reflected wrongly by these reality shows.

Produce reality shows in the interest of the participants and not to boost ratings. Participants’ views and opinions as well as their comments should be taken into consideration by producer when producing a reality show.

Reality shows also violate their ethics when they affect their audiences negatively. Audiences’ morality should not be thrown out of the window when watching reality shows, nor should their thirst for knowledge. Hence, additional work is recommended to:

Impose proper values and actions in reality shows like kindness, loyalty and perseverance in winning a game. Children tend to take the expression ‘monkey see, monkey do’ literally and thus stunts, evil actions and bad languages should not be revealed in reality shows.

Minimize the exposure of personal thoughts and lives of participants to audiences to avoid the audiences from being too attached to the participants.

Reduce the amount of reality shows scheduled in a day so that audiences will not be stuck watching reality shows only but will use their leisure time to do something beneficial like reading and exercising.

In addition, further research needs to be done to solve the ethical problems of reality television shows.

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