Journalism Ethics Classes: Do They Make Better Journalists?

By Barger, Wendy; Elliott, Deni | The Quill, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Journalism Ethics Classes: Do They Make Better Journalists?


Barger, Wendy, Elliott, Deni, The Quill


At the turn of the 21st century, nearly all university journalism programs in America offer free-standing courses in ethics or integrate ethics teaching into skills courses. The Journal of Mass Media Ethics is 16 years old; Brill's Content, Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review are steeped in ethics content and are must-reads for most professionals in the field; think-tanks like the Poynter Institute and The American Press Institute offer workshops and short courses in ethics for working reporters and editors; and the Society of Professional Journalists distributes its Code of Ethics and endorses an online ethics discussion group.

Yet media muck-ups, abuses of journalistic privilege and situations of questionable ethical conduct in news gathering and reporting continue.

Published and electronic outlets are full of examples that should make news managers wince. Remember, for example, that in the popular version of the Elian Gonzalez rescue, a school of dolphins protected the boy until a fisherman rescued him. In fact, said NBC News correspondent Keith Morrison, the animals were dolphin game fish - not the mammal personified by "Flipper" - and the "fisherman" had never gone fishing before that day. Reporters and news directors seemed to choose telling a good story over ethical reporting. News organizations down the food chain repeated the narrative without checking it out.

Should we assume that none of the journalists involved with the Elian coverage took an ethics course, or is there more to it, just as there was more to the Elian story? Should ethics courses equate to more ethical practice? What is reasonable to expect from two decades of serious attention to journalism ethics?

Journalism ethics educators hope their students will become ethical practitioners, of course. But making journalists into good people is not necessarily the goal of journalism ethics instruction; instead, most educators say they focus on teaching students to make sound decisions.

In Garrett Ray's ethics courses at Colorado State University, he works to teach students to make more ethical decisions on deadline. Ray uses the classical theories of Aristotle, Confucius, Mill and others as well as several methods of ethical decision-making. He makes connections to professional practice on both the micro-level (is it ethical to steal a document that I think contains information the public should know?) and on the macro-level (what are the implications for freedom of information in the growing concentration of media ownership?). Ray says his students begin to see how these theories and processes lead directly to better decision-making in real situations that students will encounter in the newsroom.

And that's what journalism ethics courses ought to be doing, according to Peggy Kuhr, managing editor of The Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash. They should be teaching critical thinking and identification of ethical issues. Journalism ethics instructors do not have the responsibility of creating "good" practitioners, but she sees the impact of ethics instruction in today's newsroom. "There's a lot more day-today discussion now [of ethics];' she said. "I think that reporters are more aware than they were in the past:' When an ethical problem emerges in the newsroom, "it is not the first time that they've heard about it:'

Other journalism educators believe that courses should contain a solid philosophical underpinning and, at the same time, emphasize the development of skills in ethical analysis. To do this, Ralph Barney of Brigham Young University says that stand-alone ethics courses are essential. Historically, Barney says, journalism ethics training was integrated into professional skills or law courses. It relied too much on the common practices and accepted values of the newsroom environment, and students were rarely asked to question the foundations of those beliefs. Perhaps the biggest problem with this approach, according to Barney, is that it centered on what journalists should do in their narrow world with the audience only vaguely implied and almost never discussed. …

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