Student editors are, by definition, students first and editors second. It's not unusual to see a code of ethics posted on the wall in student newsrooms, perhaps next to flyers about workplace etiquette and plastic signs indicating the fire exits. The code might be framed and prominently displayed, but it's difficult to know whether students take notice of it. They may have the same attitude toward it as they do the fire escape map: It's there if they need it, but it's not something that draws daily attention.
Students may, in fact, see journalistic codes of ethics as a kind of "use-in-case-of-emergency" guide. According to our conversations with top editors at 50 daily college papers across the U. S., they're likely to reach for the code last when making day-to-day decisions.
The importance of ethics education has been supported by many including Lambeth, Christians and Cole, Lee and Padgett and Hanson. However, some research suggests that students often emerge overconfident in their ability to make ethical decisions because they mistakenly conflate the ability to provide the "correct" answer on a multiple-choice exam with the ability to make smart real-world decisions. This reflects a na've outlook on the nature of ethical decision-making.
Talking to Student Journalists
Are student journalists-who work in the ethically complex landscape of the newsroom-prone to the same kind of naivety? How do classroom experiences and the use of codes impact their decision-making? An initial list of 109 college dailies in the continental U. S. was compiled. Using interviews conducted over the telephone or by e-mail, we explored the connection between classroom education and the decision-making of 50 senior-level editors at collegiate dailies (46 percent of the target newspapers).
We asked them to share what they believed were the most challenging areas for decision-making and how confident they were in their ability to make ethical decisions. We also asked them to share how often they consulted ethical codes, such as the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, and to describe the influence of their classroom experiences.
The student editors reported that the most common ethical challenges involved issues of plagiarism, dilemmas they faced while covering student deaths or student-related crime, and problems that arose in managing their Web publications, where decisions were sometimes not made as carefully as they were for the print editions.
Of course, the SPJ code doesn't directly address any of these issues except plagiarism. It does, however, provide a set of useful guidelines and ideas for thinking through the many dimensions of any ethical dilemma. Students frequently indicated that their publications had adopted the SPJ code or had another code of ethics. But they were typically unable to identify a specific instance where they had consulted the code while making a decision.
What emerged from the interviews, though, was college editors' willingness to use resources to aid them in their decision-making processes. Student editors frequently reported relying on their peers, as well as professional or faculty advisers, to guide them as they dealt with dilemmas. They were also quick to indicate that time spent in the newsroom was equally important. In other words, they believed that the more they had worked in the "pressure-cooker" deadline-driven newsroom environment, the sharper their decision-making skills automatically became.
Student editors also said their ability to think through ethical problems was influenced by how many journalism classes they had taken. The value of ethical codes, how- ever, seems to be lost on student journalists. We suspect that students underplayed this value because of overconfidence in their own abilities. This strong belief in their abilities was often credited back to their upbringing, with several editors suggesting that parental influence guided them.
Overwhelmingly, the sentiment among the editors was that their ethical codes were accessible, but not important. Most expressed a belief that they inherently abided by the practices of their ethical codes and so had no need to consult them. One student said, "I think most of us here, intuitively, or through experience, understand the code without having to directly consult it. But it's on a wall in the room, so I do look at it from time to time." Similarly, another editor said, "We don't consult our code often because it's embedded in our principles."
The student editors also indicated that they believed ethical principles became second nature through their enrollment in media ethics courses. One participant who described rarely consulting an ethics code said, "I guess I still know what's in there from when I took my media ethics course."
In general, student editors were more likely to say that their ethics classes were more influential to their decision-making than codes. That being said, less than half of the students reported taking a media ethics class, suggesting that the presence of media ethics courses in the curriculum may not be as robust as we had hoped or thought.
However, because the majority of students who had not taken a course in media ethics said they believed they should have taken an ethics class-and those who had taken a class strongly supported the inclusion of the class in their curriculum-our study seems to cement the value of ethics courses for student journalists, especially for those in leadership positions with campus media such as student newspapers. It also suggests, however, while classes were influential, the most effective approach might be to integrate ongoing training modules into campus newsrooms, where students can more easily discuss the connection between the theories, the codes and their work. This would allow students to practice the application of ethics, rather than merely regurgitating "correct" answers from textbooks.
Ethics instructors should consider addressing student editors' common concerns. For example, classroom discussion about plagiarism may seem to address what should be obvious, but students regularly cite this as an issue they confront. Case studies may be useful in allowing students to talk through covering the death of a student and could also be extended to tackle the questions about Web content, especially areas dealing with taste, sensitivity and diversity issues.
Furthermore, ethics instructors should think about incorporating a session in their classes that goes beyond discussing codes of ethics and works with how the code can be applied and used in real-life situations. Again, a case study may be the appropriate way of helping students learn how to use the code, rather than seeing it as a set of standards.
More firmly establishing the role of ethics courses in the journalism curriculum may be something faculty should consider, especially for programs that are tied directly to student publications and news outlets. Editors suggested their ethics classes as more valuable than codes; this could be for a number of reasons including the use of cases to which they could relate, the stimulation of their thinking through class discussions, and the relationships they developed with professors.
Again, these editors rightly pointed out that classes cannot mimic the newsroom (an advantage of the classroom environment, where students are allowed to learn the basics without the full brunt of "real world" pressures and consequences), diluting the ability of such classes to teach what to do in a given situation. But the literature suggests that the value of ethics classes is, instead, in teaching how to think, and editors seemed to intrinsically understand this.
These classes cannot teach students to be ethical, but they can provide tools student editors can use to help make the decisions that come with every deadline.