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Monday, April 4, 2011
Education Toolbox

Teaching the ethics barometer in bad weather

By Mac McKerral

The news about a Feb. 22 call to the governor of Wisconsin from the Buffalo Beast website in which an editor posed as a politically conservative billionaire supporter provided an opportunity for some discussion in my Press Law & Ethics class.

I asked the class what they thought about the caller’s behavior. One student’s hand quickly shot up. She defended “lying to get the truth.” About 15 students among 40 in class that day supported her position with a show of hands.

I am a journalist who teaches, not a scholar, but I recognize the unscientific nature of this research. Nevertheless, I wonder if in light of some scientific research and rapid changes in cultural norms, journalism educators might want to reconsider how we fit ethics into

the curriculum.

“Probably the biggest challenge (to teaching ethics) is trying to teach something that, when you come right down to it, really depends on a person’s good moral instincts." - Fred Brown

Plenty of tools exist to teach ethics, including the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and SPJ revival of the “Doing Ethics” book, now called “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.” The Knight Case Studies Initiative at the Columbia University School of Journalism also offers a lot of help, as do the SPJ and Poynter Institute websites.

But all the tools in the world cannot instill an ethical backbone into someone if other forces cause that person’s moral compass to wander from “true north.”

Fred Brown, longtime SPJ Ethics Committee member, herded “Journalism Ethics” to publication. He offers this:

“Probably the biggest challenge (to teaching ethics) is trying to teach something that, when you come right down to it, really depends on a person’s good moral instincts,” Brown said.

My concern is that teachers and programs might assume that students pursuing a journalism degree somehow have a more ethical backbone than others.

My second concern is that ethics “courses” tend to fall at the end of the curriculum rather than at the front and then continuing to the capstone.

"First, we need formal instruction in ethics from beginning to end of the curriculum. Each course that deals with “journalism” from Intro to Media Writing all the way to the capstone should contain a unit on ethics." - Mac McKerral



And finally, someone’s willingness to cheat at anything seems to offer a good basis for whether that person would behave unethically in the journalistic environment, too.

Plenty of research supports the notion that a lot of college students cheat to varying degrees on course work. And it seems that one of the “forces” that factors into the cheating equation is technology.

A Common Sense Media survey of 2,000 students and parents found that many teens are not clear about what cheating is:

• 23 percent responded that storing notes on a cellphone to use during an exam is not cheating.

• 19 percent responded that downloading a paper from the Web and submitting it for a class-assigned paper is not cheating.

Ongoing research on cheating here at Western Kentucky University reveals that: It occurs at an alarmingly high rate; it seems more prevalent in the traditional classroom than with online classes; and the highest incidence occurs among Honors College enrollees.

Why would journalism educators expect their students to behave differently when it comes to reporting the news? It seems we need to up the ethics ante for our students.

First, we need formal instruction in ethics from beginning to end of the curriculum. Each course that deals with “journalism” from Intro to Media Writing all the way to the capstone should contain a unit on ethics. This goes beyond simply “talking about it in class” as a reaction to a news event such as the Buffalo Beast poser, even though that comes with benefits.

I tell all my students to give constant thought to their ethical threshold. What are their limits? What are they willing to do and not do to get a good story, to beat the competition, to win an award, to succeed professionally?

If they don’t give their ethical barometer constant checking, when faced with making a quick ethical decision in bad journalistic weather, odds are they won’t choose wisely.

And we need to sharpen focus on the idea that the technology does not change the rules of ethical journalism.

We need to put equal energy into teaching the use of the technology and teaching the pitfalls that come with it.

Mac McKerral is an associate professor and news editorial coordinator in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University and a past national president of SPJ.

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