Grumbling about the media has become a national pastime. And there is certainly no shortage of topics to complain about. News organizations blur the distinctions between journalism, commentary, and their own corporate interests. Public relations practitioners put short-term client interest above long-term public service. Advertisers cynically greenwash their brands to make us feel better about our unhealthy consumerism.
Case studies of media ethics controversies are a dime a dozen. Nearly everywhere we turn, a fresh media-related scandal is bubbling to the surface. It seems folks in media are repeatedly having to learn ethical lessons of responsibility, integrity and credibility the hard way. Shouldn’t we all know that we allow short-term gain to trump long-term credibility at our peril? Doesn’t everyone understand by now that the cover-up is worse than the crime? In media ethics, history regularly repeats itself. But as tempting as it is to fixate on these ethical lapses, I suggest we can learn as much or more by considering times when, ethically speaking, folks in media get it right – when they prove themselves to be thoughtful, conscientious, even virtuous. The stereotype of the sleazy journalist – like the bad lawyer and the shifty politician – is convenient but not representative or very informative. Far more common is the media professional who is motivated by moral concerns yet is constrained by a range of factors: Her heart is in the right place, yet she can only accomplish so much given deadlines, limited resources and organizational demands.
Recent moral psychology research has born this out. The work of Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman (2005, 2009) tells us that both journalists and public relations practitioners working the United States exhibit advanced moral reasoning skills compared with other professions and with average American adults. At least part of this can be explained by how regularly these media workers, like doctors and other professionals who typically score high on moral reasoning, have to deal with ethical quandaries: the health of our “ethical radar,” and the quality of our moral deliberation, improve with use.
But moral reasoning is only one component of the moral psychology “profile” that can help explain behavior. Five years ago, I undertook a study to help better understand what made journalists and PR professionals “tick” – at least those professionals who were widely respected for their ethical leadership. After carefully selecting a dozen journalists and a dozen PR counterparts perceived as professional “exemplars” by their peers, I gathered a range of moral psychology data: moral reasoning skills, personality traits, levels of idealism, degree of relativistic, thinking, and many others. What emerges is a compelling “profile” of high-achieving professionals who have deeply internalized moral concerns and are thus consistently driven to manifest these concerns in their daily lives and work. Reflecting previous research, these media exemplars as a group display higher-than average moral reasoning skills. But they also uniformly reject relativistic thinking – that is, they overwhelmingly tend to draw on broad, universal moral principles in making decisions rather than arguing for the “rightness” of their own perspectives – and they all have a strong tendency toward idealism. In other words, they are anti-Machiavellian, resistant to tolerating harm to others in pursuit of goals (Plaisance, 2014, pp. 62-63). Interestingly, moral reasoning scores among these exemplars are negatively correlated with their levels of idealism. This might seem counterintuitive initially, but according to moral development theory, it makes sense: those with higher-order moral reasoning abilities are not overly rigid in their application of moral absolutes, but instead have a greater ability to adapt their principles to best fit the often complex range of factors in which they find themselves having to work.
The media exemplars also “cluster” to a remarkable degree regarding their personality traits. Using a common instrument to measure the so-called Big Five traits, the study found that the media exemplars were significantly above average their age cohorts in Agreeableness, Openness to new experience, Conscientiousness, and Extraversion. They also are significantly lower than average in Neuroticism. All these traits have been shown to relate to different aspects of job performance. The media exemplars were particularly high in their Extraversion and Openness scores, for example, which are clearly important in journalistic, networking, and relationship-building duties.
Taken together, these and other data point to a moral psychology profile of media exemplars who have deeply internalized a host of moral concerns and are in turn motivated professionally to manifest those concerns to the greatest extent possible in their daily work. These concerns include avoiding potential harm to others, respecting the autonomous agency of everyone with which they work, and embracing the proposition that their profession has public service and the promotion of social justice at its heart. Their work rarely makes headlines. But this profile is arguably much more representative than the bad apples in media that we so often seem to hear about.
Coleman, R., &Wilkins, L. (2009). The moral development of public relations practitioners: A comparison with other professions and influences on higher quality ethical reasoning. Journal of Public Relations Research 21 (3), 318-340.
Plaisance, P.L. (2014). Virtue in media: The moral psychology of excellence in news and public relations. New York: Routledge.
Wilkins, L., & Coleman, R. (2005). The moral media: How journalists reason about ethics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.