Introduction and course objectives: This course has two primary objectives. The first is to learn the basic ethical principles of American journalism as they have evolved for more than two centuries. The Founding Fathers knew they were asking for trouble when they guaranteed a free and unfettered press, but they figured it was worth it. Before you can make any reasonable assessment about how well or how poorly journalism is doing its job, you have to be able to answer, "Compared to what?" The second purpose is to hone and learn to articulate your own moral sense—to examine rationally your own sense of right and wrong, of responsibility, of integrity. You can think of this part of the course as developing an answer to another question: "On what grounds?" Or, as journalists often shorten it, "Why?"
By the end of the course, you will be able to understand why journalists do what they do and then will be able to participate in an informed way in the ongoing national debate about the role that journalism has had, and will continue to have, in our lives and in our civic institutions.
While there is no agreed-upon list of "right answers" to the many ethical problems and dilemmas that arise in the world of contemporary journalism, there are seriously held principles that guide most journalists in making the tough calls. The particulars change with developments in politics and current affairs—the Gary Hart campaign changed the standards on what reporters ask of presidential candidates, for example, and the Janet Cooke and Dan Cohen cases each changed the rules on anonymous sources. The Richard Jewell Olympic bombing case in Atlanta in 1996 seems to have made reporters a bit more leery about the using the names of suspects who have not yet been charged. It should make the television side of the business rethink the stakeout. The Lewinsky story sounded the alarm on the difficulties of being responsible journalists at the speed of the Internet.
Interestingly, by almost any standards of journalistic propriety, the news business has never been better than it is today. Let me say that again. By almost any standards, the news business has never been better than it is today The best papers and broadcasts are fairer, more honest, less corrupt, more informed and more informing than at any time in our history. Yet, from the network-level hand wringing after the death of Princess Diana through the most sober-minded analysis in the most ponderous of academic journals, there is a broad consensus that journalists are in serious trouble with their readers and viewers. We will explore this apparent paradox and see what we think should be done about it.
To proceed, you need to learn how to think about ethical questions reasonably, thus equipping yourself to work through the inevitable moral dilemmas that you will face in your personal and professional lives, whether as journalists or not. Thus, the initial task is to introduce you to the world of moral reasoning, that branch of philosophy called ethics. During the first few weeks of the course, we will look at questions of morality from two different angles. We will examine how some of the world's greatest philosophers have proposed that we deal with these dilemmas of moral reasoning. In seeing how Socrates and Bacon, how Kant and Bentham viewed moral responsibility and ethical behavior, we can learn both to speak the language of moral reasoning, and, using our intellectual forebears as a guide, to develop or discover our own codes of moral behavior.
It is not expected that everyone will come up with the same moral code. It is expected, however, that students will discover and learn to articulate just what they do believe, based not on emotion alone but on reason and analysis. It will not be acceptable to rely on an unexamined reaction to a problem—the explanation that begins, "I just think...." Nor, for most, will it be adequate to say you rely exclusively and unquestioningly on precepts taught to you by your parents. Between early childhood and how, most of you have considered and discarded much parental advice. University students are not known for blind obedience to ancient dogma, and we are all the better for that.
In the second portion of the course, we will look at the historical and philosophical basis of this thing called journalism, which has such a central role in our system of government. We will begin with the legal thinking of those who were bold enough to create a First Amendment and then look at how major intellectual, technological and economic developments have affected that vision and made the press what it is today.
In the third part of the course, we will apply moral reasoning to the particulars of contemporary American journalism—what is described, with all the attendant limitations, as a free press operating in a democratic society. American journalism has a considerable body of intellectual thought associated with it, and students are expected to come to know this thinking well enough to apply its principles in debate with other students and with the instructor. There will be the occasional lecture, but by far the greatest part of the class will be in the form of discussions. We will occasionally have guest speakers—some live, others on tape. While it is neither anticipated nor desired that each student come to embrace the same personal moral code, it is expected that each student will come to know and understand the moral standards of the journalistic profession.