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Much media ethics scholarship tends to examine controversies involving conflicting values and articulation of the various duties of media professionals. This is all well and good, but as one of the authors has advocated,[1][2] more systematic applications of moral psychology methods and measures promise to open exciting paths of research and lend more power to normative claims that we might make. These approaches enable us to more deeply explore not just ethical claims and conflicts per se, but underlying moral intuitions and other motivations driving moral judgments. They also offer newer and effective assessments of a range of morally relevant variables, including ethical ideology and value systems.

We have recently conducted two studies that explore some moral psychology features of two groups of media professionals. Both draw on, among other sources, the Moral Foundations Theory from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Through their research, they found that people in all cultures draw on five categories of moral intuitions; however, these intuitions are attuned to cultural and political orientations in various ways. Measuring the moral foundations of media professionals and combining the data with that of a newer assessment of “character strengths” enabled us to explore broader questions about attitudes and judgments among journalists and public relations professionals, including: How do people understand the concept of fairness in their lives, and to what extent does the concept shape their moral judgments?

Similarly, what motivates people to either respect or be skeptical of authority and social hierarchy structures? Do their attitudes toward authority inform their attitudes about ethical questions? And finally, are there connections between one’s attitude toward fairness and their attitude towards authority?

In moral psychology, there are two measures or approaches that seek to capture these concepts and help us explore these questions: the moral foundation questionnaire (MFQ) and the VIA Global Assessment of Character Strengths-24 (GACS-24). The MFQ measures five widely shared sets of moral intuitions, or foundations, two of which relate to perceptions of Fairness (referred to as the Fairness/Cheating foundation) and the role of Authority (the Authority/Subversion foundation) in our social lives. Taken together, assessments of the five foundations have proven useful in understanding cultural and political distinctions of moral concerns and motivations in populations across the globe. The GACS-24, in contrast, asks people to rate how important they perceive a given list of 24 traits, or virtues – including “Fairness.” A person’s top-rated tier of 5-7 traits can be an indicator of their central moral motivations.

We used these two instruments in two studies to explore moral motivations of media professionals: members of the prestigious College of Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA study) and members of the Online News Association (ONA study). Both are broad-based trade associations that reflect the population of their respective fields and thus are good places to sample attitudes and explore professional norms.

To contextualize our findings, it is important to note that the PRSA study recruited 59 members of the PRSA College of Fellows. To become a PRSA Fellow, one has to have at least 20 years of professional experience and have made significant contributions to the profession. However, our second study had a much larger sample size, as 227 ONA members responded to our survey. And unlike the PRSA College of Fellows, ONA is a trade group for digital media professionals at all stages of their career. The organization includes journalists, data analysts, media managers, platform vendors and other content producers. Though the ONA sample outnumbered the PRSA sample (227 vs. 59), it should be noted that the latter has a slightly greater representation of the sub-population (10.09 percent [3] vs. 16.9 percent [4]).

 With this in mind, consider our findings regarding the Fairness/Cheating moral foundation, the Authority/Subversion foundation, and the Fairness character strength. The PRSA study found that PRSA Fellows who endorsed the Authority/Subversion moral foundation were more likely to have a personality that values Fairness (r = .29, p <.05), but they may be less likely to endorse the Fairness/Cheating foundation (r = -.17, p = .21). Also, Fellows who endorsed the Fairness/Cheating foundation may be more likely to have a personality that values Fairness (r = -.19, p = .16). Our statistically savvy readers may notice the last two relationships were not statistically significant, which is possibly due to the small sample size of this study (n = 59).

In contrast, the ONA study found that online media professionals who endorsed the Authority/Subversion foundation were more likely to emphasize the Fairness trait (r = .26, p < .01) and to endorse the Fairness/Cheating foundation (r = .42, p < .01). Also, the more they endorsed the Fairness/Cheating foundation, the more likely they highly rated the Fairness trait (r = .24, p < .01). All these relationships were statistically significant, again, possibly due to the large sample size (n = 227).

 Media professionals in both studies who endorsed the Authority/Subversion foundation were more likely to emphasize the Fairness trait, and those who strongly endorsed the Fairness trait were more likely to endorse the Fairness/Cheating moral foundation. However, the relationships between the two moral foundations differed in the two studies. The ONA members who endorsed the Authority/Cheating foundation were more likely to also endorse the Fairness/Cheating foundation, but the pattern was reversed among the PRSA Fellows. The more PRSA fellows endorsed the Authority/Subversion moral foundation, the less likely that they endorsed the Fairness/Cheating foundation.

 How do we make sense of the inconsistent findings of the two moral foundations in our two samples? To begin answering this question, we looked at previous studies that used the MFQ and reported the correlations among the moral foundations. Bai and colleagues (2020) [5] found a significant negative relationship between the two foundations (r = -.12, p < .05) with a sample of 324 U.S. adults. Another study authored by Doğruyol and colleagues (2019) [6] found significant positive relationships of the two foundations in both WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) (r = .29, p <.01) and non-WEIRD cultures (r = .33, p < .01). Their sample consisted of more than 7000 participants from 30 countries.

Given the mixed results in the literature, we can only offer some speculation in regards to our findings. One notable difference between our two samples is the elite status of PRSA Fellows. They may arguably enjoy higher status in their social and professional hierarchies, which may influence how they consider the Fairness/Cheating and the Authority/Subversion foundations when making moral decisions compared with non-elites. Years of experience in the often high-conflict world of public relations, together with awareness of social disparity and perhaps maintenance of social status, may well shape the moral motivations of Fellows in particular ways. Perhaps their experience with high-conflict situations, and the constant moral tradeoffs required among interests and claims related to questions of fairness and authority, may contribute to the negative association of the two moral foundations that we found in this sample. Therefore, the more that PRSA Fellows endorse the virtues of leadership, the less likely that they are to accommodate claims of grievance that may threaten to “subvert” existing social structures and power dynamics – even as they simultaneously might endorse the virtue of Fairness in the abstract.

The clearer link between the Fairness moral foundation and the Fairness trait among the ONA group may reflect the more explicit iconoclastic tendences of those who work in news or journalistic cultures, where people tend to recognize the power and value of social hierarchy but are also comfortable considering claims of disparity or unfair treatment. Pursuing fairness (often read as justice) in the journalistic context arguably involves speaking truth to power and promoting the notion of equity, which routinely raises questions of exercises of institutional authority.

Regardless, the intriguing nature of these results underscore the need for more such moral psychology research to explore patterns among moral judgments, value systems, and professional media norms and practices. Future studies should also consider the possibility that perspectives may change when professionals are presented with more concrete scenarios, since moral psychology scales tend to focus on abstract principles. [7]


[1] Plaisance, P.L. (2016). Media Ethics Theorizing, Re-oriented: A Shift in Focus for Individual-Level Analyses. Journal of Communication 66 (3), 454-474.

[2] Plaisance, P.L. (2021). Moral Psychology in Media. In Handbook of Global Media Ethics (S.J.A. Ward, Ed.). Cham, Switzerland: Springer Publications. [Forthcoming.]

[3] Online News Association. (n.d.). What We Do.    

[4]  Public Relations Society of America. (2021, July 13). PRSA Welcomes 13 New Members into Its College of Fellows in 2021.

[5] Bai, F., Ho, G. C. C., & Yan, J. (2020). Does Virtue Lead to Status? Testing the Moral Virtue Theory of Status Attainment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 118(3), 501.

[6] Doğruyol, B., Alper, S., & Yilmaz, O. (2019). The Five-Factor Model of the Moral Foundations Theory is Stable Across WEIRD and Non-WEIRD Cultures. Personality and Individual Differences 151, 109547.

[7] Napier, J.L., & Luguri, J.B. (2012). Moral Mind-Sets: Abstract Thinking Increases a Preference for “Individualizing” Over “Binding” Moral Foundations. Social Psychological and Personality Science 4(6) 754-759.

  • Jin Chen is a doctoral candidate in the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State.
  • Patrick Lee Plaisance is the Don W. Davis Professor in Ethics at Penn State.
  • Marlene Neill is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Journalism, Publics Relations and New Media at Baylor University. She also is a College of Fellows member.