When Do Journalists Learn about Ethics? an Examination of Introductory and Graduating Students' Ethical Perceptions

Article excerpt

A survey (n=212) of broadcast and print journalism students at a large Midwestern university compared ethical perceptions of introductory journalism students to graduating students. Results generally indicate that introductory students appear more ethically grounded than graduating students, who through practical newsroom experience were able to move from ethical theory to practice. It appears the more student journalists gain practical experience the less absolute their ethical perceptions, which is consistent with moral and ethical development theory. Practical experiences of internships and course lab work provide graduating students a more complex approach to ethical decision making and generate alternative viewpoints that go beyond ethical codes.

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics says in part that journalists have a duty to "expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media." In the past twenty-five years, those in both professional and academic fields of journalism have taken this call seriously.1 The journalistic tenets of seeking truth; providing accurate information; not misrepresenting sources, materials, or content; and not plagiarizing have been strictly enforced at many leading American newspapers as several journalists have been fired for ethics violations (e.g., Janet Cooke, Washington Post, 1981; Steven Glass, New Republic, 1998; Patricia Smith, Boston Globe, 1998; Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg, New York 7ïmes, both 2003 Eric Snider, Provo Daily Herald, 2003 Jim Van Vliet, Sacramento Bee, 2003 and Jack Kelley, USA Today, 2004). This has not been limited to reporters or columnists, however, as editors too have either been asked to resign or been released for not detecting the violations of their subordinates (e.g., Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, New York ?mes, both 2003; Karen Jurgensen, USA Today, 2004).

These events have not gone unnoticed by the academy as much recent work on journalism ethics has been devoted to examinations of violations of professional ethics, and to a limited extent to the news media as purveyors of sensational accounts.2 The Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair cases are evidence that the push in newsrooms to produce interesting or exciting news stories can lead some journalists to fabricate, distort, or embellish. Prior to Blair, many thought that journalistic standards and norms were developed on the job.3 However, some question the classroom practices of institutions that produce most journalists.4

Previous studies demonstrate that moral and ethical development occurs in stages and is influenced by intellectual development and environmental influences.5 In addition, moral and ethical development occurs throughout the college years among young adults.8 This study examines how broadcast and print journalism students perceive ethical practices during different stages of their college development. It is expected that students entering a journalism program would not have the same ethical development as those graduating from that program. To determine if this is the case, students taking an introductory journalism course (before ethics coursework and practical experiences) and students graduating from the journalism program (after ethics coursework and practical experiences) are compared using survey methodology.

This study is important because few studies have examined students' perception of ethical standards.7 As cases above indicate, professional violations of ethical standards carry devastating consequences to those specifically involved and to the profession of journalism in general. Journalists not only lose their jobs and their credibility, but damage ripples throughout the newsroom and the industry, and diminishes the public perception of ethical standards in journalism. It is important to understand the ethical development of students and their perceptions of ethical practices in an effort to improve journalism instruction. …