« In Memoriam | Main | Playing to Learn »

Values, Principles, and Dilemmas: Teaching Media Ethics

ethics in the media artThe role of ethics in mass media has always been an important component of learning in the SJMC. By engaging students with ethics questions in the classroom, the SJMC prepares them for the decisions they’ll make in the newsroom and the boardroom.

Now more than ever, the ethics, morality, and judgment of the mass media are on our collective mind. In the journalism industry, scandals involving reporters with questionable sources and techniques make us doubt the legitimacy of the news we watch and read. The emergence of advertising techniques such as Internet pop-up ads and “guerilla advertising" have made the advertising industry, never the most trusted by the public, even less so. And we all talk knowingly of the “spin" that public relations efforts put on everything from disaster relief to breakfast cereal.

Combine this jaded attitude with the barrage of unethical media practices we confront every day— the supermarket tabloids with their fabricated stories and photos, the political advertisements in which each side accuses the other of deceiving the public, the memory of a “darkened" O.J. Simpson on the cover of Newsweek exactly 10 years ago this past fall—and it’s fair to wonder if there is any room left for public trust in something as apparently untrustworthy as “ethical media."

Beyond the headlines

In the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, the study of media ethics goes well beyond the headlines. Issues of ethics, good judgment, and morality in journalism and strategic communication are an integral part of the School’s teaching, research, and outreach efforts. One result of those efforts is the Mass Media Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Case Studies course (Jour 3771), which addresses the ethical questions inherent in journalism, public relations, and advertising. One of the instructors of Jour 3771 is visiting associate professor Chris Ison, an alum of the SJMC (B.A. ’83) and a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Star Tribune. Ison knows first-hand how difficult it can be to resolve ethical questions as a reporter.

“The instances when I’ve struggled with an ethical question in the newsroom are, frankly, too numerous to mention," says Ison, whose goal in Jour 3771 is to help students build a foundation for making ethical decisions, taking into account the difficult circumstances that journalists and strategic communication professionals face every day. “We study each industry’s values and principles, their process for solving ethical dilemmas and spend a lot of time exploring our own values," Ison says.

Assistant professor Gary Schwitzer also teaches Mass Media Ethics, and he, too, stresses the importance of developing students’ own value systems in relation to media ethics. “I tell students that this will be one of the most important courses they will take because it allows them to set their moral compass now, while they have time to think and study and observe," Schwitzer says. “I can guarantee that any student will view news, advertising, and public relations through a different lens after they’ve taken this course. I regularly hear from former students who are now in the workplace," he says, “and almost always, one of the first things they share is the latest ethical dilemma they faced in their job."

To help students face those ethical dilemmas with a sense of context, the Mass Media Ethics course includes an overview of the ethical principles of philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, and Confucius. The course then applies those principles to real-life conflicts, including issues of objectivity, race and diversity, unnamed sources, fairness and balance, and conflict of interest. “Attacking these real-life issues is very important, because people in media really do face these dilemmas constantly," says Ison. “Those who don’t have a solid foundation on which to base their decisions founder. And of course, as we’ve seen way too often lately, a weak ethical foundation can lead to scandal that can embarrass the industry and cost individuals their jobs."

An ethical tool box: the Potter Box

Recent headlines have focused on ethical lapses in the journalism industry, but these issues are no less important to students of advertising and public relations. That’s why Dan Wackman, professor and director of undergraduate studies, includes a unit on ethics in his Advertising in Society course. “Many of society’s concerns about and criticisms of advertising involve considerations of morality and ethics," Wackman says. “We try to help students become aware of these considerations and to take these concerns seriously."

To help his students understand and resolve the ethical issues they might face as advertising professionals, Wackman uses a theoretical tool called the “Potter Box." Developed by Ralph Potter, a Harvard professor of divinity, the Potter Box provides a framework for addressing and resolving complex moral problems. In class, Wackman presents his students with an ethical dilemma that might be faced by an advertising executive, and then asks them to resolve the dilemma using the Potter Box model.

In one such scenario, students are asked to imagine that they are the CEO of an advertising agency that has been invited to make a pitch for a major liquor company’s new campaign. The campaign will rely heavily on television—a situation made possible only by the liquor industry’s decision to revoke its voluntary agreement not to advertise on TV. The company knows this decision will be controversial and generate criticism, and it indicates that it wants the ads to be done very tastefully and to emphasize the responsible use of alcohol. The ad budget for the campaign will be $40 million per year, which would add up to 15 percent to the agency’s revenue.

With this information, students then use the Potter Box to do an ethical analysis to decide whether the CEO should try to land the account. “Ethical aspects of situations like these are often quite complex, which is why having an analytical tool like the Potter Box is quite useful," Wackman says.

Engaged professional citizenship

Almost every course in the SJMC curriculum includes some discussion of ethics and good professional judgment, and such discussions aren’t limited to the classroom. The School’s research and outreach efforts, such as those generated by the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, are often dedicated to engaging issues of ethics.

Professor Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center, is firm in her belief that, in general, the media have a strong sense of right and wrong. “I always say that ‘media ethics’ is not an oxymoron," says Kirtley, who does not see a decline in the media’s good judgment or general morality. “The media are no less ethical than when I started out 30 years ago," she says, “but I do think that the ethical lapses are becoming harder to hide. There are more and more people— media critics, ombudsmen, bloggers, and the general public—who are keeping a sharp eye on media lapses and ethics in general."

And students must be prepared to help shape this brave new world of the media, according to assistant professor Don Brazeal. “The definitions of ‘news’ and ‘knowledge’ are in constant flux," says Brazeal, who also teaches the Mass Media Ethics course. “Web logs and other forms of contributory journalism are creating new forms of information that break the rules of traditional journalism, advertising, and public relations. For information consumers, there is an even greater need to be able to sort through sources of information that are credible, ethical, and authoritative. Ultimately, tomorrow’s professionals—our students—will have to shape new definitions as well."

SJMC director Albert Tims agrees, and believes the School has a responsibility to help guide students toward what he calls “engaged professional citizenship": “Robust curricular experiences, research, and outreach programs keep ethical issues front and center," says Tims, “but I feel more can be done to encourage student leaders to critically examine the ethical challenges facing journalists and media professionals."

With this goal in mind, Tims created a special ethics grant competition among the School’s student organizations, using funds from discretionary alumni gifts. The five student groups (AdClub, the Graduate Student Organization, SPJ, PRSSA, and PRISM) were invited to apply for up to $1,500 in funding to support student-developed ethics programming. The 2005 grant was won by the School’s SPJ chapter (editor’s note: see page 20 for more on SPJ and its Chapter of the Year award), which proposed a half-day ethics conference for students entitled “The Source Course." The event, which will take place in February 2006, will focus on how young journalists can develop and maintain ethical relationships with their sources. Tims describes SPJ’s proposal as “carefully conceived, innovative, timely, and very appropriate for student engagement with the topic of ethical media behavior."

Sarah Bauer, SPJ chapter president, is grateful for the chance to focus her peers’ attention on ethical issues. “Newsrooms are high-stress areas," she says, “and when young reporters are thrown into those situations, it’s easy to cut corners or make hasty decisions. It’s important for students to discuss these issues with current professionals," she adds, “so they have a better picture of what the ‘real world’ of journalism and ethical decision making will be like."

Ethics in the newsroom: a conversation with Chris Ison

Chris IsonAs a reporter for the Star Tribune, visiting associate professor Chris Ison has dealt with issues of media ethics almost every day of his professional life. In his Mass Media Ethics course, he asks his students to wrestle with some of the same tough questions he himself has tackled.

On the “ethics of taking a stand": “We talk a fair amount in class about diversity as an important ethical value. As part of that discussion, I like to talk about what I call ‘the ethics of taking a stand’ using the issue of Indian nicknames as an example. I’m fascinated with this, because I find myself in disagreement with most of my students, just as I found myself in disagreement with most of my colleagues at my newspaper.

“In the early ‘90s, the Star Tribune banned the use of Indian nicknames in our news stories, except for rare circumstances. For example, we would refer to ‘Washington’s football team’ rather than ‘the Redskins.’ The majority of the people in the newsroom—including the ones I respect the most—thought this was not only silly, but a dereliction of our duty to reflect reality, whether that reality is distasteful or not.

“I usually agree with that view; I think we make more ethical mistakes when we don’t publish things than when we do. But this issue strikes me differently. It’s not a case of keeping information from the public: They know the Redskins are called the Redskins. For me, it’s less a political statement than a question of taste. Referring to a sports team by using a derogatory racial term is just distasteful. Is that a subjective judgment? Sure. But we make those every day. It’s similar to keeping profanity out of the paper. People swear all the time, but we try to limit the use of it for taste and sensitivity reasons.

“Two years ago, the Star Tribune’s new editor changed the policy back, much to the pleasure of most in the newsroom. I was one of two people I know who argued against him, even though I buy into his overarching principle of trying to reflect reality.

“When I bring this up in class, my students overwhelmingly come down on my editor’s side. And that’s fine with me. They’re thinking for themselves, and they can articulate their positions and their values, which I find gratifying. That’s what the study of ethics is about. “

The history of standards in journalism: a conversation with Hazel Dicken-Garcia

Hazel Dicken-Garcia.gifProfessor Hazel Dicken-Garcia’s book, “Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth-Century America" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), traces the relationship between societal values and the press coverage of issues and events in the 1800s. As a scholar of journalistic standards, Dicken-Garcia takes a historical perspective when it comes to today’s views on the ethics of the media.

On the importance of studying the history of journalism and journalistic standards: “To understand ideas, concepts, values, norms, and people’s very ways of thinking in today’s world requires study of the evolution of these over time, and particularly what has brought change and transformations. For example, the early 19th century press depended on funding by government institutions, political parties, and politicians, and thus was so deeply embedded in the political system that writers near the end of the century seem to have been unable to conceptualize a nonpartisan press. A U.S. president around the same time said the press must be partisan to do its job well. Views have changed so much that this is hardly conceivable today. “

On recent shifts in cultural thought impacting journalistic ethics: “Certainly, the Cold War and the equal rights movements of the 1950s and ‘60s—including civil rights and the women’s ‘liberation’ movement—reshaped public thinking and influenced journalism ethics. The assassination of President Kennedy and other political leaders, the murders of civil rights leaders, and urban riots in a very short period of time augmented disillusionment about effectiveness of normal democratic processes and, by association, the processes of journalists. “

On the difference between “legal" and “ethical": “One result of this disillusionment is an attitude that what one can get away with is just fine. The case of Jayson Blair comes to mind. An assumption seems to be more pervasive that if something is legal, one need not worry about whether it is ethical. Regarding journalism, bigoted, demeaning language comes to mind as legal but not ethical. And the transparent and too-frequent practice of trying to divert attention from one’s own shortcomings by destructive criticism of someone else is not illegal, but it is not ethical. “

The ethics of images: a conversation with Mike Zerby

Mike Zerby.gif“Photos don’t lie, but photographers sure can," says Mike Zerby, SJMC instructor in visual communication. Zerby, a SJMC graduate himself (B.A. ’68) and a nationally-known photographer for the Star Tribune, is passionate about truthtelling in photography. In his classes, students learn how to make good judgments as well as good photographs.

On ethics in photography: “There’s a simple rule in photography these days: You’re only allowed to do to a photograph what you could do in the darkroom—altering the light, for example. But you cannot alter content. There was a case recently involving a war photographer in Iraq who published a very powerful photo—it was of the aftermath of a battle—but the picture was a fake. He had combined two shots into one photograph in Photoshop because he thought the combined image captured the scene better. He was caught and eventually was fired, but in his mind he had done nothing wrong—he had just created a better image. With the technology these days, you can easily do that. And if you don’t have an internal moral construct, you can so easily convince yourself ‘I’m just making it better.’ But you’re wrong."

On students’ perceptions of “ethical" photography: “I tell my students in class that we have the opportunity to be more honest than ever, because technology makes it so much easier to get good photographs out there. And the students get it—I’m always pleased that it’s not difficult for them to comprehend. Only once have I had a student try to fool me: He tried to hand in a picture for an assignment that had been taken more than a year previously—and I knew when it had been taken because the date and time of a shot is embedded in digital files nowadays. That’s the problem with technology— it makes it so easy to go over to the ethical ‘dark side,’ and it’s very seductive."