Young journalists fresh out of college might well stock their newsroom bookcases with a few useful holdovers from their backpack: a copy of the AP stylebook, perhaps a dictionary or thesaurus, and maybe – just maybe – an old ethics textbook.
The ethics textbook, however, may prove more helpful to the publisher or managing editor of the paper to which our rookie has just arrived. Journalism ethics, as it is taught in today’s colleges and universities, too often is focused on the power brokers of a newsroom, not on the greenhorn fresh out of school, say many journalism ethics educators. College classroom ethics tend to gravitate toward the public, large-scale and often scintillating cases, such the front-page photo of a dead child, or the story that names a rape victim – the sort of cases that call for newsroom debate among top editors.
But what of the quiet, real-life, day-to-day decisions faced by young reporters? Experts acknowledge that these personal, private and oftentimes subtle quandaries – the ones that occur almost daily between journalists and their consciences – are harder to find in today’s journalism ethics instruction. The ethics taught in journalism programs today might not always prepare students-turned-reporters for the job’s daily dilemmas. Should a reporter pursue a tip that might damage a relationship with a strong beat source? What if a source says something important – and then wants it taken off the record? Many of the most difficult questions aren’t covered by newsroom policies, and educators are realizing that they also aren’t included in classroom discussion.
“If we are going to make this work for students and make it a good transition from talking about ethics in the classroom to doing ethics in the newsroom, we need to supply the real-life context and detail and real-life pressures that happen in a newsroom,” said Dave Boeyink, associate professor of journalism and director of media studies at the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Like Boeyink, many in the field see the need for more teaching about such ethical subtleties, but priorities, teaching resources and student interest all get in the way. Virginia Whitehouse, who teaches a capstone course in ethics at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., has put a label on these quiet dilemmas. She calls it “low power ethics.”
“We heavily emphasize creating a situation where the student is not the person in charge – not the CEO or the president of the company – because our students are entering an environment in which they don’t have a lot of power,” she said.
In the current Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Whitehouse argues that in the classroom and in textbooks, educators need to have students take on low-power dilemmas instead of the usual high-powered roles in case studies.
“We want them to see there are ethical questions in the way you write every lead, in the way you phrase a question. If the editor says ‘rewrite a news release,’ do you pull direct quotes or not? What counts as plagiarism and what doesn’t?” asked Whitehouse. “I’m finding there are a lot of editors who think people hold the same ethics that they do, whether it’s on using news releases or altering quotes. Do you solve the problem by spelling out every expectation on when a quote should be changed?”
Through case studies in which students assume the low-power position of a new reporter, for example, Whitehouse tries to teach her students skills to articulate their position in a “defendable and appropriate way.”
Many others who teach journalism ethics support such an approach, including Clifford G. Christians, a research professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Many complain that medical ethics is geared toward the doctor who makes the medical decision, rather than the nurse, and nurses … don’t always have the power and money and right to make legal decisions,” said Christians. “That is a reflection of what’s happening in journalism. You can’t assume when students go into the field that they are the editor of The New York Times, that they have wealth, power and leadership and all they need to make the decisions. Most of the time [like nurses], they have to implement the policy, not make it.
“We make mistakes in our teaching if we make the mistakes made in medical ethics by all the while assuming an independent decision-maker responsible only to himself or herself,” he said.
When David Allen, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, teaches his ethics class, his approach is to teach students to think critically. “We can’t cover all the potential problems,” he said. “I’m trying to provide students with a framework to think through problems they come across.”
John Harris is a visiting professor who teaches ethics at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. His goal is to teach students “to stop and think about the consequences of what they do when they have to get into a newsroom debate,” he said. “I want them to be prepared to give a good argument for why they believe what they believe. So in the newsroom, even if they lose, they can make a sound argument.”
The difficult part for a cub reporter, however, can be knowing what battles to choose. “The tension for young people is the difference between getting along and keeping a job and doing what you think is right,” said Lee Wilkins, who teaches the graduate ethics course at the University of Missouri. “If it is between you and your assignment editor, and you’re the newbie, the power differential matters enormously. I don’t know that we do a good job of helping students know which fight to pick and how to go about that.”
Elizabeth Vernon, who is now a copy editor at the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, Wash., took Whitehouse’s class at Whitworth. It helped in her first job, where there wasn’t much latitude to speak up if she had an ethical concern. “I was definitely at the bottom of the ladder there. That was hard to figure out how to ask and who to ask in a way that wasn’t going to get you in trouble,” she said. “We did talk in class about how to do that, and that was helpful on the job.”
Meta Minton, the editor of the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Ill., says a more down-to-earth approach to teaching journalism in general and ethics in particular is desperately needed.
“There is so much emphasis on the gizmos and computer-assisted reporting that I think some of the basic values are lost – I wonder if they are having conversations about ethics. I am concerned some of those things are being lost in education,” said Minton, who is new to the Illinoisan but has worked extensively with young reporters and interns in her roles as an editor at previous small papers.
At a previous paper, Minton fired a new reporter over unethical behavior. It’s an example of why a change is needed in journalism ethics education, she says. The reporter made up a quote when he couldn’t reach a source.
“I really liked the kid and I said, ‘You can’t do that,’” said Minton. “Once you got them backed into a corner, they just fess up. I gave him a second chance.” But within the week, in a story on whether City Council members were running for re-election, the reporter again made up a quote – and Minton fired him.
The reporter now works at a different paper, and he e-mailed Minton to thank her for teaching him an ethics lesson he’s never forgotten.
Educators and editors agree that the newsroom environment is critical to reinforcing the ethics lessons learned in class. Howard Sinker, the state and general assignment editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, pairs his newest reporters with veterans so they can see the paper’s ethics in action.
“I tend to use the interns on major stories right away working with a veteran reporter,” he said. “They have the model, and they are quick to pick it up, and they want to learn. They are young, but they want to be grown up. They watch the veteran reporters, and they want to be like those people, so they are going to do it.
“The ethical compass is one of the predictors of being a good young journalist,” Sinker said. “If they come in with a good sense of ethics, it probably means the writing and reporting skills are right up there, too.”
Howie Padilla is one of Sinker’s former interns. Padilla joined the Star Tribune two years ago as a crime reporter, right after graduating with a communication degree from the University of North Dakota, where he never had an ethics course. Before college, he worked as a restaurant manager and a used car salesman.
“My ethics have evolved for me,” said Padilla. “If there are times I feel I am squishy on things, I ask other reporters around me what they would do. On one side is a guy who’s covered cops for five years, and on the other side was a woman who had covered cops for 13 or 14 years.”
One dilemma for Padilla occurred around Christmas, when a source from the police beat invited him to a party. After weighing the pros and cons, he ultimately decided to go to the party for just a half-hour and not drink any alcohol while there. “I try not to put myself in those situations,” Padilla said.
“If I’d had more ethics in college, I feel like I would have known more what to expect,” he said. “Not that in a college class we could have covered whether to go to a Christmas party with your cop sources, but any little thing that would have been real life that would have been helpful.”
Teaching ethics in today’s culture can be tricky, educators say.
“Students are in a tug of war right now with a society that doesn’t follow ethical behavior. They are surrounded by people not behaving ethically,” said Melissa Wall, and assistant professor at California State University-Northridge. “… What, you expect them to have ethics when we live in a world with Enron?”
At the Los Angeles-based campus, ethics is taught from a pervasive approach, or throughout the curriculum and not in a single ethics course. But as faculty sensed that the ethical standards among students appeared to be on the decline, they inserted the word “ethics” into the titles of the department’s three newswriting courses. Wall said they wanted to send a message to students that ethics are critical to the program.
“We have done it institutionally because of the great concern that students today don’t understand ethics at all,” said Wall. “It is part of the world we live in.”
Perhaps because of such a climate, students are hungry for ethics, says Maria Marron, chair of the journalism department at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. CMU also uses a pervasive approach to teach ethics.
“I came into the field of teaching journalism about 15 years ago. The environment has gotten a bit more complex since then. There is more grayness in defining what is correct,” Marron said. “Students do understand the importance of ethics. They tend to be fairly sound in making judgments and fairly concerned about their fellow human being.”
While students might be receptive to ethics, they definitely prefer the more sensational, dramatic cases. “Teaching the daily decision-making is not as sexy as the controversial photos,” said Boeyink of Indiana University. “As instructors, we also gravitate toward those controversial cases.”
Ethics in journalism education has come a long way. After the medical profession realized the need for ethics in its practices, the movement spread to other professions, said Ed Lambeth, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Missouri. By the late 1970s, it had reached the journalism academy in earnest.
Research by Lambeth and Christians of the University of Illinois shows that the number of journalism ethics texts has grown considerably since 1980. By 1993, a survey by the research pair showed that three-quarters of college and university teachers saw media ethics as “indispensable.” That trend is continuing, said Lambeth, who is now crunching numbers on the latest survey with Christians.
For all its advances, however, ethics in journalism programs is still akin to art or music in an overloaded public school curriculum – it’s the first thing cut in lean times, seen by some programs as an extra that students can do without. Even in flush times, it’s often on the sidelines of a curriculum.
“A lot of times, when ethics courses are taught, it’s by a new professor who happens to be interested in it, and it’s not necessarily the person’s specialty,” said Christians. “So it’s not in the curriculum as strongly as you’re teaching public affairs reporting or teaching editing or teaching journalism law. We still have quite a ways to go to not just have ethics taught but included within the heart and soul of the curriculum.”
For Allen of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the problems is that many journalism programs are within broader mass communication departments. “We are forced to oftentimes not just teach journalism ethics. Oftentimes, we’re not able to get into the tremendous depth that’s necessary.”
The best argument for continuing to make ethics – including low-power ethics – a more central part of journalism programs is simple. Says Lambeth: “You can talk about ethics and competence as a double helix, because they can work together in the newsroom.”
Wilkins puts it another way: “My argument is, ‘Take this ethics class, and I’ll make you a better reporter.’”
Sue Ellen Christian is an assistant professor of journalism at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. She was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune from 1991-2001.
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