The question is deceptively simplistic: What are our objectives in teaching and studying journalism ethics?
The subject matter lends itself, on the one hand, to investigating a body of knowledge or academic concepts and, on the other, the teaching of values, moral character and “good” behaviors.
Some faculty and media critics argue that students should be prepared to lead examined professional lives. Others suggest that ethics courses should impose “right” attitudes and instill “good” behaviors — highly subjective terms. Unless we are careful, some questionable underlying assumptions will drive the enterprise.
We must be very clear about a basic point: There is a major difference between helping students learn how to become autonomous moral agents and imposing a teacher’s (or department’s or profession’s) value systems on them. It is the difference between moral philosophy and moralizing, and there is little room in the university setting for the latter.
Moral philosophy entails philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems and moral judgments. It differs in critically important ways from moralizing. Moral philosophy consists of thinking about ethics; moralizing is giving advice.
That difference is one of the distinctions between the pluralistic decision-making so essential to the functioning of a participatory republic and blind adherence to standard operating procedures or traditions of the craft.
One of the most influential agencies in helping academics frame their courses in ethics has been the Hastings Center Institute of Society, Ethics and Life Sciences. This think tank suggested that five instructional goals appropriate for any ethics course are to help students: (1) recognize moral issues, (2) develop analytical skills, (3) tolerate — and resist — disagreement and ambiguity, (4) stimulate the moral imagination, and (5) elicit a sense of moral obligation and personal responsibility.
These five objectives fit nicely on the journalism ethics course syllabus and help keep the student and professor focused throughout the semester. The first three objectives are especially adaptable to journalism education; the remaining two are difficult to achieve.
1) Recognizing Ethical Issues. This objective is entirely consistent with a preprofessional curriculum. Being able to define problematic areas; recognizing that although something may be legal does not necessarily make it ethical; and understanding the duties of journalists and the impact media have on society all are worthy enterprises.
The Socratic method works particularly well here, if the classroom environment provides students with ethically acceptable reactions to media problems and sharpens their ability to discover the ethical dimensions of various practices and policies. This is a skill we are describing, and, like most skills, it is built upon insight and knowledge. The discussions or dialogues should have a natural tendency to move from “moralizing” toward “moral philosophy.”
2) Developing Analytical Skills. Students in our media ethics courses have probably already learned practical skills such as news gathering and reporting, photography and the like. However, it may well be that such skills were learned more through instruction and rote than through individual exploration. It is surprising how often media ethics students will exclaim, “This is the first time I’ve ever been asked to really analyze why we do what we do.” In developing analytical skills, students are encouraged to demonstrate intellectual coherence and consistency.
Students should be motivated to state why a particular problem has ethical dimensions and to formulate a hypothesis. Possible solutions to the problem should be explored during a brainstorming session, but a halt to brainstorming should then be called and students asked to provide careful systematic attention to detail — to causes and consequences, to persons affected by ethical or nonethical decisions, to institutional norms and values. The solutions should then be tested against traditional philosophic principles. To make all of this happen takes careful monitoring and mentoring, not lecturing.
3) Tolerating — and resisting — disagreement and ambiguity. The ethics classroom has a natural tendency toward open discourse, which entails a great deal of disagreement and ambiguity. Many of the questions appear at first to have no clear answers, and the articulation of opinions is likely to take up much class time. However, not all opinions have equal intellectual or ethical weight. To put the disagreements in their proper educational perspective, the instructor must probe beneath the surface, asking the “why” about the “what.”
Instructors conversant with epistemology — how we know what we think we know — might help students clarify the nature of their own and others’ opinion and belief formations. At some point in the course, in discussions of moral development theory, instructors might help students recognize how natural it is for maturing individuals to move away from opinions and beliefs based on tenacity or authority and into a position of tolerance for disagreement and ambiguity, followed, in some cases, by developing an individual commitment and sense of personal responsibility.
Many students become uncomfortable with the recognition that there may be no single “right” answers to some questions raised in class. A skilled instructor capitalizes upon this frustration to widen the arena of investigation, to help students work through various moral points of view to discern for themselves a justifiable system of ethical decision-making.
4) Stimulating the moral imagination. Unlike the first three objectives, this fourth goal of media ethics instruction is not fully compatible with typical journalism practice and instruction. Stimulation of the moral imagination means “real” human beings and their welfare — sources, subjects and audiences — must become central to the classroom enterprise. That is an extremely difficult task to achieve, given the realities of journalism as they are taught and practiced today.
In today’s increasingly depersonalized media institutions, where beginners sense that they will be interchangeable cogs in the corporate machine, it is hard to be idealistic and empathic. To many students worried about finding a media job that pays a living wage, let alone one that offers occupational if not moral autonomy, the professional trait of “servant” or “steward” does not come naturally. (The SPJ Code of Ethics’ guidance to seek truth and report it while minimizing harm is particularly insightful in this regard.)
5) Eliciting a sense of moral obligation and personal responsibility. This final objective also is difficult to attain, but it is well worth attempting. At several points throughout the semester, students do well to ask “Why should I be moral? What are my ethical duties and obligations as an individual, as a student, and as a professional journalist? Given my freedoms, what are my responsibilities?”
Moral psychologists tell us that acting out of a sense of commitment and principled behavior occurs only at higher stages of moral development. This stage of development reflects the internalization and operationalization of moral principles, the refinement of conscience. When it occurs, it does so after individuals have progressed through stages of egoism, relativism and culturally defined goals and rules. The process of internalization may appear on the surface to be somewhat irrational and may differ enormously from case to case, individual to individual. But it tends to occur as individuals move from an illusory kind of inner direction to a more rational and realistic one in which they achieve an examined life and a kind of autonomy, become moral agents on their own, and even reach a point at which they can criticize the rules and values of their society.
Dealing with Values
Thoughtful mass media educators and practitioners tend to share certain values, such as truth telling, minimizing harm, optimizing good, acting out of principle, etc. If these are seen as universal moral principles that are expected of new employees, there is a tendency for instructors to expect their students to arrive already holding them — or, at least, to hold to them by the end of the semester.
Buying into values-based education, however, is fraught with danger. It is not merely the case that students seem more intellectually comfortable with rampant relativism than with universal principles, although that is a constant factor for the ethics instructor to bear in mind. It is also a problem because the excitement of instruction in values brings one perilously close to the imposition of values.
While we correctly conclude that values are both caught and taught, journalism ethics instructors who have unconsciously assumed the values of the profession face a particularly difficult challenge if they are to remain true to the philosophic challenge of truth-seeking and genuine inquiry and to avoid dehumanizing their students. If they are to meet the challenge, they must encourage students to develop the capacity to recognize the difference between moralizing, bromides, war stories, and the “of course” syndrome (i.e., acting out of unquestioned adherence to institutional conventions) on the one hand and moral philosophy on the other.
As Michael J. Collins argued in Teaching Values and Ethics in College:
“We cannot teach people to be virtuous. We cannot eradicate evil and injustice with a liberal arts education. But when we develop in bright, talented young men and women the skills to succeed in the marketplace, we give them power, and we should, therefore, as Socrates recognized in the “Gorgias,” give some attention to how they will use it –help them, through our teaching, to become just, generous and compassionate.”
A course in journalism ethics must be especially concerned with encouraging students to consider long-term consequences as well as immediate action, tolerate ambiguity and unresolved dilemmas, slowly and deliberately come to judgment, invocate principle and nurture a sense of moral obligation.
Certainly it is the goal of professional education to provide immediately usable skills and attitudes valuable on the job. But it has a companion purpose — realizable in the ethics course — to preserve and protect those more humane considerations sometimes trampled in the profession’s rush to deadline, the controlled pandemonium of the broadcast control room and all the ramifications of 24/7 journalism in a corporate world.
Jay Black, editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics and co-author of the SPJ ethics manual, Doing Ethics in Journalism, was co-winner of the Freedom Forum’s inaugural national journalism professor of the year award in 1997.
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