February 25, 2008
Ethics is a front-page issue
By Elaine Justice
“It’s the only profession protected by the First Amendment,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson of her chosen life’s work. That being the case, she makes sure that students in her “Journalism History & Ethics” course understand at the outset “the special role of journalism and that privilege which also brings responsibility.”
Wilkerson’s class is required for students in Emory’s journalism program, yet it is anything but routine. Right away, students talk about the ethical challenges they may have experienced in their own lives, including what influences the way they view ethical issues.
Then Wilkerson probes deeper. She asks students to complete a survey featuring classic issues of journalism ethics. Questions range from the obvious to difficult, in which “one right or privilege in the Constitution or in our country’s view of right and wrong may conflict with another right.”
One particularly knotty example: Is the urgency of a story more important than the rights of the individual?
“We talk about what their views are as journalists in training as well as individuals,” says Wilkerson. “I often emphasize to them that it’s important to recognize you’re human first and a journalist second.”
A single story can involve hundreds of small decisions, each “guided by the reporter or editor’s ethical standards, whether it’s written or not.”
Generally news organizations have ethics codes, “but these cannot possibly cover every potential ethical dilemma a journalist might come across,” says Wilkerson. “That’s why the course emphasizes critical thinking, examining the thought process behind each decision that will be made.”
Because of the power and influence of the media, says Wilkerson, ethical questions the students examine “have an urgency and gravitas to them.” The students, she says, “take it very, very seriously.”
“My goal is that they come out not only as ethical journalists, but as ethical human beings. That’s not a bad goal to work toward.”