Who Knew? Journalists Get High Marks on Ethics

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By: Brian Orloff

With reports of continued ethical flaps among journalists, from Jayson Blair to “60 Minutes” to government-funded columnists, public opinion about journalists’ ethics seems to be sinking. But a new study by two college professors shows that –public opinion notwithstanding — journalism is actually one of the most ethical professions in the country.

Lee Wilkins of the Missouri School of Journalism, and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University, administered the Defining Issues Test, an assessment that uses psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, to 249 working journalists in newsrooms across the country. The results showed journalists ranking fourth highest among professionals tested.

For the past 30 years, the test has been administered to at least 30,000 professionals, but never before to journalists.

“Thinking like a journalist involves moral reflection, done at a level that in most instances equals or exceeds members of other learned professions,” Wilkins said in a statement.

The test was also administered to 65 advertisers, who performed significantly lower than the journalists.

Journalists scored higher on the test than, for example, nurses, but below doctors, seminarians, and medical students. There were no significant differences in results between men and women, or print and broadcast journalists, though investigative reporters and civic journalists scored significantly higher. And when the ethical dilemmas were professionally based, journalists performed even better.

The Defining Issues Test is the most accepted quantitative test measuring moral development. The test employs six ethical dilemmas and requires participants to select a course of action and rank how important actions are in making their choices. In this particular study, Wilkins and Coleman were the first scholars to include visual information in the scenarios, using a prize-winning photograph.

For the scholars, the most troubling factor involved race as a factor in ethical reasoning. Journalists displayed lower levels of ethical reasoning when studying photographs with African-Americans than Caucasians, according to results.

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