Prevention Good People from Making Bad Decision

By Johnson, Michelle | The Quill, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Prevention Good People from Making Bad Decision


Johnson, Michelle, The Quill


Study shows need to incorporate ethics education throughout the journalism curriculum.

In the past two decades, the number of colleges and universities teaching ethics in journalism and mass communication programs more than doubled. In the past decade, the number of books devoted to media ethics doubled, and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the largest organization of journalism professors, created a division devoted to teaching and researching ethics.

How does this activity affect journalism students?

A new study confirmed what many journalism instructors instinctively know - ethics instruction "cannot turn an immoral individual into a moral one." But, say authors Byung Lee and George Padgett, teaching ethics can help prevent good people from making bad decisions.

The two professors studied the effects of a law and ethics course on students at Elon College in North Carolina, where they teach. Elon does not offer a course devoted to ethics in its journalism and mass communications curriculum. Instead, ethics instruction is incorporated in reporting, law and other communications classes. Studies by scholars Clifford Christians and Edmund Lambeth show that the Elon model is widely used.

From 1984 to 1993, the number of colleges and universities offering courses devoted solely to journalism or communication ethics increased by 56 percent. But the number of schools incorporating ethics modules in existing classes increased by 825 percent. The most recent figures show 183 colleges and universities had media ethics courses, while 222 incorporated ethics instruction in a variety of classes.

Colleges often incorporated ethics instruction into other classes because they do not have the staff or the space in their curriculum to offer stand-alone courses, Lee said. The growth in specialization, with student demand for classes in online communication, public relations and broadcasting as well as traditional print journalism, resulted in a proliferation of courses that stress smaller schools' resources, he said.

The study at Elon found that ethics instruction given during four or five weeks of a semester did not significantly change students' values. Lee said the results were expected.

"Change is gradual, and it requires thinking for a long time," he said.

The researchers looked at two factors: end values, such as having freedom, and the way in which results were achieved, such as acting fairly. They distinguished between competence values and moral values. Competence values include behaving logically or, in a journalist's case, showing initiative or creativity. Moral values include showing responsibility or being honest. Many journalism skills courses stress competence values.

"The ethics course puts the journalism course in perspective, rather than just getting the story," Lee said.

At Elon, about 40 percent of the students showed less enthusiasm for using investigative methods after taking the ethics and law course. Lee said that result is positive.

"I have seen some idealistic students who give up the field because of the way investigative work is done," he said. Young journalists without a solid grounding in ethics sometimes use investigative techniques in a destructive manner and then regret their actions, he explained. Students benefit from slowing down to consider the possible effects of their actions.

"Ethics is important, like the brakes on your car," Lee said.

Journalists and the public often have unreasonable expectations of media ethics courses, said Virginia Whitehouse, an associate professor at Whitworth College. Other studies showed that when teachers focus on a particular value, such as freedom, students recognize that value as important to society, even if it is not part of their personal value system. But most professors don't try to force "ethical" values on their students; Whitehouse said.

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