Moral Development and
Journalists don’t start to learn about their ethical duties the day they walk into their first newsroom or journalism class. While new journalists do learn specifically about the ethics of their profession by watching other journalists, taking courses, and studying ethics codes, they hardly arrive at the industry as blank slates. Even the most neophyte journalists have had at least eighteen years to acquire, grow, and fine-tune the general moral compass they bring into the profession. Parents, friends, relatives, teachers, clergy, and others all have the potential to make a lasting impression on the new practitioner’s future moral decisions. Questions such as whether and under what circumstances it is OK to deceive another, if one should keep the change that was returned in error, and how one justifies a lie are all based upon moral codes that are formed in early childhood and continue to develop as we learn and age. Those early ethical encounters provide the foundation for the kinds of moral decisions a journalist—or anyone in a professional capacity—will make. So do certain individual characteristics, such as how much education one has and the political ideology one subscribes to.
This chapter looks at how people develop into ethical beings, with special emphasis on Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral-development theory. It then explores ethical development in the professions, including journalism. Just as medical professionals develop proficiency in areas unique to their work, such as ensuring patient confidentiality and avoiding harm, journalists develop special expertise in such topics as ensuring privacy, avoiding plagiarism and deception, and keeping promises. New journalists find that organizations, codes, and colleagues continue to shape their moral fiber. This chapter also examines the current research on the most important influences on journalists’ quality