The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy itself. In Plato's dialog Meno, the title character asks, "Can you tell us, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?" Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. We can't. The sad fact is, our students had better get an effective ethics education now, or they may never.

According to a 2001 survey by Gary Hanson of Kent State University, students in journalism ethics courses as well as newsroom managers think that journalism ethics can best be learned on the job.1 But, ironically, few students who served internships or held media-related jobs during college reported any first-hand exposure to ethical issues. Two-thirds said they didn't receive a written ethics policy or guidelines. Seventy percent said they hadn't taken part in any discussion of ethics while at work. And almost 60 percent said they never witnessed anyone making what the survey termed "a tough ethical decision."

Not surprisingly, Hanson concluded that the professionals' "enthusiasm for on-the-job ethics instruction may be misplaced." If students are to learn journalism ethics, they have to go where it's actually being taught-in our classrooms.

Since the late 1970s, media ethics courses have proliferated like Starbucks stores. Most of the courses use the case study approach, perhaps because most media ethics textbooks are little more than collections of case studies held together by bits of gluey exposition. In the typical case study, students are asked to imagine themselves in the role of reporter, editor, or news photographer, with the goal of discovering how they'd react to an ethically problematic situation and why they'd react so. I myself have often used case studies like the following as discussion starters or even exam questions:

While investigating a story, one of your reporters comes across documents showing that a longtime community leader was active with the Ku Klux Klan as a teenager. The man, now dead, had a distinguished career both in public service and as a private attorney. A building and a park are named after him. His family still lives in town. The revelation is not relevant to the story your reporter is working on, but it could make an important [?] story in and of itself. What, as editor, do you do?

Case studies aren't just dramatic and engaging, especially when compared to chalk-and-talk lectures, but also encourage a kind of imaginative humanism. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and social world requires a strong element of compassion, the ability to appreciate what things look like from a different perspective. It's an ability that ethics can't thrive without.

But though the case study approach can be effective, it does have one or two significant drawbacks. First, case studies ask students to perform something of a contradiction-to critique the values of professionals who face tough ethical decisions when they themselves have yet to acquire those values or face those kinds of decisions. Second, research has shown that students often decide the issues in case studies according to current industry norms. But if the industry norms are so ethical, then why does the public hold journalists in the same contempt they hold politicians and insurance salesmen?

Fortunately, perhaps, media ethics courses and textbooks don't offer industry norms as the only moral criteria available for judging or making decisions. They also typically include the ethical theories of classic Western philosophers. Such theories, Anthony Weston wrote in A Practical Companion to Ethics, "can make connections and open up vistas we would otherwise never reach," though he did caution that the theories are just, well, theories. None of their various claims as to what is "right" or "good" have ever been "firmly established."2

In fact, an influential movement in contemporary moral philosophy known as "moral particularism" downplays the role of principles in moral thinking. The moral particularist argues that seeking to justify a moral judgment by reference to an abstract and general principle-that, for example, it's always wrong to steal-potentially obscures important aspects of the particular case. Suppose the object you are stealing is the control for a "dirty" bomb hidden in your town. Considerable moral harm, the particularist says, can be caused by this "intellectual" way of reaching a judgment. Jonathan Dancy, a prominent moral particularist, urges us to inspect each moral circumstance on its own merit and formulate our judgment on the basis of what each case will demand without looking to principles or how we judged similar cases in the past. "One's main duty, in moral judgment," Dancy writes, "is to look really closely at the case before one. Our first question is not, 'Which case does this one best resemble?,' but rather 'What is the nature of the case before us?'"3

I should add that, in my experience, students often have a hard time relating to abstract ethical theories. They can define Aristotle's Golden Mean, Kant's Categorical Imperative, and Mill's Principle of Utility well enough on a test. What they can't seem to do is see the relevance of the theories to their own lives and aspirations. Theories are tools, but students don't reach for one as a carpenter would a nail gun. I always get the impression that even talking about ethical theories somehow embarrasses them. They laugh nervously whenever I press them during class discussion to apply a particular theory to a case. You'd think I was asking them to reveal the location of their latest tattoo.

And so I often find myself wondering how much of what I teach has any kind of lasting effect. Once my students move from the classroom into the workplace, will they be able to recognize when an ethical issue confronts them? Will they search out the best principle to apply in the situation? Will they have the courage to actually apply it? Or will they simply adopt, as studies indicate most entry-level employees do, the attitudes and practices of the workplace, whether ethical or not?

It's questions like these that led me to consider new ways to teach ethics. Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) is the result.

The book, which I originated and edited, is founded on the assumption that stories matter. Stories have the power to admonish us, console us, get inside our heads and change us. Without stories, where would we go for help with the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? Much of what we learn in life we learn through stories.

Michael S. Poulton of Dickinson College has suggested that stories are "a powerful tool in organizational learning." Poulton noted that while a firm or profession's formal code of ethics may address unambiguous moral circumstances, there are always situations that require an interpretation of rules. How do employees learn to respond to these "gray" areas? According to Poulton's research, it's largely through stories that circulate within the firm. The "stories about those employees who responded morally and were applauded," he said, "or about those who exceeded the ethical and moral limits of the firm and suffered the consequences. . . will begin to frame the organizational morality."4

Case studies are, of course, stories, but at a thousand or so words apiece, somewhat thin ones. Movies can tell richer stories of journalists who run up against ethical dilemmas-and do it with popular stars in the lead roles.

Lee Wilkins has listed other advantages of using movies as ethics texts:

 Movies are even better than some novels at portraying the range and complexity of human relationships, and it's relationships, whether inside the newsroom between reporters and editors or outside the newsroom between reporters and sources, that are often a critical part of journalistic decision-making.

 Movies can force students to confront traumatic issues-from war and race to plagiarism-that they might otherwise avoid.

 Movies, in a way lectures can't, provide students "imaginative access" to the more ephemeral ethical questions.

 Movies are well suited to serve as texts for this visually oriented generation.5

But if movies are a source or tool for ethics, it isn't because they express a fully worked out moral philosophy. Journalism movies tend to be much better at starting a dialog about ethics than finishing it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. As Leigh Hafrey, who uses novels and movies to teach business ethics at MIT, said, ". . . we can fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the events, our vision of the characters, our assessment of the action, with details drawn from our experience and inclinations."6 In the process-and here's where students can benefit greatly-we gain practice and confidence in answering ethical questions for ourselves.

Moviemakers have long had a love-hate relationship with journalism; that is, they often seem to love to hate journalists. Even back in the silent era, movies sizzled with hot-tempered editors and cunning, scoop-hungry reporters. Every year brings still more journalists to the screen, sometimes to play the hero, sometimes the villain, and sometimes something of both.

Contributors to Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies were given the task of analyzing movies that highlight the uncertain nature of journalism ethics. Some drew on classic movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Pride of the Yankees to explore how far journalists should go in getting a story or befriending a source. Others turned to more recent movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and Welcome to Sarajevo to investigate a specific virtue-courage in the former and empathy in the latter. But whether they examine print journalists (Absence of Malice) or TV journalists (Broadcast News), whether they discuss merely meddlesome reporters (Die Hard) or downright lying ones (Shattered Glass), the contributors all used movies to teach lessons about truth and dedication and compassion that journalism students must learn now, before heading out into the work world, or probably never will.

Class time may seem too limited to allow for watching movies. But it isn't necessary to watch all the movies in class itself or even all of a movie. The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, is offering a free DVD compilation of movie clips to use in conjunction with the book. Visit its Web site at for details about the offer.7

Today's press operates with relatively few ethical constraints, spreading a kind of capricious oppression, like the mad king of a tragic country. The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics may be full of noble sentiments, declaring that "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy," and that the "duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues." But anyone who reads the paper, listens to radio, or watches TV news would be excused for thinking that the duty of the journalist is actually to (1) leave out the long, boring parts of stories and substitute easy-to-digest stereotypes and clich├ęs and (2) cover celebrity breakups as if they rivaled in importance the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies won't reverse this trend; maybe nothing can. But, as the poet Robinson Jeffers wrote, ". . . corruption/Never has been compulsory/when the city lies at the/monster's feet there are left the mountains."8 Ethics is like those mountains. You must climb to reach them. The war correspondents, news anchors, city editors, columnists, investigative reporters, literary journalists, spin doctors, and sportswriters who appear in Hollywood's portrayals of journalists, now challenging ethics, now facing up to it, can serve as our guides and companions.

 Howard Good is professor in the journalism program of SUNY New Paltz. His new book, JOURNALISM ETHICS GOES TO THE MOVIES, was published by Rowman & Littlefield this year. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


1 Gary Hanson, "Learning Ethics," Insights (Fall 2001), pp. 5-7.

2 Anthony Weston, A Practical Companion to Ethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 57-68.

3 Jonathan Dancy, quoted in B. Smith, "Anthology in Moral Deliberations: The Role of Imagination and Theory in Ethics," Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 28 (2007), p. 24.

4 Michael S. Poulton, "Organizational Storytelling, Ethics and Morality: How Stories Frame Limits of Behavior in Organizations," Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (2005), pp. 5-6.

5 Lee Wilkins, "Why Take Your Ethics Class to the Movies," Ethical News (Winter 1997), p 7. See also, Wilkins, "Film as Ethics Text," Journal of Mass Media Ethics (Spring-Summer 1987), pp. 109-113.

6 Leigh Hafrey, The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business (New York: Other Press, 2005), p. 48.

7 Credit should be given here to Joe Saltzman, of the University of Southern California, whose collection of films on journalism is unsurpassed.

8 Robinson Jeffers, "Shine, Perishing Republic," in Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 1963), p. 9.