Journalism 101 revelation: Ethics matter

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I've just finished reading the narrative evaluations my journalism students fill out at the end of each quarter.

Good reporting is "soooo much work" wrote one student. "Decisions," wrote another in big fat caps. "Never as easy as they seem."

A third concluded: "I've realized that ethics are HUGE in journalism."

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This is a revelation?

There's a scary subtext when even journalism students come to class assuming that ethics are a nonissue, and are surprised and relieved to find that they play front and center. I have to wonder if these kids are like canaries in the coal mines, telling us more than we want to know about not only the public perception of journalism, but about the future of the press itself.

Journalism can be a tough sell. Polls tell us that public trust in the media is at an all-time low, with public distaste at an all-time high. Add to that the cognitive dissonance that occurs when reporting classes coexist with courses on critical media theory, and you can imagine how dicey it can be to teach a potential crop of reporters not only how to do it right - but why to do it at all.

I suspect, in fact, that ours is not the only communication department whose graduates are more likely to join PR shops than newsrooms. Not surprising, I'll concede, when you consider the cost of college loans, and the disparity in pay between corporate communication jobs and small newsrooms where reporters are likely to start their careers. But what makes me shudder are comments I sometimes hear from students who find PR to be a much more "acceptable" profession - as opposed to journalism, which they find, "you know, like, a little bit sleazy"?

Research suggests these kids are only running with the curve. A June survey by the Pew Research Center found that while most respondents look favorably upon their local media, their perception of the press in general is more negative than ever. "The public is not rejecting the principles underlying traditional journalism," wrote Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "Rather it suspects journalists are not living up to those principles."

A formal study of professional ethics by Lee Wilkins of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and Renita Coleman of the School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University found a similar disconnect. While Americans ranked reporters close to the cellar (15th out of 20 professions) in the 2004 Gallup poll on professional honesty and ethics, the book-length Wilkins-Coleman study found that reporters actually exhibited higher moral reasoning in their on-the-job decisionmaking than most other professionals, ranking fourth in the list, close behind seminarians, physicians, and medical students.

I try to exorcise students' cynicism by showing them that good journalism matters - and that there is no incentive for doing it wrong. I emphasize that, when it comes to reporting, there are some things journalists should always do, some things they should never do, but that most of the day-to-day decisions reside in a vast landscape of gray. It's treacherous terrain. As we engage in the kinds of conversations that elevate journalism beyond stenography, I push my students to think critically about the crucial role good reporters play in a democracy, and the sometimes uncomfortable questions they must confront in fulfilling that role.

Sometimes the richest conversations are products of segues. At the end of a class in magazine journalism last winter, a discussion on the ethics of a reporter using borderline-legal means to get at an important story led to a search for a definition of what one student had termed "real journalism." An unlikely suspect from the back of the room said it had to do with "integrity of purpose."

I asked if, based on that definition, the students had practiced "real journalism" in their final projects. "I think we all have," said one student, noting that all the stories had shape-shifted from initial pitch to final draft. Through weeks of reporting, students had dug for facts, searched for truth and, in the end, found that the real story was not necessarily what they had initially set out to find.

In other words, they got it. And, were they to venture into the profession, their work would surely reflect this. But are a few classes enough to counteract the constant hum of castigation that buzzes around today's news media? Probably not.

I always begin each intro class by asking how many students want to become reporters. A few timidly raise their hands. I tell them that my goal by quarter's end is to add at least one more to their ranks. To be sure, at least one student, and sometimes more, catches the fire.

But still. Not good enough. When the unintended consequence of public cynicism is not to inspire reporters to do better - but to discourage good ones from wanting to do it at all - I smell a problem that even higher salaries wouldn't be able to solve.

Barbara Kelley is a journalism professor at Santa Clara University in California.

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