Does Class Matter? the Effect of Social Class on Journalists' Ethical Decision Making

Article excerpt

This study investigated experimentally whether social class of people who appear in news stories influences Chilean journalists' ethical reasoning. Based on schema, social identity, and moral development theories, it found that journalists applied lower levels of ethical reasoning when faced with an ethical dilemma associated with the poor, an effect moderated by participants' involvement in the story. Psychological mechanisms-such as involvement, mental elaboration about stories' subjects, and identification with them - influenced participants' ethical thinking.

Social class is a commanding force shaping news media production that is often overlooked. Because class is associated with income, power, and status,1 it is pivotal in the news-making process and journalists' work. As Gans2 wrote: "The news deals mostly with those who hold the power... with the most powerful officials in the most powerful agencies; with... people [who] dominate the socioeconomic hierarchy."

However, class is scarcely mentioned in newsrooms and few studies on news media deal with it.3 The poor are both underrepresented in news coverage and linked to negative stereotypes and criminality.4 This negative coverage of the poor occurs in the United States and elsewhere,5 but is especially relevant in countries such as Chile, where socioeconomic inequality is a defining aspect of society.

Although work routines and organizational and extra-media pressures shape news content6 and explain, in part, this bias against the poor,7 it has been argued that individual reporters' prejudices also play a role.8 Most journalists are college-educated people who Lisually report about their known environment9 and who have been socialized in a profession and in organizations that tend to value more powerful sectors of society.1" Consequently, they may rely on stereotypes when covering people from lower socioeconomic classes. This may occur when faced with an ethical decision such as, for instance, deciding whether to publish a story, how to publish it, or when to run it.

This study investigates experimentally whether the social class of individuals who appear in news stories influences the ethical reasoning of Chilean journalists. Ethical reasoning is defined as people's judgment of which alternative is more morally justifiable, just, or right." Based on schema, social identity, and moral development theories, the study hypothesizes that journalists will show lower levels of ethical reasoning when news stories' subjects are from lower classes (out-group members) than when they are from middle and upper classes (in-group members). The study also explores the extent to which stereotypes based on class are automatically associated with certain social issues affecting journalists' ethical thinking. Finally, it examines the effects of psychological mechanisms - involvement, mental elaboration, and identification with the subjects of the stories - on journalists' ethical reasoning.

Negative media coverage of the poor may have harmful consequences for society because the media perpetuate misleading images that may inhibit the bridging of social inequalities. Although many factors affect unequal media coverage of some social groups, it is relevant to study the impact of news subjects' class background on journalists' moral judgment because ethical decisions may have a concrete impact on media content.12 Additionally, internalized prejudices may be suppressed by becoming aware of these negative perceptions, and by making a conscious effort to overcome them.13 Such efforts may be a first step toward better media coverage.

Because poverty has been racialized in the U.S. news,14 the stereotypes of poverty are often associated with racial minorities. Gilens,15 for example, revealed that poverty coverage was disproportionately dominated by black faces. To exclude confounding factors such as the activation of underlying racial stereotypes with class, this study was conducted in Chile. …