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359572656 51a00dc2a6 bSource: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cristic/359572656BY MARIE CAMPAGNA FRANKLIN 

Studying media ethics is essential for an undergraduate communication major, the thinking goes, spawning college classes in Media Ethics and Society, Ethical Practices in Communication, Ethics in Social/Internet Media, Applied Ethics in Media and Business. The scope of readings and discussions is broad, and to some degree, at the whim of the professor: Journalistic Codes of Ethics, Ethical PR Practices, Ethical Dilemmas in Visual Media, Advertising, Sports Marketing, Political Communication, and TV and Entertainment Ethics.

Syllabi designed around well-known case studies like the 1982 Tylenol drug tampering incident and Johnson & Johnson’s response to the crisis; or The New York Times’ firing of reporter Jayson Blair in 2003 after he plagiarized more than 40 stories; or more recently, the media’s coverage of Donald Trump’s political campaign; or the implications of racial stereotypes or bias in the reporting of important social movements such as Black Lives Matter provide provocative material for the professor to use in the media ethics classroom.

But so too does a simple personal ethics survey I always ask my students to take the first day of class, where they anonymously answer questions about how they would act in certain ethically challenging situations. “How you’ll behave as a professional journalist or a TV producer, or a PR spokesperson for a political candidate, or whatever work you end up doing after you graduate from college, will depend more on your answers to these 30 questions than on any case study you’ll read while you’re a student in this class,” I declare from the front of the room before asking them to bare their honest souls, and then write a self-reflection paper of how they see themselves ethics-wise as a result of the exercise. “Take a hard look,” I advise. “On a scale of 1 to 10, are you ethical or not?” Already, I can see the bulbs going on inside.

That’s right, starting the semester with a personal ethics quiz works every time. So too does their willingness to come to the next class ready to talk about their answers. (“Remember,” I say, “What’s said in ‘media ethics’ stays in ‘media ethics’,” hoping to establish an early sense of trust among the students.)

There are many online surveys you could use for this purpose. Here are eight examples: (www.gotoquiz.com or www.testyourself.com are two sites online which include ethics quizes). I use a survey I make up myself drawing from several sources which asks 30 basic questions such as: Would you ever: Park in a handicapped spot, even if you weren’t disabled? Cheat on your taxes, or maybe on a boyfriend or girlfriend? Drive knowing you’re drunk? Cheat on an exam, research paper, or test? Keep extra change given in error to you by a clerk during a cash transaction? Lie to a family member or friend about why you can’t get together with them tonight? Use illegal drugs, such as marijuana? Copy and paste information from the Internet and use it as if it’s your own?

The candor with which my students divulge their ethical transgressions no longer shocks me, having taught this class at least a dozen times and to more than 300 undergraduates. Some admit to driving under the influence. Others reveal accepting wages under the table to avoid paying taxes, or cheating on a final exam. Sometimes during a good old-fashioned classroom debate, the students challenge each other’s values and rationales, other times they accept their good and bad decisions without question, and always the discourse is spirited and even passionate. This personal ethics survey provides just the foundation a professor hopes to lay in the beginning of a semester, giving students the chance to take a deeper look into their own values and ethical decisions before applying them to the professional arena.

If the media ethics curriculum feels a bit overwhelming for students at the start of the academic semester—or if greeting students with a lecture on Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Socrates’ Golden Mean, seems too cruel to the professor, take note: One of the best teaching tools has nothing to do with the experts. The best lessons are the ones that involve self-understanding. 

Two of the takeaways I try to impart on my students is that ethics can be learned and the more one studies ethics, the more ethically one behaves. With this in mind, what better way to frame an ethics class for COM majors than with a personal ethics overview? Because, for all practical purposes, the media ethics student who would drive drunk knowing it endangers other people’s lives will grow into the sort of advertising copywriter who will market cigarettes to teens in underdeveloped nations. The student who will get paid under the table to avoid taxes may well become the TV producer who will hire non-union actors to save money during production. Media ethics. Business ethics. Personal ethics. Morality. Call it what you will.

In essence, ethics is a skill, like all the others we impart to students before they graduate, right up there with writing, speaking, researching, and listening. We teach media ethics because we believe our students need to understand the complex decisions they will be making in their professional futures in journalism, advertising, entertainment media and PR and because we believe our courses will improve the quality of their decisions. Moreover, we stress studying the field because without ethics, students may find themselves, like Jayson Blair, a worker out of a job.