Success is seldom a solitary venture. Generally, when we climb the big hill, when we break out of the pack to sprint ahead to the finish line, when we achieve glory, our success is at least in part reflective of those who taught us, who guided us-our parents and other relatives and our teachers. Our success is built on the support of many others who mentored, trained, healed, funded, challenged and inspired us.

But it is you, the students, who earned the good grades. It is you who were the leaders in your campus organizations. I commend you, the students receiving awards today, for your pursuit of excellence.

It might seem unusual to have an ethicist speaking to you at this moment of triumph, for often we connect ethics with those who do wrong. We link the ethicist with shining the light of scrutiny on the ethically unwashed and the moral troglodytes.

Well, yes, those of us who deal with ethics spend time in the veritable moral mosh pit dealing with the flaws and failures of humans.

But, there's another side to ethics, and I want to benchmark that right now. Let me suggest that ethics is every bit about those who do the right thing. Ethics is about affirmative behavior. Ethics is about what we "ought" to do. It's what we might call "green-light ethics." Doing the right thing for the right reasons.

And, whether one is a student, or a relatively new employee, or a mid-career professional in a corporate setting, there is a profound ethical responsibility to strive mightily to pursue excellence. We have a responsibility to give our best, whether it's in a course in writing or Spanish or U. S. History or whether it's a student production or a news or feature story for a local station or cable system or a series of editorials for the student newspaper.

And, as you move from the classroom to the professional world, you continue to have the obligation to give your best-to strive for excellence-as you write magazine stories, create advertising campaigns, represent your clients in public forums, or report breaking news from the scene of a tragedy. To strive for excellence as an audiologist, or a playwright, a multi-media producer or a marketing account manager. It's essential that we connect excellence with ethics. That we connect ethics with excellence. They are inextricably woven together.

The pursuit of excellence is an ethical responsibility. You owe that to others. You owe that to yourself.

You have proven, as students at Emerson, that you can do fine work, that you can achieve notable goals in your academics and your leadership. Your success, I suggest, honors important values. You and your parents committed considerable financial resources to your academic journey. You had an obligation to your parents, and to yourself, to work hard, to strive for excellence.

Clearly, by virtue of the recognition given to you today, you have honored those obligations.

You graduate with tangible awards, and I trust you will leave with a pretty good sense of ethical values that you believe in and hope to uphold. You have good intentions.

That's the way it should be, but even with strong values and your good intentions it won't be an easy journey in your professional pursuits. You will move to an arena where you will be challenged anew, and tested in ways that you have generally not encountered.

You will move from being somewhat in control of your daily lives as students (especially in your final year when you were kings and queens on the hill) to rookie employees in an organizational setting where lots of factors are beyond your control.

You will be expected to do more than study hard and score well on tests. You will go to newsrooms, ad agencies, pr firms, theater groups and other corporate settings where there are lots of ethical potholes, quicksand and land mines. Even when you go to good organizations and work for good people, you will find your values tested and your ability to pursue excellence challenged.

You will most likely face a steep learning curve on knowledge and skills. You will enter a workplace dynamic where all sorts of organizational "cultural" factors are at play and the vagaries of personalities and human behavior complicate the equation.

Your bosses will have odd ways of making decisions. Your colleagues will have quirky personalities. Both the bosses and the colleagues will be driven by values you may find unappealing or even unethical.

There will be unwritten "rules" you will be expected to know about but often learn about when you wander into the ethical quicksand or veer into a moral mine field. There will be unspoken "taboos" you will learn about, sometimes after you've stepped in the stinky stuff.

And, in the professional workplace you will find that values aren't always addressed, ethics aren't always discussed, standards of behavior aren't always clear. And, sadly but realistically, you will sometimes find companies that have extensive, written codes of ethics but leaders who either ignore or violate those codes.

Think Enron as a prime example of that failure. Or you will find organizations like CBS News where "myopic zeal"-a term from the Thornburgh-Boccardi report on the major failures of verification and authentication in the reporting process-did them in on that 60 Minutes investigation of President Bush's military record.

Simply stated, as you leave college and move into the professional world, you are headed for an arena where you will need to keep developing your ability to make good ethical decisions in the face of complex issues, contentious people, unclear standards, and a variety of other complicating factors.

The ethicist Barbara Toffler wrote about the distinction between ethical intention and ethical capacity.

Ethical intention is the trigger-the desire to do the right thing.

Ethical capacity, Toffler suggests, is the ability to carry out your good intentions. I really like that distinction-intention and capacity.

Simply put, it's not enough to want to do the right thing. We have to have the ability to pull it off, to carry out our good intentions.

So, even though you may leave college with your moral compass calibrated, with a good set of ethical values fostered by your family, teachers and other influences on your life, you have work to do as you pursue excellence. You will need to further develop, refine and sharpen your skills at moral reasoning and ethical decision-making.

Yes, there may be moments in your career, within the next year or two or down the road when you are more seasoned, when it's important for you to "stand your ground" on an ethics issue. There may be those moments when you summon the courage to champion your ethical values in the face of foolish decisions by others. There may be moments when you "stand tall" and propose a different approach to an ad campaign or a news story because you believe the original plan is ethically flawed.

I don't want to discourage you from having strong values. I don't want to dissuade you from being courageous when necessary. Both are important.

But I do want to encourage you to have the ability to do more than just fight for your values, to do more than throw yourself on your sword when you don't believe in the orders of others.

I urge you to make it a priority to continually develop your capacity in ethical decision-making at the same time you are building your portfolio of professional skills and knowledge. Whether you are going into corporate communications, video production, theater, audiology, advertising, marketing, news reporting or other media and communication roles, you will be wise to keep building your capacity in ethical decision making.

I've increasingly used the word competence to describe this skill, this capacity for ethical decision-making.

And, increasingly, I've connected the word confidence to the word competence. It's my belief that the more competent we are in the skill of ethical decision making, the more confident we can be in professional pursuits.

I believe this to be true for every profession, true for those of you who are in advertising or marketing or videography or corporate relations or any other field of media endeavor.

Since my specialty and familiarity is with journalism, allow me to draw this competence and confidence connection in that arena.

Journalists who have a heightened skill in ethical decision making-great competence if you will-then have the ability to go into what I call "the deep water." They can tackle the most difficult of stories, be they tough investigative projects, or reporting on contentious societal issues or reporting on breaking news at a tragedy when details are few and there are vulnerable people at the heart of the story.

Journalists who have honed their ethical decision-making skills should be more able to do the research, the interviews and the reporting when the stakes are raised, when the demands are greatest.

These journalists, because they have the capacity to quickly reflect on the ethical issues at hand and reason rapidly, sorting through competing values and weighing potential consequences of several alternative decisions, these journalists are more likely, I suggest, to succeed in their journalism on the toughest of stories.

Competency and confidence. Excellence and ethics. And, beyond the reporting process, I suggest the journalists with a greater competency in ethical decision-making are more able to engage in purposeful and productive discussions and debates with their colleagues and their bosses. The ethically-skilled journalist has the confidence to weigh in with her or his thoughts, to ask tough questions, to challenge conventional thinking, to offer contrarian notions, to pose alternative courses of action that can emphasize good consequences and minimize negative consequences.

The ethically competent journalist has the skills, the communication ability and the savvy to go into the metaphorical deep water. Whether it's out in the field covering a really tough story with many ethical challenges or whether it's in the newsroom when it's tough to challenge those with strong gut instincts or those with many boss stripes on their sleeves.

The competence produces confidence. The confidence supports the pursuit of excellence.

Yes, take your clear, strong values with you into your professional roles. But also develop your skills-your competence-at ethical decision-making. Recognize ethical issues early and address them before they become problems.

Embrace the gray area of ethics. Resist seeing things as simplistically black and white.

Ask lots of good questions to search for sound, justifiable decisions. And I wish you well on your professional journeys as you pursue excellence with the highest of ethical standards.

Bob Steele is The Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. This article is adapted from an address delivered during the Academic Awards Ceremony at Emerson College, Boston, in May 2006. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.11,40-41.