(AP) Lee Wilkins remembers well the reaction she’d often get when identifying herself as a reporter.
“I had a standard line,” said Wilkins, now a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “I would always say back, ‘I won’t accuse you of all the ills of your profession if you won’t accuse me of all the ills of mine.'”
Recent research by Wilkins and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University may provide some vindication for members of a profession that’s taken a beating in recent years with high-profile blunders at The New York Times, The Associated Press, CBS News, and USA Today, among others.
Wilkins and Coleman surveyed journalists for the first time using a well-respected decades-old model for assessing one’s morals, a test given to more than 30,000 people representing numerous professions.
The result? According to the professors, journalists are significantly more ethical than the average adult and eclipsed only by seminarians, doctors, and medical students.
“We did not really think that journalists would come out as high as they did,” said Coleman.
Wilkins and Coleman traveled to newsrooms across the country for two years interviewing a sampling of 249 journalists. The group represented American journalists in terms of gender, age, race, education, religion, and size of the media outlet, among other factors.
Using a version of the Defining Issues Test, developed in the 1970s at the University of Minnesota, the professors offered participants six ethical dilemmas, each followed by a dozen questions that seek to determine what motivated a journalist’s decision.
Journalists had an average score of 48.7 on a 100-point scale, meaning just about the half the time, members of the profession make decisions based on the best quality ethical reasoning. That rate was exceeded only by seminarians/philosophers at 65.1, medical students at 50.2, and practicing physicians at 49.2.
Nurses, orthopedic surgeons, and members of the Navy are among the groups that trailed journalists. Junior high school students scored lowest, with 20.0, just below prison inmates, with 23.7.
“What we’re measuring is an ability to work out what ought to be done when you’re in a dilemma,” said Mickey Bebeau, executive director of the Center for the Study of Ethical Development at the University of Minnesota. Bebeau has been working on the Defining Issues Test for about 20 years.
Among journalists, the study showed no significant difference between broadcasters or their print counterparts, between women and men, or between managers and the rank-and-file.
Wilkins and Coleman said age and education are the primary determinants of moral development.
The findings of the two on journalists conflict with public perception of the men and women who make a living bringing America the news.
A Gallup poll of 1,015 people taken in November showed that only 23 percent of the public rated the ethical standards of TV reporters as high or very high. For newspaper reporters, it was 21 percent.
Nurses topped the Gallup survey, with 79 percent of participants giving them high or very high marks for ethics. Numerous other professions, from bankers to auto mechanics, outranked journalists.
Journalists’ fourth-place finish on the “Defining Issues” scale could be misleading. Countless professions have not been included. And while tens of thousands have been surveyed, they represent only 18 broad groups.
Still, Wilkins and Coleman say the result demonstrates there is more to journalists than the public may think.
“We’re very good at making ethical choices,” said Coleman. “Journalists have to make ethical choices all the time, almost every day. That builds ethical muscles.”