This spring, Jerry Ceppos, vice president for news at Knight Ridder, finished his term as president of the organization that accredits journalism schools.
In a speech at the April 30 meeting of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Ceppos ticked off a list of plagiarism cases that had cropped up at newspapers over the previous year. They ranged from student papers at the universities of Virginia and Kansas, to The Hartford Courant and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to USA Today and The New York Times.
“If any outsider poked his or her head in this room,” Ceppos said, “the first question would obviously be, ’What are you doing about this epidemic of ethical problems in journalism?’”
Not much — or perhaps, not enough, according to many educators. They generally have considered plagiarism a no-brainer, assuming students already know what it is and that it is always wrong. Media ethics classes typically address dilemmas that could go either way: For example, is a story important enough to justify going undercover, or infringing on someone’s privacy? “Given that plagiarizing and fabrication are never acceptable, there didn’t seem to be much to discuss on those issues,” said Kim Walsh-Childers, a journalism professor at the University of Florida.
In light of the transgressions by Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and others, it’s understandable that editors have challenged J-schools to do more to fight plagiarism and weed out unethical journalists-to-be.
Understandable, but somewhat unrealistic. No amount of ethics training can stop unethical people from entering the profession, educators say. Moreover, journalism ethics is much broader than admonishing against plagiarism and fabrication. Schools must instill the profession’s bedrock values and mission — what to do as well as what not to do.
“Teaching ethics? It won’t stop the Blairs, who are psychopaths. Nor the Kelleys,” said Mel Mencher, professor emeritus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “The ethics course has to reach a subtler level.”
It should explore a journalist’s moral responsibility to his or her community — the obligation to pursue stories that may rock the boat or anger advertisers.
Still, high-profile plagiarism cases have provided a wake-up call for many educators. They are reviewing how and why they teach ethics, and whether they can do more to shape students’ values and conduct.
New pressures to cut ethical corners
Educators and practitioners disagree over how well schools teach ethics, according to a recent survey by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
They asked 90 journalism deans and 90 editors to react to this statement: “Today’s journalism graduates have a better understanding of journalism ethics than graduates had five years ago.” Almost three-fourths of the deans agreed; more than two-thirds of the editors disagreed.
If journalism grads are less ethical than before, one reason might be the Internet. Cut-and-paste technology makes it easier to appropriate somebody else’s work, and online culture espouses that “everything on the Net is free for the taking,” said Sandra Borden, an associate professor of communications at Western Michigan University and co-director of the school’s Center for the Study of Ethics in Society. (The Internet also makes it easier to detect plagiarism, too — so more people are getting caught.)
Journalists face other pressures to cut ethical corners: the 24/7 news cycle, news conglomerates’ hunger for profits and the star system in some newsrooms.
“Some people buckle” under such pressure, said Tom Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He should know: Blair and Kelley both attended Maryland.
“Is there something in journalism education that’s responsible for this rash of problems? I don’t think so,” Kunkel said. “We can’t control the prevailing culture that’s shaped these kids for 17, 18 or 20 years. It’s a culture that tells kids to play the angles or you’re a sucker to do anything to get ahead — that the ends justify the means.”
J-schools will never be able to screen out every unethical student determined to “play the game,” Borden said. “There’s no pee-in-a-cup test for ethics; you can’t force people to be ethical. In the end, if you want to do the wrong thing, I don’t know how to de-program that. Blair, Kelley — at a fundamental level — didn’t care to do the right thing.”
’Never been more critical’ to teach ethics
But even if schools can’t pre-empt future Blairs and Kelleys, they can and must address the spectrum of ethical issues in today’s news environment, educators say. Ethics is more important than ever.
“There has never been a time when it has been more critical to provide students with a firm grounding in it than now,” said Jeanne Rollberg, an associate professor who coordinates the journalism program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “The world is complex, the news is reported at increasing rates of speed, and time to reflect on ethical considerations is increasingly too limited in the 24-hour news cycle.”
Blair and Kelley were anomalies, but they’ve become shorthand for “the media’s loss of credibility, for why journalists are down there with used-car salesmen in the public’s view,” said William Babcock, a journalism professor at California State University at Long Beach.
Ethics instruction must go beyond plagiarism and the “famous flameouts,” added Philip Patterson, a professor at Oklahoma Christian University and co-author of a popular textbook, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. Plagiarism, he said, involves basic morality: “Society provides us with an answer.”
Ethics, on the other hand, involves choosing between two (or more) possible answers — and being able to justify the decision.
Moreover, says Bob Steele, ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, ethics isn’t just a proscriptive series of red lights: Don’t steal material, don’t make up quotes and don’t lie to get a story. More important are the green lights, which illuminate the duties and responsibilities to which journalists should aspire.
Good ethics, Patterson said, is “whether at the end of a nine-hour day, you’re willing to make two more phone calls so you don’t have to use an anonymous source.”
To some, media ethics is an oxymoron
Not every educator thinks it’s worth teaching ethics.
Don Corrigan, a journalism professor at Webster University in St. Louis, says journalism ethics is an oxymoron in today’s newsrooms.
“In reality, ethics are so compromised in the world of corporate monopolistic journalism, it almost seems quaint to discuss it. It is especially quaint to discuss it with the idea that reporters and journalists are in any position to do anything about it, or are in any kind of position to influence workplace ethics,” Corrigan said.
It’s disingenuous, he said, to tell students to favor hard news over fluff or avoid doing flattering stories about advertisers when news organizations routinely engage in “journalistic whoring.”
Other educators haven’t retreated from teaching ethics, but they say it is more challenging.
“I think the culture of ethics has receded in the last five years — not just in the profession but in society as well. It does become more difficult for students to gain an ethical sensitivity in a social, economic and political structure that has become increasingly pragmatic in creating ’ends justify the means’ situations,” said Tom Brislin, a communications professor at the University of Hawaii.
“While students can understand the basics of ethical principles, it becomes harder for them to understand where the payoff is. They can be ethical while others get ahead ignoring basic social responsibility.”
How good is the ethics training in college?
“I think J-schools are doing a largely mediocre job at teaching ethics. But the industry is doing even worse,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert and columnist at the Poynter Institute.
“We do very little in our newsrooms to reinforce what is taught in college. As a result, as the students move into the professional world, they tend to lose any base they might have. Instead, newsrooms reinforce the principles of competition, ego and capitalism. Not that those are bad, but they aren’t journalistic principles.”
Ethics has ’essential place’ in J-schools
Journalism schools have been teaching ethics since the 1920s, when Walter Lippmann raised the subject in his books about declining journalism standards. Ethics can be taught two ways: as a separate course or integrated into other courses.
J-schools should do both, McBride said. “Ethical decision-making has to be taught across the curriculum. It is a skill that is developed, not a set of questions and answers. It is a reporting tool, also. It is an editing tool. It is part of the craft, and it should be taught that way.”
McBride said students should get a foundation in a media ethics course (which she said should be separate from media law). Then, every journalism course — from reporting to photography to editing — should incorporate ethics. “Ideally, students would emerge from college knowing that ethics is more than a set of rules. Rather, it is a series of decisions that fold into the reporting process on every level. And they would know that rarely are the answers easy or simple.”
About 37 percent of journalism and mass communications programs require students to take a course in media ethics, according to a recent survey by a team that included Clifford Christians, a journalism professor and ethics scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ed Lambeth, professor emeritus and former associate dean of the Missouri School of Journalism. In contrast, in 1992-93, only 25 percent of the programs required an ethics course.
The survey, included in a study to be published in Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, found that 11.5 percent of the J-schools offer media ethics as an option on a list of required courses. Moreover, 83 percent of the programs offer “distinct media ethics ’modules’ within skills or conceptual courses.”
Those numbers confirm the judgment by most journalism program administrators and media ethics instructors that “the media ethics course has gained an ’essential place’ in the curriculum,” the study said.
What are the major goals of media ethics courses? According to the survey, instructors put them in this order: fostering moral reasoning skills; contributing to the moral development of students; advancing the “liberal education” of future journalists; and preparing students for professional work.
Journalists might be surprised that navigating ethical situations in newsrooms doesn’t top the list. There are several reasons for that. Many media ethics courses draw not only journalism students but also public relations and advertising students. Moreover, they seek to prepare students to solve ethical problems in everyday life as well as on the job.
“My goal in ethics class is to awaken conscience — that inner voice that tells us right from wrong — and harmonize it with consciousness or awareness,” said Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
In a typical media ethics course, students do three things. They:
• Learn philosophical principles such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative (follow the standards that you would have everyone follow, with no exceptions; certain acts, such as lying are always wrong); Utilitarianism (do what produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people); and Aristotle’s Golden Mean (find a middle ground; avoid extremes).
• Learn decision-making models such as the Potter Box, which involves four steps: understanding the facts of the situation, outlining your values, applying the various principles to see how they might lead to different resolutions; and articulating your loyalties by identifying the people or institutions that could be helped or hurt by your decision. The models help you analyze an ethical dilemma, decide on a course of action and justify your decision if challenged.
• Apply those concepts to dilemmas that media professionals face, usually through case studies. The case studies generally include war stories from the newsroom (about covering the Columbine tragedy, for example, or whether to expose a doctor with AIDS) and from the public relations and advertising fields.
Though the case studies focus on the media, the lessons — about honesty, responsibility, courage, compassion, independence and other values — are universal. Students should see ethics as more than a workplace conduct code, said Liz Hansen, a communications professor at Eastern Kentucky University and president of SPJ’s Bluegrass Professional Chapter.
One student, for instance, came into Hansen’s office and slammed her books on the desk, the professor recalled. “Dr. Hansen, you’ve ruined everything! I can’t look at anything anymore without thinking about ethics.”
In many media ethics classes, students write personal ethics codes or keep journals that can have profound impact on their lives. Hansen said one of her students broke off her engagement when she realized how often she lied to her fiancé.
What can schools do about plagiarism?
Mencher, a former reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and other news organizations, writes online updates of his textbook News Reporting and Writing. This spring’s update discussed plagiarism in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.
After surveying journalism program administrators and faculty members, Mencher wrote: “Increasing numbers of journalism students do not understand what constitutes fabrication and plagiarism. Several instructors pointed out that the easy access to Internet material has created a state of mind in students that leads them to believe they are free to use material without attribution and to pass off the work of others as their own. Several said the distinction between legitimate research and plagiarism should be clearly drawn for students.”
Some schools are trying to address the situation, Mencher said.
“Blair’s extensive flouting of basic journalistic ethics led to greater emphasis on ethics in several programs, but most found his behavior too aberrant to serve as a teaching example. Several colleagues responded that Blair’s misdeeds were so far beyond the ethical lapses of students that they provided only a footnote for class discussion.”
Because plagiarism is always wrong, Blair doesn’t make an appropriate case study, many ethics professors said. But they can discuss him in other ways.
“We can and should use the Blair and Kelley cases (and the dozens more that have arisen during the past several years) as teachable moments, particularly if we go beyond saying, ’See, even the big guys get caught eventually’ to talking about what about journalism culture or newsroom conditions would motivate and/or enable people to engage in such practices,” said Walsh-Childers, who teaches ethics and news writing at Florida.
The recent scandals also may prod schools to define, and enforce rules against, plagiarism early in the journalism curriculum, said David Rubin, dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Such a strategy wouldn’t stop people such as Blair “intent on building a career by cheating and fabricating,” but it might stop students who plagiarize because of carelessness or ignorance.
Rubin said Syracuse students learn the “rules of the road” in their first-year courses.
More important issues than plagiarism
But plagiarism and fabrication should not dominate media ethics courses, he said. “While I think questions of plagiarism are important, they’re only a small part of the ethical landscape.”
Indeed, many educators are more concerned about other issues — such as “the impact of infotainment on media ethics and democracy.” That’s the title of the ethics workshop scheduled when the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications holds its annual convention in August in Toronto.
“The workshop addresses the blending of media information and entertainment by examining coverage of news and celebrity personalities and the financial forces driving modern-day media coverage,” according to a flier from AEJMC’s media ethics division. “In addition, discussion will center on ways that the media might better inform and engage the public.”
A related ethical issue is a commitment to public service journalism, said Neil Nemeth, an associate professor at Purdue University at Calumet. Given the decline in public service journalism, he wonders whether that topic is an anachronism.
“So far I’ve concluded that making the effort to incorporate ethical values into my teaching is worth it, if for no other reason than to alert the students to the need to find organizations whose professional values match their own,” Nemeth said.
Should J-schools teach ethics codes?
Educators disagree over whether ethics classes should address certain topics. Perhaps the biggest dispute is whether students should study professional codes such as the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Patterson, a member of the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, says no, because “codes are for pat cases” — not for ethical dilemmas.
While Patterson’s textbook omits ethics codes, another book — Ethics, Issues and Controversies in Mass Media — elevates codes to the first chapter.
Many educators say they cover codes but do so with mixed feelings.
The downside of codes is that they remove the decision-making process, said Tom Bivins, a professor at the University of Oregon and author of Mixed Media: Moral Distinctions in Advertising, Public Relations, and Journalism. He said students should learn the industry’s rules but question them as well.
Lou Hodges, who retired last year as the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, said students should study professional codes to learn the “conventional wisdom.” But they should realize that “rules are dangerous” and that they must “look behind the codes” — not blindly apply them.
The goal of an ethics course is to “develop minds, not a list of rules,” Hodges said. “You want students to think clearly so they can develop their own rules.”
Henry Overduin, head of the Department of Mass Communication at McNeese State University in Louisiana, said journalism ethics means more than following rules or deciding how to act in a thorny situation. He said it means “looking into the overriding values of journalism — values that sometimes obligate journalists to engage in actions that ordinary moral agents should not do.”
Overduin not only teaches a media ethics course but also weaves ethics into his other classes. The syllabus for his beginning reporting class has two quotes.
“One is from Lippmann, about journalists being the noblest work of God. The other is from Kierkegaard, who says that the lowest depth to which a man can fall before God is captured by the word ’journalist,’ ” Overduin said.
“I suppose journalism ethics helps us to strive for the one and avoid the other.”
Jeff South is an associate professor at the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches media ethics, among other courses.
Tagged under: Ethics