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TEACHING ETHICS: It's More Than Just Lectures

October 2000 Community College Journalist

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
Robert Mercer
Robert Mercer

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece is written from notes used by Robert R. Mercer, Assistant Professor and Communications/Journalism Department Coordinator, Cypress College, Cypress, CA. when making a presentation at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. 2000 Conference in Phoenix August 12. The session was co-sponsored by the Community College Journalism Association and the Scholastic Journalism Division.

The story is told in Oklahoma that when United States Senator Robert S. Kerr was still a state legislator and controlled the state legislature, a lobbyist came to complain. The lobbyist had given another legislator a lug of whiskey to vote a bill. The three bottles of booze, taped together so they did not roll about in a bootleggerís car, were consumed by the representative, who then proceeded to vote the opposite way.

"You mean you thought you could pay a member of this body to vote a bill?"

"Yes, sir."

"But he did vote the other way."

"Yes, sir."

"No matter how you look at it," the senator is said to have announced. "This situation is an outrage," He then called the state legislator who had drank the bribe.

"You understand, this is question of ETHICS," the future U.S. Senator lectured.

"When youíre bought, you stay bought."

Everyone has ethics. But not everyone has the same ethics.

There are three areas the publication adviser notes differences over what is considered ethical behavior: Between social cultures, between media practices, between political systems.

This adviser teaches on a campus that has no majority population. Students come from around the world and bring with them different ideas of ethical behavior. Cypress College also has an open door enrollment policy, meaning any student over 18 may enroll. Noting a group of students in the class were struggling, this instructor offered the "D" students a chance to redo assignments and, if they performed well on the final, a chance to earn a "C." It was, from this instructorís background, "the Christian thing to do."

This instructor was next called to the deanís office. An Indonesian student was charging that giving the weak students a break was "unfair." It made no difference to her the amnesty for the "D" students did not detract from her 4.0 grade point. "You gave them something, but you did not give me anything."

Instructors at Cypress are having a hard time deciding what is "cooperative learning" as practiced by some Asian and pueblo cultures, in which the groupís success is more important than individual success, and what is just plain cheating according to a "rugged western individualist."

Consider the Christian fundamentalist student who refuses to even listen to philosophical questions about Godís existence posed by a professor from India. To even suggest the possibility that there can be doubt about Godís existence is a sin; it is unethical.

Establishing a convergence media program at Cypress College meant reconciling distinct practices and traditions of each traditional medium. The same students work on a newspaper, an online news site and a cable television newsmagazine. In newspapering, there is the ethical "firewall" between the editorial side and the business side so advertisers cannot influence journalistic content. In magazines in general, and controlled circulation magazines in particular, the magazine is designed around advertising themes and products advertised in the publication are often reviewed for the specialized audience members to help them in evaluating purchases. And, of course, in broadcasting, one often hears the advertisers messages entwined seamlessly around the general content. Itís called "effective promotion." The Los Angeles Times-Staples Center Scandal could never happen in television.

A Cypress student interning for a record magazine returned to campus having learned the common practices of that publication. This studentís editorial decisions outraged students who had interned with newspapers. Magazine and newspaper students were prepared to defend as ethical the practices each had learned on the job. The cable television staff which works with the Cypress students often recommends practices never tolerated at a daily newspaper.

Tabloids such as the National Enquirer often are dismissed as being full of lies. However, this writer was an undergraduate assistant to Dr. William Stephenson at the University of Missouri-Columbia when Dr. Stephenson was awarded a1973 National Science Foundation research grant. His content analysis revealed the publication carried more, and carried more accurate, scientific information than daily newspapers.

The political system in which a medium exists determines what is ethical. As Dr. Jim Rickstad, formerly of the East-West Center in Hawaii and the University of Oklahoma, used to challenge graduate students with the question, "Is the Chinese government information system a news distribution system?" Graduate students, almost all of whom worked currently in U.S. news organizations, responded that it was not; it was just public relations at best, propaganda at worse. Dr. Rickstad, who is currently visiting at Nanyang Technnological (stet) University in Singapore, would then lead the seminar in an exploration of the ethics of living in a communist state and the obligations of a loyal citizen.

Even noncommunist systems can appear unethical to an American. A journalism student at Oklahoma State University frustrated any attempts by her professor to inculcate the watch dog function of the press into the studentís ethical standards. "The government is good to us," the Singapore student replied. "Why would you criticize the government?"

At the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, visitors begin their tour by entering through one of two doors. Above the doors are signs: "Prejudiced," "Not Prejudiced." The guide watches the group enter, paying attention to which door each tour member uses. If the majority of the visitors choose the "Not Prejudiced" door, the guide knows it will be harder to have the group accept the basic premise of the museumóeveryone is prejudiced. Only by acknowledging prejudice publicly can a society achieve ethical behavior.

Renita Coleman and Lee Wilkins, University of Missouri, in their AEJMC 2000 presentation, "Searching for the Journalist Phrenemos: An Exploratory Study of the Ethical Development of News Workers," made the point that awareness of ethical practices is a product of education. Using a standard psychological measurement tool, medical doctors were rated as having the highest awareness of ethics while Journalists were above average among professionals. High school students were rated among the lowest in awareness of ethics.

Lee Anne Peck, University of Ohio graduate student, in the same session, presented, "Beyond Kant Lite: Journalists and the Categorical Imperative." She stated Kant said there was no known set of absolute ethical standards, but instead said one should continually ask the correct questions in hope of finding such standards.

Peck said there is a difference between ethical standards and "craft attitudes." Ethical standards are the result of critical consideration of the problem. The craft attitude is a phrase used to justify unconsidered actions: "The publicís right to know."

Journalism students in the campus newsroom can learn to ask the correct questions. The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and The Society of Professional Journalists publishes "Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook with Case Studies." The opening page of the 1993, three-ring binder contains the Guiding Principles for the Journalists:

1. Seek Truth and Report It as Fully as Possible

2. Act Independently
3. Minimize Harm.

Obviously, these are often conflicting loyalties. How does one decide each time if one chooses to minimize harm or report truth fully?

To guide the journalist are 10 questions on the same opening page of "Doing Ethics."

1. What do I know? What do I need to know?

2. What is my journalistic purpose?

3.What are my ethical concerns?

4. What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?

5. How can I include other people, with different perspectives and diverse ideas, in the decision making process?

6. Who are the stakeholdersóthose affected by my decision? What are their motivations? Which are legitimate?

7. What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?

8. What are the possible consequences of my actions? Short term? Long Term?

9. What are my alternatives to maximizing my truth telling responsibility and minimize harm?

10. Can I clearly and fully justify my thinking and my decision? To my colleagues? To the stakeholders? To the public?

These questions, in the experience of this adviser, work. Dr. Caroline Dow, now with Flagler University and a contributor for "Doing Ethics," introduced this adviser and the students of a small, Midwestern university to these questions. The students were struggling as to whether to run a story about the dean of students. The dean had made "drug" raids on dorm rooms and conducted illegal searches and seizures. When student journalists questioned the raids, the dean cowered the dorm residents into silence. One resident finally consented to an interview with the student press. The other victims tumbled after. The students had a story.

However, the students questioned whether to run it and how much detail to publish. Publicizing the illegal conduct would embarrass the small, private university they loved. They realized the dean of students would lose his job. The university would be subject to lawsuits from parents. As it was a university with a religious affiliation, the students had no First Amendment protection and retaliation by the administration was a real possibility.

The students went into a room by themselves and wrestled with the questions. They published. When the newspaper was attacked by the president of the university, they held him at bay for a semester because they were able to explain to the local press the process by which they had reached their decision.(1)

Since then, this adviser has used the 10 questions to help students reach difficult decisions. They decided not to publish an off-campus bookstore advertisement that competed with the campus bookstore. They decided it would be a conflict of interest given the financial connections the newspaper had with the bookstore. They published an obscene word on the front page, deciding the only way to explain the fight over censorship at the campus art gallery was to show what was censored. All that was asked of the students by the adviser was that, when the telephones began to ring, when the lawyers came by, they could rationally explain how they solved their ethical dilemmas. In every case, the dissenters walked away, unhappy to be sure, but accepting the fact that an ethical decision making process had been followed.

One student, who stated he had posed a news photograph, defended his actions, "You couldnít tell, the readers will never know, either."

"But," this adviser replied, "You do." The student went on to become a photojournalist who wins awards for spot news photos.

Ultimately, advisers teach ethics by allowing students to engage in "Doing Ethics."


(1) The non-tenured faculty members in the department were forced to leave at the end of the semester. The adviser was offered a job by the local daily. When the students returned in the fall, the president had placed the campus newspaper under the control of the new dean of students. The students reportedly walked off campus and began publishing a successful, independent student newspaper by taking their advertisers with them.


Black, Jay, Bob Steele, and Ralph Barney. "Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook with Case Studies." The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and The Society of Professional Journalists. Greencastle, Ind. 1993

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