Professional Confidence and Situational Ethics: Assessing the Social-Professional Dialectic in Journalistic Ethics Decisions

By Berkowitz, Dan; Limor, Yehiel | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Professional Confidence and Situational Ethics: Assessing the Social-Professional Dialectic in Journalistic Ethics Decisions


Berkowitz, Dan, Limor, Yehiel, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Ethical decisions that journalists make vary greatly in their situational context, often shaped by a tension between professional values and organizational imperatives. This survey of newspaper reporters questions the notion of a common ethics decision-making framework that applies uniformly from situation to situation. Through three ethical situations-each varying in the nature of interaction with news sources-the study considers how individual, peer-group, organizational, professional, and societal levels of analysis relate to journalists' ethics decision making. Results found that ethical decisions vary by context and that an important difference among journalists is their degree of professional confidence.

Journalists' professional attitudes and practices-including ethics -are affected by their working realities. As news organizations become more entrenched as profit centers for corporate conglomerates, the social demands of organizational life increasingly become shaped by economic concerns.1 As a result, organizational imperatives grow to compete with professional ideals, so that ethical decision making in a news organization goes beyond codes of ethics or moral reasoning alone.2

This study addresses the impact of social and professional dimensions on ethical decision making. We begin by following the lead of other research that has identified a broad, shared ethical decision-making framework among journalists.3 However, we also challenge this notion of a uniform decision-making framework by exploring the idea that there is noticeable variation among journalists in what weighs most heavily for their ethical decisions. Some journalists mainly will be responsive to the professional dimension, while others will juggle the professional with the social. We further suggest that the frameworks journalists apply to their ethical decisions will be somewhat fluid, depending upon the specific ethical dilemma they are dealing with, so that the social and the professional will actually change in relative importance.

Data for this study come from a mail survey of reporters in one Midwest state. We draw on a combination of two analytic techniques: first, an examination of a general pattern through item means, and then, a cluster analysis to look for variations within the big picture.

Conceptual Foundation

The work world of the journalist is shaped by many of the same forces as workers who produce other sorts of products. Like other workers, journalists are caught in a dialectic between their professional ideals and the profit-motivated concerns that keep news organizations in business and financially viable.4

Although journalists are often depicted as independent, morally virtuous, and acting in the name of the public good,5 much more is involved. A significant body of research has found that dynamics of small groups within an organization6 bring common, beliefs and motivations into working realties. Journalists learn how news "is supposed to go" in order to seem appropriate within an organization's cultural setting.7 News managers enforce behavioral ideals unofficially because official policy in this direction would conflict explicitly with foundational beliefs of the profession.8 These managers equate success of the organization with success of their own careers and tend to support the goals of non-news managers in the organization.9

Journalists also look beyond their organization to the social context where they work. They realize that social and economic values need to be considered in making news decisions, so they take into account their community and its leaders for indications of potential conflict and, ultimately, the loss of revenue for their media organization.10The profession of journalism thus provides a dualism for journalists, setting out written and unwritten codes for ethical behavior while simultaneously constraining journalists as "decision takers" because of those very same codes. …

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