I am not convinced that ethics can be taught, even though I’ve been trying to do it for six or more of the eight years since I (sort of) retired from The Denver Post. When you think about it, ethics depends on a person’s good moral instincts, and those are the product of many things, including parents, peers, good and bad examples, religion and other beliefs, all producing a gut feeling for what’s right and what’s wrong.
What can be taught, though, is how to identify ethical dilemmas — as differentiated from legal questions or simply matters of taste — and different ways to approach resolving those dilemmas. That is the premise behind the fourth edition of SPJ’s handbook/textbook on media ethics. It’s the major premise, at least. Another premise is that while the delivery systems change — no one was tweeting when the third edition was published in 1996 — the principles don’t.
Here’s how I would propose using the new text, “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” (Marion Street Press). At around $50 a pop (discounts available for SPJ members), it’s very reasonable for a college text. That comes to $1 a case study, and all of the case studies are from real life, with real-life outcomes. The book and the case studies are organized around the four sections of the SPJ Code of Ethics, with additional chapters dealing with related issues such as deception, visual images and diversity. There’s a new chapter comparing ethics and legal issues, and an incredibly compressed introduction to the thinking and language of ethical philosophers.
But the case studies — more of them than in preceding editions, and most of them new — are the heart of the book and the primary teaching tool. Two different analytical templates are suggested, but each contains the same key elements:
1. Describe the situation as thoroughly as possible, including all relevant bits of information (and maybe some that turn out not to be so relevant).
2. Put the issue in the form of a question. Write it down.
3. Identify the person who has to decide what to do.
4. List all of the people who will be affected by the decision. And remember that some of them will be affected more than others.
5. Identify the issues at stake. This is where the section on moral philosophy can be handy, although most problems come down finally to the conflict between telling the truth and minimizing the harm.
6. Arrive at a decision that you can justify and explain with confidence. Write it down to make sure it makes sense. Seriously consider making your reasoning part of your report.
Here’s an example of a case study from the book, written by former Ethics Committee Chairman Casey Bukro:
WHAT: The Chicago Cubs in 2003 were five outs from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when a 26-year-old fan tried to grab a foul ball, preventing outfielder Moises Alou from catching it. The Florida Marlins rallied for an 8-3 victory to tie the National League championship series in game 6, then went on to defeat the Cubs. The man in the left field seats who deflected the ball was escorted by security guards from Wrigley Field after he was threatened and cursed by angry fans and pelted with beer and debris.
The hapless fan’s identity was unknown. But he became recognizable through televised replays as the young baby-faced man in glasses, a Cubs baseball cap and earphones who bobbled the ball and was blamed for costing the Cubs a trip to the World Series.
QUESTION: Given the potential danger to the man, should he be identified by the media?
WHO: After working through the night and the next morning, the Chicago Sun-Times identified the infamous Cubs fan as Steve Bartman, the Lincolnshire, Ill., consulting firm where he worked and the suburb where he lived. Sun-Times reporter Frank Main, who covered the story, explained why the Sun-Times editor at the time decided to reveal Bartman’s identity. “He was the center of a national news story and there was no legal or moral problem in naming him. We did not think there was a serious possibility of his being assassinated by fans. We decided to go with the story and tell readers what we knew.” Chicago Tribune editors said they printed Bartman’s name after he released a statement saying, “I am truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart.” James Burke, a member of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists team, said identifying Bartman was “an act of irresponsible journalism” and a violation of the SPJ ethics code, which urges journalists to minimize harm. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley chastised the media for identifying Bartman, and was quoted by the Sun-Times saying “do you put your CEO’s name and address out? … You wouldn’t do that. You’d be fired tomorrow … And that is not fair to that young man …”
WHY: One of the highest principles in the SPJ Code of Ethics is to seek truth and report it. But journalists also should balance that principle with others, such as whether revealing Bartman’s identity could result in harm. Other than the statement expressing regret for deflecting the ball from Alou’s glove, Bartman made no further comment or allowed interviews. He has remained a private figure who has insisted on his privacy and made every attempt to avoid the publicity he was getting. The Chicago Tribune justified identifying Bartman by saying other media were doing it.
HOW: Journalists have an obligation to consider the honorable course of action, such as whether Bartman should have been identified and whether his identity was something the public needed to know. This was, after all, a baseball game in which Bartman was a mere spectator. Bartman did not lose the game; the Chicago Cubs lost the game and the series. Each news organization should consider acting independently.
At least one journalist at the time thought the Chicago Tribune might have distinguished itself by continuing to refuse to identify Bartman, even though he issued a statement and others were identifying him. The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to show compassion and special sensitivity when dealing with inexperienced sources or subjects. That could have applied to Bartman. Journalists could have asked him if he wanted to be identified before doing so. This was not a case where the public needed to know his identity. And, in retrospect, Bartman has never surfaced again from his momentary, unwanted celebrity. It was thrust upon him against his will. He was a victim of fate and happened to be where a foul ball fell from the sky.
In his statement, Bartman said in part: “I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play.” The media could have taken pity on the guy.
You’ll notice that this study is written in a What-Who-Why-How format. That’s one of the new elements in this book. Other cases are written in a Situation-Analysis-Decision format that is a carryover from the third edition. I would suggest that instructors introduce their students to these analytical templates and then ask that students choose from among the 50 case studies provided, or (for extra credit) come up with new case studies, to do their own analyses. If a case study is presented in the Situation-Analysis-Decision format, ask students to convert it to the new What-Who-Why-How method, and vice versa. Or students can do it in their own narrative style. The key elements are the same no matter which format is used.
The problem, for me anyway, is how to grade. I hate grading ethics papers. I love reading them, but I dislike having to establish a hierarchical system for what is essentially a matter of personal choices. At the level I teach — college seniors at the University of Denver — students have learned how to express themselves, and most of them write well. Their papers, for the most part, engage the reader. Anyone endeavoring to teach ethics has to keep an open mind and realize that different people, given the same set of circumstances, may reach different conclusions on what’s the right thing to do. So I tell my students I’m looking for reasoning ability, consistency and honesty of thought, and skill in articulating how they arrive at the decisions they reach. I probably give too many A’s, but then, I’m easily impressed.
Fred Brown is a longtime member of the Ethics Committee and a past national SPJ president (1997-98). He teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver. Reach him at EthicalFred@aol.com.
Tagged under: Ethics