04 February 2005

Journalists Pass Social Responsibility Test

If a journalist writes a column telling you a couple of journalism professors found that journalists test well on ethics ... well, would you be skeptical?

I was.

The column, by Peter Johnson, appears in the Life section of USA Today and reads pretty much like the professors' press release. The article is not skeptical of the findings and only the professors and Tom Rosenstiel are quoted.

Would it surprise you to find out that a survey similar to the one being reported by Johnson, with similar results, was done in 1995? Surprised me, especially since it's not mentioned by Johnson or Rosenstiel. The day before Johnson's USA Today column was published, Erica Rogers wrote in the Daily Nebraskan:

The "Defining Issues Test," written by Dr. James Rest and based on Lawrence Kohlberg's theoretical "stages of moral development" has been given to 20,000 people during the previous 30 years. In 1995 Journalists scored just below theologians and physicians - professions considered to be highly ethical.
Hey! That's the same test this survey used, except Professor Wilkins says it's been given to 30,000 professionals over the past 30 years:
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.
Huh. Never been given to journalists according to Wilkins. Journalists scored just below theologians and physicians in 1995, according to Rogers. Maybe the 1995 date is a typo in Rogers' column? Maybe the number tested over the past 30 years is wrong, too. No worries - give or take 10,000 - that's what I always say.

Then there is Johnson's set up for Rosenstiel's quote:
Tom Rosenstiel of Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism says the findings echo what the Pew Research Center found in a survey of journalists in 1999.
Really? Here is the 1999 Pew report. And here is a summary of the recent survey's findings:
... 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. ...

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.
I couldn't find in the 1999 Pew report where journalists "scored" high on morals or ethics, or that the journalistic profession is "one of the most morally developed professions in the country" as stated in this recent survey's summary. Instead, the Pew report surveyed journalists' opinions about their own professional principles, values and organization's ethics programs, but does that qualify as an echo of this survey's findings?

Confused yet?

Here is the 2004 Pew survey of journalists. Why does Rosenstiel (according to Johnson) refer to the 1999 report when it's been "updated" with one from last year? Why not say that it echoes, or contradicts, the 2004 report? Hmmm ....
Values and the Press: Journalists at national and local news organizations are notably different from the general public in their ideology and attitudes toward political and social issues. Most national and local journalists, as well as a plurality of Americans (41%), describe themselves as political moderates. But news people ­ especially national journalists are more liberal, and far less conservative, than the general public.
That's not the same, is it? Being more liberal and being more ethical?

Maybe. While I was googling around for this post, I found this 1998 abstract:
Previous research has consistently shown that those on the political Right tend to prefer or use conventional or Stage 4 moral reasoning, while those on the political Left prefer principled or Stage 5 reasoning (cf. Kohlberg, 1976).
And this 2004 abstract:
Liberals and moderates scored significantly higher than conservatives did in postconventional reasoning on the DIT-2 but not on the SSMS. These results support findings of previous research demonstrating the political dimensions of the DIT, as well as reinforce the multidimensional nature of moral behavior and moral judgment.
Now there's an echo! Journalists are more liberal. Liberals score higher on the Defining Issues Test (DIT). Correlation established!

Is that what Rosenstiel meant to say? He really meant the echo was from the 2004 Pew report, not the one from 1999? Let's go back to the tape, as they say.

After telling us that Rosenstiel hears an echo from 1999 in this new academic survey, Johnson quotes Rosenstiel:
"Most of them got into the business out of a sense that journalism helps democracy work and that they are helping their fellow citizens," [Rosenstiel] says.

"Journalists get in this business out of an overriding sense of wanting to serve the public interest. They work bad hours, are grossly underpaid, they are derided by other media in Hollywood and increasingly distrusted by the public.

"So if you're not motivated by a sense of public mission, there's not a lot of reason to do it."
I've read a fair share of moral philosophers, but it wasn't until Rosenstiel's quote, at the end of Johnson's column, that I got an inkling of which moral philosophy the DIT uses. Rosenstiel's quote equates "serve the public interest" and "sense of public mission" with being more morally developed.

Here is a history of the DIT from a paper presented by Mathew Cabot in August 2004. He administered "the DIT to more than 170 students at California State University, Long Beach, most of whom were public relations majors. While the DIT has been administered to hundreds of thousands of participants, it has not, to this author's knowledge, been administered to public relations students." [emphasis added, there sure does seem to be a lot of confusion about how many people have taken this test]
In the 1970s, a Harvard researcher named Lawrence Kohlberg created a six-stage model of moral development based on the work of Jean Piaget. The model emerged out of Kohlberg's extensive interviews with children and adults, which showed, according to the researcher, that there were three levels of moral development, each consisting of two stages. The first level, called Preconventional, is self-focused. At stage one, individuals have a punishment and obedience orientation in which they understand right as being obedience to an authority figure and avoidance of punishment. At stage two, individuals see right actions as those which meet their own needs. At this stage, as with the first, there is little regard for others.

The second level, called Conventional, consists of stages three and four. At stage three, the individual has an "interpersonal concordance" orientation, where the right choice is one that results in social approval. At stage four, individuals have a "law and order" orientation, where right and wrong are tied directly to formal rules and laws.

At the third level, called Postconventional, individuals are categorized into what Kohlberg calls the "principle" stages. At stage five, individuals have a "social contract" orientation, where a moral right is based on social principles behind the laws. Finally, at stage six, individuals have a "universal ethical principle" orientation, where they adhere to universally valued principles (e.g., justice for all).
The DIT is not without its skeptics or challengers. I found this from Cabot's paper telling:
Another challenge to the DIT is the questionable relationship between one's score on a moral reasoning test and how one would actually behave in a real-life ethical dilemma: When people come across moral conflicts in their lives the question they are faced with is: "what should I do?" which is different to "what should one do?".[sic] Reasoning in real-life situations involves decisions which are much more practical, self-serving and less rational than the reasoning of hypothetical characters. (Haviv & Leman, p. 124)
Maybe testing well on the DIT doesn't tell us much, after all. Johnson might have told us about these "challenges".

In 2001, Lee Edwards (a Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation) wrote a column for Hoover Digest called Mediapolitik. In it, he states "According to the political scientist Doris Graber, most journalists in free countries follow either a libertarian or a social responsibility philosophy." [link added, also see Four Theories of the Press]

OK, so what have we learned? The DIT favors a social responsibility philosophy. Journalists score well on the DIT. There ya go.

Was that so hard?

If you want to read more about the DIT, here is a long discussion about it.
If you want to read a sample dilemma from the DIT, go here.

HT: PressThink

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