New Directions in Ethics

By Christian, Sue Ellen | The Quill, April 2003 | Go to article overview

New Directions in Ethics


Christian, Sue Ellen, The Quill


Educators consider shifting the focus of classroom ethics discussions.

Young journalists fresh out of college might well stock their newsroom bookcases with a few useful holdovers from their backpack: a copy of the AP Stylebook, perhaps a dictionary or thesaurus, and maybe - just maybe - an old ethics textbook.

The ethics textbook, however, may prove more helpful to the publisher or managing editor of the paper to which our rookie has just arrived. Journalism ethics, as it is taught in today's colleges and universities, too often is focused on the power brokers of a newsroom, not on the greenhorn fresh out of school, say many journalism ethics educators. College classroom ethics tend to gravitate toward the public, large-scale and often scintillating cases, such the front-page photo of a dead child, or the story that names a rape victim - the sort of cases that call for newsroom debate among top editors.

But what of the quiet, real-life, day-to-day decisions faced by young reporters? Experts acknowledge that these personal, private and oftentimes subtle quandaries - the ones that occur almost daily between journalists and their consciences - are harder to find in today's journalism ethics instruction. The ethics taught in journalism programs today might not always prepare students-turned-reporters for the job's daily dilemmas.

Should a reporter pursue a tip that might damage a relationship with a strong beat source? What if a source says something important - and then wants it taken off the record? Many of the most difficult questions aren't covered by newsroom policies, and educators are realizing that they also aren't included in classroom discussion.

"If we are going to make this work for students and make it a good transition from talking about ethics in the classroom to doing ethics in the newsroom, we need to supply the real-life context and detail and real-life pressures that happen in a newsroom," said Dave Boeyink, associate professor of journalism and director of media studies at the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Like Boeyink, many in the field see the need for more teaching about such ethical subtleties, but priorities, teaching resources and student interest all get in the way. Virginia Whitehouse, who teaches a capstone course in ethics at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., has put a label on these quiet dilemmas. She calls it "low power ethics."

"We heavily emphasize creating a situation where the student is not the person in charge - not the CEO or the president of the company - because our students are entering an environment in which they don't have a lot of power," she said.

In the current Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Whitehouse argues that in the classroom and in textbooks, educators need to have students take on low-power dilemmas instead of the usual high-powered roles in case studies.

"We want them to see there are ethical questions in the way you write every lead, in the way you phrase a question. If the editor says 'rewrite a news release,' do you pull direct quotes or not? What counts as plagiarism and what doesn't?" asked Whitehouse. "I'm finding there are a lot of editors who think people hold the same ethics that they do, whether it's on using news releases or altering quotes. Do you solve the problem by spelling out every expectation on when a quote should be changed?"

Through case studies in which students assume the low-power position of a new reporter, for example, Whitehouse tries to teach her students skills to articulate their position in a "defendable and appropriate way."

Many others who teach journalism ethics support such an approach, including Clifford G. Christians, a research professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Many complain that medical ethics is geared toward the doctor who makes the medical decision, rather than the nurse, and nurses . …

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