Journalists and their news organizations often find themselves under attack for ethical lapses. But at this time, when such accusations seem more frequent and intense, we decided to test journalists’ ethical decision-making. The results of our study offer a much needed reminder that the notorious and well-known practices of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass are more than counterweighted by good decisions made daily by reporters and editors who are less well known and who work a lot closer to home.

These good decisions and the people who make them are at the core of our look at moral development in journalists. These findings appear in our book, “The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics.” After testing a national sample of journalists we found that those who do this work are both able and subtle moral thinkers. Their ability to reason about ethical questions in a sophisticated way compares very favorably with those who work in other professions. Only philosophers, theologians and medical doctors show better results than journalists when given the Defining Issues Test (DIT), the one we used in our study.

Developed in the 1970’s by a Minnesota psychologist, the DIT presents respondents with six ethical scenarios, asking them to make a choice and then to rank the reasons for that choice. For example, the DIT asks whether you would report a neighbor who has lived an exemplary life for more than a decade to law enforcement if you learned about an old but significant crime. In this test, it is not the choice but the reasons for making it that matter most: Those who rank self-interest and conformity above more universal ethical principles generally score lower than those who think for themselves and apply ethical principles evenly to all people. In the three decades since it was developed, the test has been given to more than 20,000 people and the results reported in more than 400 published studies across a wide range of professions. (A compendium of these results is at the University of Minnesota so scholars can compare their findings with those of others.)

Until we began our research, no one had ever given the DIT to a large sample of journalists. Those whom we tested represented a cross-section of journalists who are close demographically to the most recent random survey of working journalists conducted by researchers at Indiana University. The 249 journalists who participated in our study worked at print and broadcast outlets. They averaged 14 years of on-the-job experience, were geographically distributed throughout the nation, and were ethnically diverse in proportions that represent the profession as a whole.

Not only did these journalists generally do well on the paper and pencil portion of the test, but when asked to give reasons—in their words—it was apparent they were thinking hard and balancing competing ethical values, such as truth-telling and privacy as well as the harm done to individuals compared with the good that news stories can do for both individuals and society. Journalists, this test showed, considered the law important, but they also told us about other duties and obligations. For example, they thought about community, about their sources and subjects, and about their news organizations as they made these decisions.

We asked journalists about their personal beliefs as well as their professional experiences to see if certain aspects of their life and work histories influenced their thinking. Women and men showed themselves equally strong when it came to ethical thinking, as were broadcasters and print journalists. Those who said they placed less emphasis on religion scored better than those who said they placed more importance on religion, as did those journalists who said they viewed the law and news organization policies as very important compared to those who said they placed somewhat less emphasis on these two elements.

A dividing line surfaced when journalists who said they had a strong internal sense of right and wrong scored better, as did those who described their work environment as including a significant element of choice. These findings suggest that critical thinking, and activities that promote it, are crucial to sound and high-level ethical thinking whereas strictly following the rules—whether they are in the form of corporate policy or legal opinion—does not always produce high-quality thinking.

The Defining Issues Test allows researchers to develop and use two original scenarios in place of two that come with the DIT. The rationale is that dilemmas rooted in the work a person does will produce higher-quality ethical thinking. So we constructed journalism scenarios—one about using hidden cameras to uncover neglect and abuse of home health patients; the other asked journalists to decide whether to run a controversial photograph of children pretending to inject IV drugs as they had seen their parents do. By introducing journalism-specific scenarios to the DIT (which already has one journalism scenario), we were able to conclude that the journalists reasoned better when confronted with ethical questions about journalism than when faced with ethics questions on other topics. These findings suggest that being a good journalist demands more than just learning nonlinear editing or writing an inverted pyramid story. It means learning to think through ethical questions related to the job’s daily practice, as well.

With one of us (Renita) having worked as a newspaper designer before becoming a college professor, this experience informed a novel element of our study. We theorized that visual information might also have an impact on ethical thinking, so we designed a sidebar study to test how the use of photographs affected this. Again, we used the two scenarios described above plus two others related to issues involving homeless families and another about prostitution. Half of the participants received high-quality photos to go along with the stories, while the other half received only the stories. As we expected, by adding the visual images, ethical reasoning was improved to a degree that chance could not explain.

While these results ought to hearten journalists, our study also uncovered some problems, such as when journalism students were asked to think about race as a component of ethical decisionmaking. In follow-up experiments with them, information about race—whether given in the form of a visual image or inferred from strictly word-based questions—tended to lower the level of ethical thinking. When the students who were white saw photographs of blacks, they made ethical choices based on poorer quality reasoning than when the people in the dilemmas were white. While it might be argued that students are not full-fledged practitioners, psychologists have tracked this kind of automatic stereotyping for decades in various studies, many of which are not focused on ethical thinking. This sobering finding about race is one we intend to explore further.

These findings, and the results of a survey of how members of Investigative Reporters and Editors reason through questions involving deception, can be found in our book. Investigative reporters, for example, said they found it unacceptable to fabricate information that was part of a news story, but they were much more willing to accept the use of flattery as part of the newsgathering process, a practice that some scholars suggest is essentially deceptive because it can mislead sources about a journalist’s sincerity as well as his or her intent.

When our study was released, we found ourselves responding to a core set of questions from journalists reporting on its findings. “Were you surprised at these results?,” we were often asked. Both of us have worked as journalists and responded that we’d often seen good ethical decisions being made, and we continue to believe that journalists, in general, most often make sound, ethical choices. The journalists we tested had, on average, earned a bachelor’s degree, and since the level of education achieved is one of the best predictors of how respondents will perform on this test, in this sense, these results were surprising. Journalists scored better than those who work in professions that require a great deal more education than does newsroom work.

Another question we often heard is perhaps more significant: “If journalists do so well on this test, why does the profession continue to make such horrible mistakes?” The issue of why people seem prone to say one thing and do another has evaded an answer for millennia, but we believe that more often than not, journalists make good decisions in the face of difficult circumstances. The exceptions are the decisions made by people who become notorious examples of journalistic practice. But these should not detract from our central findings: Journalists are good ethical thinkers; visual information helps inform their choices, and a work environment that provides choice coupled with strong internal values supports this type of thinking.

Lee Wilkins is a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, and Renita Coleman is an assistant professor at the University of Texas-Austin School of Journalism. Their book, “The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics,” was published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates in 2005.

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