Assessing the Impact of Ethics Instruction on Advertising and Public Relations Graduates

Article excerpt

Based on a survey of recent alumni from two different institutions, this study indicates that media ethics instruction corresponds with ethical awareness and ethical leadership. Graduates who took media ethics courses were significantly more likely than those who did not to consider ethical issues in their profession important. They were more likely to value ethics highly, to be able to identify ethical issues, and to have discussed unethical practices with professional colleagues. They were also more likely to view personal and professional ethics as indistinguishable. This study suggests longer-term effects on ethical attitudes than have previous studies and reinforces the need for better and more courses in media ethics.


Since the late 1970s, increasing attention has been paid to the value of teaching applied and professional ethics.1 Projects have identified appropriate goals for teaching professional ethics, including: (1) developing analytical skills; (2) introducing ethical theory; (3) developing moral reasoning; (4) inculcating fundamental values; and (5) cultivating character.2 Studies have addressed questions of how and whether to teach ethical issues in specific professional fields, including journalism3 and business.4 However, while many studies have asked professors what ought to be taught in ethics courses, few have assessed whether ethics instruction has a direct effect on students' value systems and subsequent professional lives. Cohen recently suggested mass communication programs have lagged behind other disciplines in effectively assessing student learning.5 In particular, assessment of media ethics instruction has been lacking, according to Haefner, who suggested asking graduates how well media ethics instruction prepared them to face ethical dilemmas in their professional lives.6

Scholars in both mass communication and business (where advertising is sometimes taught) have attempted to assess ethics instruction, but most studies have focused on whether to teach ethics courses and what to include in them. For instance, Christians and Lambeth reported dramatic growth in mass communication professors' support for teaching freestanding media ethics courses and for discussing ethical issues in other courses.7 Christians, Lambeth, and Cole reported that the number of journalism or media ethics courses taught nationwide had tripled since 1977 and had increased by 56% between 1984 and 1993.8 Christians and Lambeth noted, however, that while communication ethics courses proliferated, little evidence existed to document their effectiveness. In business education, studies also found dramatic growth in the attention professors paid to ethical issues in various courses.9 As in mass communication, some business authors found little evidence to link formal ethics training received in a college course with long-term change in students' ethical values.10

Recently, some mass communication researchers have asserted a need to assess how ethics should or could be taught in advertising and public relations, and not just in journalism. McBride argued that mass communication professors must address "a cultural chasm between journalism and public relations with implications for ethical practice neither fully acknowledged nor understood."11 Barney and Black echoed that argument. They suggested mass communication professors must explore ethical differences in journalistic messages designed to inform and public relations or advertising messages designed to persuade.12 Harrison's survey of advertising and public relations professors found nearly unanimous support for the idea that studying ethics is important for advertising and public relations students.13 Yet more than half the advertising professors responding to Tucker and Stout's survey said they needed to develop a better understanding of ethics that could be applied to advertising. Tucker and Stout concluded, "Additional research and dialogue about ethics pedagogy are needed before we can expect advertising students and future professionals to speak a congruous and cogent ethical language. …


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