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Posted 01.31.05

Journalists Score Highly on 'Moral Development' Test, Researcher Finds

However, race plays negative role; Advertisers found to show little ethical thought

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Recent polls and studies indicate the American public believes journalists are ethically challenged. Whether it is the CBS-Dan Rather controversy that resulted in four dismissals or Jayson Blair's fiction published as fact in The New York Times, ethical lapses have given the public reason to distrust journalists. However, a new book-length study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that journalism is one of the most morally developed professions in the country, ranking behind only seminarians, physicians and medical students.

Lee Wilkins, journalism professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University, administered the Defining Issues Test, which measures moral development, to 249 reporters from print and broadcast newsrooms from across the country. The test, according to Wilkins, has been given to at least 30,000 professionals over the past 30 years; however, it had never been given to journalists.

They found that journalists scored fourth highest among professionals tested, above dental students, nurses, graduate students, undergraduate college students, veterinary students and adults in general. No significant differences were found between various groups of journalists, including men and women, or broadcast and print reporters. Journalists who did civic journalism or investigative reporting scored significantly higher those who did not. When ethical problems were professionally focused, journalists performed even better.

"Giving journalists the opportunity to work through more ethical dilemmas, whether they are real, occurring on the job, or hypothetical in seminars and workshops, bodes well for the profession," Wilkins said. "Thinking like a journalist involves moral reflection, done at a level that in most instances equals or exceeds members of other learned professions."

Related Links

Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

Wilkins and Coleman were the first scholars to include visual information - in this case a prize-winning new photograph - as an element in the scenarios that journalists were asked to evaluate. They learned that visual information boosted ethical thinking.

However, Wilkins and Coleman were troubled when they examined race as a factor in ethical thinking. When they added photographs of different races to coincide with the scenarios in the test, the journalists demonstrated significantly lower levels of ethical reasoning when the people in the photos were African-American than where they were Caucasian.

"Counteracting this apparently unthinking human tendency is crucial, because race remains one of the most enduring problems in America," Wilkins said. "The media are responsible for racial portrayals that, by virtue of their subtlety, are today even more sinister than was the overt racism of the past."

Another group the researchers examined for moral development was advertisers. With 65 professionals completing the test, the researchers found that advertising professionals do lack ethics, or at the very least choose not to exercise the ethical reasoning abilities they have.

A summary of a portion of the book, The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics, which was published in December, appeared in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly in August.



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