Journalists and their news organizations often find themselves under attack for ethical lapses. But at this when such accusations seem more frequent and intense, we decided to test journalists' ethical decision-making. The results of our study offer a much needed reminder that the notorious and well-known practices of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass are more than counterweighted by good decisions made daily by reporters and editors who are less well known and who work a lot closer to home.
These good decisions and the people who make them are at the core of our look at moral development in journalists. These findings appear in our book, "The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics." After testing a national sample of journalists we found that those who do this work are both able and subtle moral thinkers. Their ability to reason about ethical questions in a sophisticated way compares very favorably with those who work in other professions. Only philosophers, theologians and medical doctors show better results than journalists when given the Defining Issues Test (DIT), the one we used in our study.
Developed in the 1970's by a Minnesota psychologist, the DIT presents respondents with six ethical scenarios, asking them to make a choice and then to rank the reasons for that choice. For example, the DIT asks whether you would report a neighbor who has lived an exemplary life for more than a decade to law enforcement if you learned about an old but significant crime. In this test, it is not the choice but the reasons for making it that matter most: Those who rank self-interest and conformity above more universal ethical principles generally score lower than those who think for themselves and apply ethical principles evenly to all people. In the three decades since it was developed, the test has been given to more than 20,000 people and the results reported in more than 400 published studies across a wide range of professions. (A compendium of these results is at the University of Minnesota so scholars can compare their findings with those of others.)
Until we began our research, no one had ever given the DIT to a large sample of journalists. Those whom we tested represented a cross-section of journalists who are close demographically to the most recent random survey of working journalists conducted by researchers at Indiana University. The 249 journalists who participated in our study worked at print and broadcast outlets. They averaged 14 years of on-the-job experience, were geographically distributed throughout the nation, and were ethnically diverse in proportions that represent the profession as a whole.
Not only did these journalists generally do well on the paper and pencil portion of the test, but when asked to give reasons--in their words--it was apparent they were thinking hard and balancing competing ethical values, such as truth-telling and privacy as well as the harm done to individuals compared with the good that news stories can do for both individuals and society. Journalists, this test showed, considered the law important, but they also told us about other duties and obligations. For example, they thought about community, about their sources and subjects, and about their news organizations as they made these decisions.
We asked journalists about their personal beliefs as well as their professional experiences to see if certain aspects of their life and work histories influenced their thinking. Women and men showed themselves equally strong when it came to ethical thinking, as were broadcasters and print journalists. Those who said they placed less emphasis on religion scored better than those who said they placed more importance on religion, as did those journalists who said they viewed the law and news organization policies as very important compared to those who said they placed somewhat less emphasis on these two elements.
A dividing line …