BY PEGGY J. BOWERS
If one can claim, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1997) argues, that the purpose of a liberal education is to cultivate humanity, to prepare those under our care and instruction for world citizenship, then the task of media ethics pedagogy is indeed a sobering one. Not only do we bear the responsibility for educating thoughtful, ethical media practitioners, but also for assisting those future professionals in the larger and more complex problem of fitting together their humanity and their work.
During the past 20 years, significant, and one might even say remarkable, strides have been made toward establishing, developing and proliferating media ethics curricula. This brief overview of the state of media ethics education will highlight how the teachers, goals and practices of media ethics courses have grown and changed during two decades of rapid growth in the media industries and the intellectual pursuit of media ethics theory.1 Although the challenges have been admirably met, as the data will reflect, the future of journalism education rests on those most difficult and often fragile qualities of intellectual flexibility, creativity and intrepidity.
The Teaching Professional
Those who teach the ethics courses in curricula around the nation are well prepared for the task. According to Lambeth, Christians and Cole (1994), more than half of all ethics instructors hold the doctorate (53%) and another third (30%) hold at least a master’s degree. Because of the close connection between law and ethics, it is important to note that an additional seven percent have a juris doctorate. Just 10% have a bachelor’s degree only. There is room for improvement, however, and presumably there has been in the ensuing year—for which there is no available data. But by contrast, in a survey that Christians and Lambeth (1996) conducted among Speech and Communication Studies departments, more than three-fourths (79%) of the communication ethics instructors held the doctorate. Given the sophisticated nature of the ideas contained in most of the ethics courses around the country (discussed below), these educational credentials are both necessary and encouraging.
Concomitant to a high level of education, the media ethics teaching professional pursues an active research agenda with a variety of intellectual activities. Especially noteworthy, the data show a marked increase in publication activity in the almost 10 years between the 1992 and 2001 surveys (Lambeth, Christians and Cole, 1994; Lambeth, Christians, Fleming and Lee, 2004). In fact, the number who wrote journal articles more than doubled (from 28% to nearly 72%), as did work published in professional periodicals (from 31% to 67%).
This certainly suggests that the identity of scholar-teacher has become much more the norm, and that those who teach are also producing knowledge for the field. The most dramatic increase was in the number of scholars publishing books, from 12% to 45%. This remarkable jump provides heartening evidence that teaching professionals are investigating the subjects they teach in greater depth, providing more resources from which others may draw. The exchange of knowledge through scholarly conference activities such as participating on or organizing ethics panels remained strong, with a majority of teachers engaging in such activity.
The Growth of the Ethics Course
Clearly ethics courses have experienced tremendous growth throughout the past 20 years as a number of social and professional exigencies have emerged. For example, in the past two decades the media have come under greater societal scrutiny for the ethics of their coverage and their moral decisions, precipitating a decline in the media’s cultural authority. At the same time, western industrialized societies in particular have engaged in moral reflection regarding the environment, corporate greed, relationships with nonwestern and developing nations, and a loss of integrity in a host of social institutions, including the media.
Increasingly, journalism programs and media curricula reflected the need for an ethics course in order to complete the education of their students. Survey data covering the period from 1978 to 2001 reflect not only an increase in the sheer numbers of courses springing up around the country, but the growing perception of their necessity. Thus, in 1978, for example, less than 30% of respondents merely offered an ethics course. By 2001, however, the number of programs that offered either required or optional ethics courses almost doubled. The greatest growth not coincidentally occurred with the resurgence of the field in the 1980s. While raw numbers may not have produced dramatic increases subsequent to that period, the courses’ status as essential did begin to grow.
Goals of Instruction
Media ethics courses, then, are a crucial component of a burgeoning number of curricula, but the question remains as to what these courses are supposed to accomplish. During a 10-year period for which the survey data are available, some consistent and pervasive goals emerge.2 In both 1992 and 2001, the overwhelming majority of respondents (approximately 75%) listed fostering moral reasoning as an indispensable goal for ethics courses. Incidentally, almost all the remaining respondents deemed it “important.” Clearly this goal is paramount, even more so than that of preparing students for professional work. Less than half the respondents in both surveys listed that as indispensable. These results suggest at least two implications. First, while everyone seemingly agrees that moral reasoning is crucial, and by a wide margin from how other goals are viewed, it is unclear what the respondents mean by moral reasoning. In other words, some may read this question to imply traditional Age of Enlightenment or deontological reasoning. Some may have a wider array of modes of reasoning in mind. Some may even think of reasoning more colloquially, viewing it as merely the ability to puzzle through a moral dilemma without referencing a particular type of reasoning or considering the differing views of how humans are constructed. Interestingly, a question about contributing to the moral development of students appeared only in the 2001 survey, but ranked second there only to moral reasoning. It has similar issues.
Respondents may think of the moral development theories of Lawrence Kohlberg, or of some similar understanding of human morality as progressive. They may also consider the wording colloquially, to mean instilling a moral sensibility. Second, moral reasoning is an intellectual or philosophical task, very much a part of what it means to be human but one that stands alone. Such a skill can have obvious connections to the professional life, but also can be seen as more abstract, not necessarily connected. This becomes important in what was referred to above as fitting together one’s humanity and work, and below in the perceptions about ethics instruction. Two others that ranked fairly highly among respondents were to advance a liberal education and to survey current ethical practices. The liberal education dimension significantly gained importance from 1992 to 2001. This seems compatible with perceptions about journalism education during this time, and the social and professional practices discussed above. Yet the goal of using the media ethics course as a vehicle to survey current ethical practices dropped in respondents’ perceptions of its centrality, and to a considerable degree (almost 24%). This may also indicate that ethics courses were becoming more intellectually driven, and also recognize that the task of an ethics course was not necessarily to endorse what practitioners were already doing. This is also consistent with the challenge to journalistic authority noted earlier.
Perceptions about the Status of Ethics Instruction
Given the rapid growth of media ethics courses in 20 years’ time and the goals such courses privilege, it is also important to understand how those closest to the classroom perceive the status of media ethics instruction. Thus, educators were asked in 2001 to respond to four questions marking important measures of that status. The news is both heartening and indicative of key gaps in ethics education. First, most educators at least agree that media ethics holds an essential place in the curricula of most major journalism and mass communication programs. When posed to administrators, there is virtually no statistical difference in the two groups’ responses, which is further confirmation that media ethics enjoys some stature in the larger professional education picture.
Also a positive development, more than 80% of educator respondents agree or strongly agree that the breadth and quality of ethics instruction is significantly improved from 20 years ago. It is likely that the increases in educational preparation and research have contributed to this perception, and perhaps even the methods of instruction being used (discussed below).
Still, there are glaring deficiencies, according to the survey. Perhaps the most serious is the perceived inability of media ethics courses to actually make a difference in the professional lives of media practitioners. This is due largely to the lack of a meaningful relationship between academics and professionals. To be sure, these relationships are difficult to cultivate, but more attempts—like the Media Ethics Summits—should be made toward this end. Along these lines, educators also indicated that not many professors are doing the kind of research that will make a difference to the field. This is largely due to lack of training or educational preparation. In sum, there exists a disconnection between the professoriate and the profession that must be addressed in order to move forward in ethics education. That is, no matter how stellar the educational experience for students, it will not impact the field unless educators make a conscious effort to do so. The profession must be the telos, and not simply or exclusively the beauty of the idea.
Approaches to Teaching
The final category examines the material media ethics classes cover, and the means by which educators communicate those ideas. A comparison between the value systems or ethical frameworks that educators used in 1978 versus those examined in the classroom in 1993 reveals not only that educators are more frequently and consistently applying ethical frameworks to media ethics material, but that a larger variety and sophistication of ideas also are employed. For example, in both 1978 and 1993, almost half of educators reference secular humanism, or the notion of strong values without religious orientation. Judeo-Christian values are used in both years, but with a sharp jump (23% to 76%) in 1993. Likewise, utilitarianism is barely a presence in 1978 (9%) but in 1993 is a standard feature of most courses (78%). A similar increase occurs with the use of social convention as a determinant of values (6% to 55%). Perhaps equally important, the number of professors who say they don’t use any values systems to teach ethics dropped from 27% to 13%. Whereas Kantianism did not show up at all in the 1978 data, in 1993 72% of educators listed it as a feature of their courses, making it another standard idea found in most classrooms. The trend toward variety continues with 40% of respondents reporting that they also use a plurality of principles, or some other ethical system (24%). It is important to note that there is a considerable bias toward the traditional frameworks, especially the ones that are sympathetic to fundamental values of American society and journalism. While this is an important practice and cannot be overlooked, the use of a greater diversity of value structures and ideologies occurs at a much lower rate than the use of standard western thought.
The variety of teaching methods is also a mark of maturity. By far the method upon which most professors rely is the case study, with a dominating 98% usage. A close second is the lecture format. Somewhere between 60% and 80% of educators also utilize the pedagogical standard tools of explaining principles, and assigning short papers or research papers. Other reported activities of modest usage include similar traditional exercises, such as small group discussion, student presentations, or panels of opposing viewpoints. Some creativity also exists, as evidenced by role-playing (60%) or student interviews with journalists (30%). Arguably the most interesting finding from this question is what educators are not doing, or not doing very much. For example, only 11% of professors indicated that they use novels or plays to teach ethics. About as many invite lectures from academics who teach in other departments. Both are rich, creative and unusual sources of knowledge for students and can provide them with fruitful perspectives unavailable elsewhere. Further examination of educators’ approaches to teaching, both in material and method, can illuminate how the future of journalism education can be progressive and promising.
The Future of Journalism Education
Without question,those who are teaching the next generation of media professionals are a concerned, engaged group. They are well prepared as teacher-scholars to bring important ideas from their own and others’ research into the classroom. Their goals for students are appropriate and germane. As a result of the ascending quality of the ethics curriculum, it has become a thriving and vital part of a journalism education, and rightly has enjoyed enhanced stature among educators and administrators. Educators have executed well the objectives of their pedagogy.
It is well to remember, however, that ethical frameworks are more than a toolbox, and ethics is not like an algebra problem to which the application of the right formula produces a right answer. Without careful work to the contrary, this can be the reductive way students (and their professors) may come to view ethics.
Thus, the predominant use of the case study method, for example, has important caveats. Case studies surely can be invaluable in demonstrating the practicality of ethics. They are engaging, challenging, and, of course, the end toward which we apply frameworks. As Pincoffs (1986) would say, however, they are also often premature. Rather it is more crucial to use ethics instruction to foster moral vision. Only then can case studies be maximally fruitful.
Another myopic weakness to ethics education is the tenacious adherence to a few of the traditional western frameworks that have shaped American society. Surely they are important, but not at the expense of overlooking other theories. Though the diversity of ideas is much better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, by no means have all educators attained this goal. Educators must more predominantly and explicitly embrace alternate theories, some of them unambiguously moral or philosophical, others not necessarily applied that way. Among those one might consider are cultural studies, feminism, environmentalism or concepts derived from various religious traditions. For journalism ethics education to remain fresh, professors must tirelessly strive to innovate.
Nussbaum’s call to cultivate humanity (1997) can challenge journalism ethics educators to be and do more. She proposes change through the development of three capacities: a critical self-examination and critical thinking about one’s own culture and traditions; the vision of oneself as a human bound to all humans with ties of concern; and the nurturing of narrative imagination, the ability to empathize and put oneself in another’s place.
Imagine a classroom in which students study narrative, already a part of the journalistic enterprise, as a vehicle toward empathy. Sometimes narrative is more revealing of the human condition than philosophy (Murdoch, 1970) or news. Moreover, it is a contrast to traditional classroom instruction for a journalism course—one that encourages human connection instead of detachment. All these goals resonate with the general project of ethics and the appropriate goals of an ethics course. All are appropriate and possible for an ethics classroom of any sort. All hold the potential to transform journalism education in meaningful and productive ways.
1 The survey data to which this article refers comes from a series of studies conducted during a 20-year period by Clifford Christians and Edmund Lambeth. The data are obviously much more vast than this article can reflect, so the author has highlighted certain material as key to understanding the whole, and has compiled the data into comparative charts. The articles themselves are well worth reading independently.
2 Not all the surveys asked the same questions, or asked them in the same way so comparisons are not always possible.
Christians, C. G. and E. B. Lambeth (1996). “The status of ethics instruction in communication departments.” Communication Education, 45, 236-243.
Murdoch, I. (1970). The sovereignty of good. London: Ark Paperbacks.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pincoffs, E. (1986). Quandaries and virtues: Against reductivism in ethics. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.