Ethics Are Lived, Not Learned

Article excerpt

Practicing - not preaching - is the best way to help students determine their own ethical creeds.

In 1988, students in my media ethics class at Ohio University analyzed case studies with a news-editorial focus. We used an engaging text, published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors Foundation and the Poynter Institute titled, "Drawing the Line: How 31 editors solved their toughest ethical dilemmas," edited by Frank McCulloch. We would debate, in those preJerry Springer days, such cases as "A Dwarf's Right to Privacy" and "Undercover at Big Nell's."

Students left class either angry or entertained.

Teacher evaluations were great, though I felt like a talk show host. People's opinions were being challenged and their arguments sharpened because of debate, but nobody's mind was being changed. Wasn't that the goal of teaching?

In one month that year, three gifted graduates of Ohio University's E.W Scripps School of Journalism (including a magazine protege) either lost their jobs or were put on notice - not because they lacked the requisite skills, but because they exercised poor judgment at the workplace. I took out files from advisees, interns and recent graduates, rereading correspondence. What was going on?

Several students had complained that editors or supervisors were not coaching them but expecting them to perform. A few were scolded or fired for making personal long-distance calls on company time, being late for work or leaving early without permission, and disturbing other employees on task or assignment.

Exasperated, I interviewed managing editors, general managers and agency and personnel directors of media outlets - five each, as I recall, for newspapers, magazines, advertising, public relations and broadcasting representing sequences in the E.W Scripps School of Journalism. "Why," I asked, "do probationary employees lose jobs?"

The answers were enlightening. Editors and general managers had the same complaints about new hires as agency and personnet directors. In response, I composed a handout with tips for adapting to a work place and sent it to former advisees and current interns.

I also trashed my ethics lectures, realizing:

1 Case studies don't work because students with underdeveloped value systems and little, if any, professional experience were being asked to evaluate professionals in crisis situations.

1 Ethics are about motive rather than sequence, circumstance or setting. There is little, if any, moral difference between the reporter who plagiarizes words in a newsroom and the marketer who steals numbers at an agency.

1 There is little, if any, difference between personal and professional ethics.

In essence, I closed the Potter Box and opened Pandora's - out of which flew such abstractions as falsehood, manipulation, temptation and bias. How to deal with these in a practical, journalistic way?

Henceforth, I vowed, we were not going to debate news coverage of such hot-button issues as abortion and race relations but would determine our own values and prejudices on these and other issues. We would still cover news principles but would focus on ethical ones, too: influence, responsibility, truth, fairness and power at the work place.

My students were going to live their ethics rather than learn about the ethics of others.

I had a wealth of information to tap based on media experience as bureau manager for United Press International. For instance, I knew a "Unipresser" who lied obsessively about everything - even what he ate for lunch (usually crow) - but never exaggerated or fabricated in a news story.

In every way, his stories were credible. But he had no credibility.

Melanie Rigney, former bureau manager of UPI's Midwest Division and now editor of Writer's Digest, once worked with the same reporter. "I remember getting a freelancer tip about a bank robbery; she said. …