A Special Issue of the Journal of Media Psychology on media and moral understanding
Guest Editors: Carl Plantinga, Allison Eden, Dan Levin, Murray Smith
The invention of motion pictures in the late 19th century produced one of the most
visible and powerful modern art forms. Mediated screen stories have become
ubiquitous in contemporary culture, and content creators have discovered powerful
ways to direct the viewer’s attention and elicit impactful responses. Thus it is important
to understand this great artform and its relationship to viewer knowledge and
understanding. Can these mediated stories on screens have the salutary effect of
increasing viewers’ moral understanding? Which media, what sorts of media, and what
techniques and forms used in media, are most effective in encouraging moral learning
and understanding? This special issue is designed to feature theoretical and empirical
work investigating the role media plays in the development of viewers’ moral
Media and Moral Understanding
At a time when the art of narrative film and media streaming services occupy a
central place in contemporary culture, it is vital to ask questions about the role mediated
narratives play in the development of viewers’ moral lives. To do so, we ask how media is
related to viewer moral understanding. We define moral understanding as a deep set of
normative inferences. These inferences support viewers’ ability to ask pertinent moral
questions, they help viewers understand why in addition to knowing that, they assist in
categorization of situations and behaviors, and they help viewers make connections
among morally-charged situations that have common underlying meaning. Moral
understanding begins with our personal responsibilities and integrity, but extends
outward with implications for all of the key social and political issues of the day. Moral
understanding is not limited to matters of personal morality such as kindness, loyalty,
and betrayal, important as those are. It also extends to concerns for justice, fairness,
liberty, and oppression in the broader cultural context.
● Can Dead Man Walking (1995) further our understanding of the moral
implications of the death penalty? If so, does it do so in relation to the viewer’s
engagement with convicted murderer Mathew Poncelet and/or his benefactor
Sister Helen Prejean?
● Can Do the Right Thing (1989) or The Help (2011) increase our understanding of
racism and its implications—and how do the prior experiences with this issue
impact how different viewers read these texts and reflect upon them?
● Do post-viewing discussions or reflections on the films deepen our
● Can Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teach us something about the nature
of romantic relationships and our obligations to our partners?
● Can Saving Private Ryan (1998) increase our understanding of the nature of
loyalty, sacrifice, and courage in a wartime context?
● By extension, are viewers most influenced by characters they admire, such as
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan, or can moral learning
occur through oppositional stances to antagonists, for example, the oppositional
stance viewers are meant toward David Duke (Topher Grace) in BlacKkKlansman?
● Do characters that engage in morally ambiguous behavior, elicit more post-film
reflection than conventionally “good” characters?
● Do narratives reflecting moral issues such as Just Mercy and The Hate U Give
impact moral understanding in similar ways as evocative documentaries like 13th,
or do the forms and structures of these films impact their effects?
Although these research questions can be fundamental to understanding the
relationship between media and moral understanding, conceptual confusion and lack of
clear definition and measurement has obfuscated results and understanding across
disciplinary subfields. Thus, parallel and often isolated lines of work on media and moral
understanding are occurring in multiple subfields bounded by disciplinary silos.
Therefore, this special issue solicits papers addressing these questions from multiple
disciplinary perspectives and approaches. We are interested in the interaction between
media and moral understanding from a wide variety of perspectives, and hope authors
will be up to the challenge of explaining their perspective for readers outside their own
academic domain. We realize interdisciplinary work can be difficult to assess, which is
why our editorial team draws from scholars in communication, philosophy of film, film
theory, media psychology and cognitive psychology.
Example topics that would be of interest to the editor team:
● What is the role of the viewer’s engagement with fictional characters in generating
moral understanding? What behaviors, traits, and content cues impact how characters
are perceived as moral/immoral and morally ambiguous? Broadly, what sorts of
engagement with characters generate moral understanding?
● Can we construct a critical framework for engaging with media that shapes our moral
experience? What moral value is there in understanding viewer responses? Should
creators take viewer or fan response into account when incorporating moral dilemmas in
narrative or other art? How do creative approaches to screenwriting shape moral
dilemmas produced in television and film?
● What do the disciplines of media psychology, film and media studies, literary studies,
cognitive neuroscience, and philosophical aesthetics have to teach each other about
these issues? How can we foster interdisciplinary cooperation in research about the
relationship between character engagement, post-viewing reflection, and moral
● What tools and methods can we use to examine morally-laden content to examine
patterns in morality on screen and its subsequent effects on audiences? How do
immersive and interactive media encourage moral thinking and moral decision making
among users? What can database approaches, experimental work, artificial intelligence,
or computational modeling contribute to the study of morality and media?
● What cognitions and judgements contribute to moral evaluations of media content?
How does theory of mind relate to moral understanding? Where do perspective taking
and identification fit in our frameworks of morality and media? What role do emotions
and affective states play in media appraisals of morality/immorality (e.g., disgust, humor
& satire, etc)?
● How do the social ties and networks of characters and users impact their thinking on
moral topics? What are shifting norms in media and how does the portrayal of norms in
media content affect viewers? How does the culture in which media are created affect
the presentation of moral issues in text or on screen, and how can we interpret
culturally-bound texts intended for disparate audiences?
Criteria for Selecting Manuscripts
Papers are welcome from all countries and cultures and with diverse methods, from large
surveys to small qualitative studies and ethnographies
Timeline and Criteria for Sending Proposals
Preliminary proposals are due November 15 for priority consideration, although proposals can
be submitted on a rolling basis. Proposals should include a tentative title and a 300–500 word
description of the proposed paper.
All abstracts must be sent to the Guest Editors via email. Please send to both Allison Eden
(email@example.com) and Carl Plantinga (firstname.lastname@example.org) when submitting.
Decisions about consideration in the special issue will be made by December 15 with full papers
due 6 months afterwards on 15 May 2023, for a target publication date in late 2023. Please note
that approval of a proposal will not guarantee publication. All submitted full papers will be
anonymously peer-reviewed and will follow the Journal of Media Psychology’s editorial process.
Authors may be asked to review other papers for the special issue.
Manuscript Preparation and Submission
To submit a manuscript, please follow the manuscript submission guidelines as detailed under
“Instructions to Authors” on the journal’s website (http://www.hgf.io/ jmp) and select the name
of this special issue when submitting through JMP’s editorial management system at http://
Address your cover letter to the special issue’s Editor, and note in your cover letter that your
manuscript is being submitted for consideration for publication in the special issue on “Screen
Stories and Moral Understanding”.
Any questions about proposals should be directed to the special issue Guest Editors:
Questions regarding editorial process should be sent to the Editor-in-Chief (email@example.com).