New research on ethics presented at AEJMC Conference, Aug. 6 – 9, 2008

As a paper respondent for the Media Ethics Division (MED) of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Chicago, I had the pleasure of reading and critiquing the division’s Top Paper and some other fine research on ethics. To add value to the EKP ethics section, I wanted to provide a summary of the papers and a bit of discussion about their common themes and implications for public relations.

The title of the session was “Developing ethics and morals in our students” and it included 4 new research papers. Here are their titles and a brief summary of main findings.

1. “Media morality: Effect of death thoughts on journalism students’ attitudes toward relativism, idealism, and ethics” by David Cuillier, Arizona (TOP FACULTY PAPER)

Cuillier used a concept from terror management studies in which the thought of death is used as a variable that impacts a decision maker’s ethical judgment. He conducted an experiment in which students in a control group were asked to think of dental pain and then complete a standard ethics scale (Forsyth’s Ethics Position Questionnaire); the experimental group was asked to think of their own death and then complete the same scale. Fear is controlled for, so changes arise from what is called “moral salience” in which one’s innate beliefs arise more strongly under the death condition (such as in-group/out-group identification). Thinking of death resulted in less moral relativism and stronger value judgments, meaning that subjects saw the world in more black-and-white terms, although they did not realize that these changes in their reasoning took place!

2. “The moral sensitivity and character of public relations students: A preliminary study” by Matthew Cabot, San Jose State

Cabot’s study studied the moral character of public relations students in a small survey (n = 129) using the Defining Issues Test (DIT), a common measure of moral reasoning. However, Cabot’s approach was to measure a “shift” among students who said an action was wrong, but later indicated they would do it anyway if they were certain they would not get caught. Findings indicated that a majority of students could not identify clear violations of the PRSA code of ethics, such as creating an artificial “grass-roots” letter campaign to an elected official. In an even more condemning finding, of the 129 students surveyed, 101 public relations majors said they would take an unethical action if assured that they would not be caught.

3. “A comparison of the moral development of advertising and journalism students” by Stephanie Yamkovenko, LSU

Although not directly related to public relations students, this paper explored a small sample (n = 80) of ad and journalism majors. Public relations practitioners often come from these majors and always work closely with both advertising agencies and journalists in industry. Yamkovenko used the DIT in her survey and tested common moral dilemmas. She found that both journalism and advertising students are on par with their peers in other majors, but argued that many studies show that similarities end after college. “Journalism students will continue to develop [morally] … throughout their career but that advertising students’ moral development … actually decreases.” She maintained that advertising has an adverse affect on its employees and that they often “suspend their moral judgment and focus primarily on financial implications.”

4. “There is no right answer: What does media ethics mean to journalism students” by Allyson DeVito, Tennessee

Professional experience is a key to ethical development, according to DeVito’s research. Through 12 long interviews with senior students, she found remarkable differences between those with journalistic work experience and those with little or no work experience. She found that those without much work experience could recite a definition of ethics, “but often times cannot explain how ethics is related to the media.” Many of her participants emphasized the importance of gaining professional experience in learning to identify ethical problems and to know how to deal with ethical dilemmas. Her study concluded that exposure to professional settings is key in being able to understand and handle ethical dilemmas for journalism students.


Each and every study mentioned above argued for the importance of education in ethical reasoning. Cullier argued that journalists make value judgments when reporting about death that might differ from the rational and consistent ethical judgments they usually make. Public relations professionals are also capable of falling prey to this problem. For instance, dealing with an explosion at a chemical manufacturing site resulting in the death of one or more employees could place the public relations professional under the “death condition” in which moral reasoning is more innate, as demonstrated in Cuillier’s work. Yamkovenko’s findings reiterate Kohlberg’s levels of moral development. All of these researchers argued for more emphasis on ethics in higher education; DeVito used the source fabrications of Stephen Glass and Jason Blair to argue compellingly for more education in ethics. As we know, many infamous public relations cases also demonstrate the need for more emphasis on ethics. Cabot’s research finding a moral paucity among public relations majors shows why we should push beyond codes of ethics to study moral reasoning, character, development, and moral sensitivity at the university level.

How are we to emphasize ethics? All of these papers show a serious and grave lack of ethical knowledge for implementation in our undergraduate majors, and Cabot’s finding among public relations students showed that, in general, they did not even value ethical behavior or honesty for its own sake. DeVito reminded us that only 37% of journalism and mass communication programs require an ethics class. Enormous responsibility rests in the hands of public relations professionals in defining issues, researching facts, communicating with publics who need information, and building relationships based on truth and trust. The future of the public relations profession rests on the responsibility with which professionals carry out these tasks.

We must do better than having 37% who know something about ethics in carrying out that responsibility with integrity and character. Research consistently finds that moral reasoning can be learned in about 13 weeks. Shouldn’t we ask public relations educators for a renewed and reinvigorated focus on ethics?

I invite your thoughts on this topic as practitioners hiring and working with our graduates.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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