Credible journalists believe strong ethics are crucial to their trustworthiness with viewers, readers and listeners.
However, a recent study shows only about a third of the 247 responding journalism programs require students to take an ethics class.
As a professor at one of those schools that don’t require an ethics class, I’m working to change that. And faculty across the country in my position should work to do the same.
During the 2004-05 school year, I proposed a media ethics course for the journalism and mass communications program at the University of Northern Colorado, where I teach. I was told I could offer the course as an elective if the curriculum committee would OK my proposal. Long story short, the committee OK’d the proposal, noting that a media ethics course should be required of all Northern Colorado journalism students.
So, finally, I taught the first-ever Northern Colorado media ethics class this spring — as an elective. The 35 seats filled within a couple of weeks. Previously, I had taught this class successfully at two other colleges, so I pulled out my notes and readied myself to teach this new batch of future communicators about pondering ethical dilemmas, about being socially responsible, and, most importantly, about having the courage to stand up for their values and beliefs.
Ethics courses in the 21st century
My experience may seem odd to journalism professors who have had a stand-alone ethics course in their programs for years. However, where do the all-important ethics courses stand in college journalism programs at the beginning of the 21st century? The fourth and latest study in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, published in 2004, show an increase in the number of required ethics courses since the last study, which was completed from 1992-93. Of the 247 journalism programs responding, 37.2 percent said they require the course, while 11.5 percent reported they offered it among a listing of required courses.
These percentages show that “12 percent more JMC units now require the media ethics course — more than a third — appears to confirm the judgment … that the media ethics course has gained an ‘essential place’ in the curriculum of the major programs of journalism and mass communications,” the study reported. Eighty-three percent of the programs responding said they offer media modules within other journalism courses.
One of the study’s authors, Edward Lambeth, University of Missouri professor emeritus and director of the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public, said via e-mail that a huge discrepancy was uncovered between 90 journalism educators and 90 editors about how much progress journalism programs have made in the teaching of ethical decision-making.
The statement “Today’s journalism graduates have a better understanding of journalism ethics than graduates five years ago” brought these results: Seventy-three percent of the heads of journalism schools agreed, but 69 percent of the editors disagreed.
“I can only guess at the reasons the editors think that way,” Lambeth said, “but their perceptions do send a signal that I think we ignore only to our own disadvantage (as journalism educators).”
The JMCE article calls for “closer and more effective cooperation of journalism practitioners, media ethics teachers and journalism administrators in matters of both ethics teaching and research.”
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the ASNE, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the American Press Institute, the Radio and Television New Directors Association and the Nieman Foundation all provide important periodic public arenas in which insights can be used to teach how best to cultivate good habits of ethical decision-making for journalists and media ethicists, Lambeth said.
“But those conferences and gatherings are never as effective as the quiet, one-to-one conversations that can be cultivated within newsrooms,” he said. “Editors don’t often know how to help their staff think through tough decisions or retrospectively deconstruct highly visible cases in which crucial ethical distinctions have been made effectively — or have failed to be made.”
A strong sense of ethics
Lambeth said he believes there is merit in periodically surveying media ethics teachers, but there may be ways of taking stock of what they have done and are doing to improve that have not yet been tried.
“In short,” he said, “we need to continue to exercise our moral imaginations to be a vital force in the academy and professional practice.”
Clifford Christians, another author of the JMCE article and professor of communications research at the University of Illinois, explained via e-mail that one reason ethics instruction is so important is because these are enormously difficult days for democracy.
“Public deliberation on the crucial issues is weak and not well-informed. Extreme polarization in Washington politics and fundamentalism on the world scene don’t set the stage for reasoned discussion,” he said. “But it’s also a reflection of the complexity of the issues in a global, increasingly technological society today. Meanwhile, the rationale for the press, its epistemology, its institutional and technological form are likewise under debate and reconstruction.”
Christians said that given the crucial shifts taking place politically and technologically and given the ongoing debates about a centerpiece of democratic life (the press) within this larger context, the course on journalism ethics is a perfect setting for working through the problems and solutions.
“Ethics do not provide automatic stability and direction in a chaotic world, but empower our discussion and ensure that the crucial issues will be on the agenda,” he said.
In 2005, the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the creation of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. The initiative came about after those interviewed said they wished that journalism schools would “understand and appreciate the ethical dimensions of their work as well as prepare (students) for the pressures they will face in a 24/7 competitive news environment.” (A summary of this report is available at www.carnegie.org or at www.knightfdn.org).
The authors of the JMCE article said, in summary, that journalism professors and administrators agree that media ethics has established an ‘essential place’ in the major programs of journalism and mass communications.
In my program, however, I’m just getting started — as are other professors not in the major programs of journalism.
Did my spring class make a difference? Following are anonymous comments from the 35 course evaluations:
* “This course is important for all journalism students to take because we are going to face ethical dilemmas every day; we need to understand how to work through them.”
* “This course changed my views of ethics and journalism. It gave me a lot to think about.”
* “Great class! The information will definitely be used a lot!”
There are many more similar comments. A media ethics course should be required. And when students encounter ethical dilemmas in their new workplaces, they need to have the courage to confront authority.
As Lambeth said, it is “an era of very high fear across all media as they struggle with the wave upon wave of new technology and challenged bottom lines.”
Students are the ones who will save the integrity of the media. Because, as one of my students said in the course evaluation:
“I really think that every journalism student should have to take this class. … Ethics will be important in reclaiming credibility.”
Unfortunately, the Northern Colorado ethics course won’t be offered again until the fall of 2007.
Lee Anne Peck, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Northern Colorado and a member of SPJ’s International, Education and Ethics committees.