The Moral Development of Journalists: A Comparison with Other Professions and a Model for Predicting High Quality Ethical Reasoning

By Coleman, Renita; Wilkins, Lee | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

The Moral Development of Journalists: A Comparison with Other Professions and a Model for Predicting High Quality Ethical Reasoning


Coleman, Renita, Wilkins, Lee, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study gathered baseline data on the moral development of 249 professional journalists. Journalists scored fourth highest among professionals tested, ranking behind seminarians/philosophers, medical students, and physicians, but above dental students, nurses, graduate students, undergraduate college students,veterinary students,and adults in general. No significant differences were found between various groups of journalists, including men and women, and broadcast and print journalists; journalists who did civic journalism or investigative reporting scored significantly higher than those who did not. A regression anah/sis points to five factors predictive of higher moral development in journalists-doing investigative journalism, a high degree of choice at work, moderate religiosity, a strong internal sense of right and wrong, and viewing rules and law as less important than other factors.

The debate rages over why journalists' ethical decision making goes wrong, whether they are capable of doing it well, and how to improve it. Since the 1970s, journalism has been occupied with its own "ethics movement" -media ethics courses have tripled, and ethics is a staple at annual conferences and in academic and professional literature.1

Despite this scrutiny, no study has yet examined the ethical reasoning of a large-scale sample of journalists in the objective and quantitative way that other professions have been studied. Instruments that measure moral development have been administered to tens of thousands whose professions require them to make moral choices. Doctors, nurses, dentists, accountants, military personnel, and myriad others have been measured and ranked along a continuum of moral development,2 but not journalists. This study helps fill that void by gathering baseline data on a national sample of 249 journalists in order to compare journalists to other professionals, to compare subgroups of journalists, and to discover what characteristics of journalists best predict high quality ethical reasoning.

This work is important for understanding how journalists reason about ethical issues and for placing those findings into a larger, professional context. The ethical choices journalists make are crucial to the profession's credibility. By knowing the level that journalists are starting from, we can design better educational and professional efforts to move journalists to higher stages. By expanding on the foundation they have already established, these programs can address the specific areas where journalists are weak, and build on the strengths they have mastered. With specific information about the influences that significantly predict higher levels of moral development in journalists, we can focus our efforts at those factors for maximum effectiveness.

Literature Review

Classical Ethical Theory and Moral Development. The concept of moral development has roots in classical philosophy. Aristotle3 believed ethical character was developed through daily living. This concept of virtuous people doing virtuous things was carried forward essentially unchanged until the twentieth century when scholars began to document how the human psyche grows and changes, what psychologists now label "development." Moral development is the change in how people think about ethical issues over time, partly in response to the development of other portions of the individual, for example, the intellect, and partly in response to the environment.

Piaget4 provided the academic foundation for the field when he studied boys playing marbles and found the way stations of moral growth. As the boys aged, their understanding of rules changed according to a pattern. Younger children were aware of a codified set of rules but played individually. The rules themselves were sacred, emanated from authority figures, lasted forever, and applied to all-absolutely. In later stages, the boys internalized the rules and the reasons for them. …

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