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Subject: AEJ 95 MCS VoakesP Social determinants in ethical dilemmas
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 6 Feb 1996 11:41:10 EST

text/plain (1339 lines)

    Social Determinants of Journalists' Decision-making
in Ethical Dilemmas
Paul S. Voakes
200Q Ernie Pyle Hall
Indiana University School of Journalism
Bloomington, IN 47405
(812) 855-1708
(e-mail) [log in to unmask]
submitted to
The Mass Communication & Society Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism
and Mass Communication
April 1, 1995
 Social Determinants of Journalists' Decision-making
in Ethical Dilemmas
     In much of the scholarship of media ethics, a curious assumption pervades
analysis of a journalist's struggle with an ethical dilemma: the assumption that
find their way according to their internal moral compasses.  But what of the
influence of
editors, of co-workers in the newsroom, of competitors, of management policies,
professional norms, of perceptions of audience reaction, or even of the relevant
Surely no journalist -- no individual in society -- can solve her ethical
problems in a
social vacuum, relying only on internal moral reasoning.  An exploration of
possible external influences would seem to provide, at the very least, a
understanding of journalism behavior.  Yet too often in the scholarship of media
that sort of inquiry has been short-circuited in the interest of  more immediate
of what ought to be done in accordance with moral theory or social
     This study represents the sort of research question that lies between
paradigms in
mass communication research, yet certainly within its overall domain.  The
paradigm of media ethics has been so narrowly drawn that the research, while
in many important respects, has failed to consider the place of media ethics in
the larger
processes and effects of mass communication.  And communication research, so
preoccupied with measurement of content and effects, has failed to consider the
origin of
the values and principles that comprise a great deal of the foundation of news
     Part of the problem is that ethics compels a consideration of the moral
duties that
underlie many cognitions and behaviors of journalists, but which are not easily
observable, even to practitioners at the moment of the decision.  The foremost
in media ethics tend to explore the deepest roots of ethics with logic, moral
theory and
social theory, rather than with empirical observation.  Hodges (1986), Elliott
(1986) and
Christians et al. (1987), for example, trace media responsibilities to
time-honored ethical
principles that can be applied not only to journalistic cases but to any human
in which a moral choice must be made.  They also, as most other media ethicists
discuss responsibilities also in the context of journalism's broader obligations
to society.
It is entirely possible that journalists on deadline do not reason deductively
from ethical
principles to make a specific ethical decision, or consider their broader social
responsibility.  But there is precious little evidence as to whether they do or
do not.
      The purpose of this inquiry is to suggest -- and implement -- a conceptual
framework for the study of mass communication into which media ethics can be
in the hope that the integration can enhance not only the social scientist's
of the values that drive media processes but also the ethical and legal
appreciation of the "realities" surrounding that work.  In an effort to test and
this bridged paradigm, the study endeavors to measure empirically one aspect of
journalists' ethical and legal behavior: the social determinants of ethical
Concepts and Methods
      In reconciling the two vast literatures of media sociology and media
ethics, the
key linkage seems to be the concept of values, which sociologists observe as
of behavior and which ethicists describe for their moral content.  As Christians
et al.
(1987) explain, values reflect presuppositions about social life that are
important to the
persons involved.  Each person is capable of judging situations according to
sets of values: aesthetic values, logical values, professional values or moral
values, for
example. Hence the central position of values in Figure 1.  Values comprise the
fundamental basis of moral judgment, but values alone do not guide the moral
they simply describe the agent's social and moral referents. The theoretical
thesis of this
study is that values must first be filtered through one or more social
determinants of
behavior before they can actually influence a decision.
     Traditionally here has been an assumption among media ethicists (see for
example Lambeth, 1986, and Klaidman & Beauchamp, 1986)  that ethics is done
a process of moral reasoning that uses, either inductively or deductively, moral
principles.  The implication, again, is that the process is internal and highly
Even much of the empirical work in this area supports such an assumption.  The
majority of empirical research on journalism ethics is descriptive (Morin, 1986;
Wulfmeyer, 1990; Anderson & Leigh, 1992;  Black, Steele & Barney, 1993),
journalists' reaction to various ethical questions and problems.  But there is
also a small,
growing  body of literature (see Meyer, 1987; Wright, 1989; Shamir, Reed &
1990; Singletary, Caudill, Caudill & White, 1990; White & Pearce, 1991; White &
Singletary, 1993) that has attempted to move beyond the descriptive questions
where the ethical lines are drawn, and to inquire how and why journalists draw
the lines.
The theoretical conclusions of this recent work can be summarized as such:
seem to be guided in their ethics by either intrinsic motivations (such as
upbringing, personal moral compass or desire for career advancement) or external
heuristics (such as codes of ethics, peer pressure or the threat of reprimand).
it is the internal, or intrinsic, qualities of the journalist that more strongly
predict her
ethical decision-making.  The work  suggests a revitalization of the concept of
individual "virtuous journalist" as the dominant force in the resolution of
ethical issues.
     Such conclusions may be premature.   The literature of sociology and social
psychology suggests by implication that journalistic behavior, and by extension
journalism ethics, is not a matter of intrinsic, individual choice alone.  It
seems more
likely that ethical behavior occurs amid a dynamic swirl of social factors.
(1985) has stated that ethics, despite the apparent individualism of moral
agency, is
fundamentally a social phenomenon.  It involves social interaction and therefore
be analyzed primarily in a social context.  The impact of formal ethics codes or
reasoning, therefore,  may not be the only factors governing the behavior of
journalists as
they ponder, however briefly, what they ought to do.  Also, we should not expect
journalists respond to either intrinsic or extrinsic factors -- one or the
other.  There is
more likely an interaction of factors, as there is in most complex human
behaviors, and a
model and its subsequent analysis should be able to account for that kind of
     A conceptual model has been developed in an attempt to examine why
do the things they do.  This framework begins with an adaptation of a more
comprehensive model of influences on media content, by Shoemaker and Reese
The overall theoretical goal for this model is to learn the relative importance
of each
determinant in influencing a particular journalistic behavior.  It proposes
seven social
determinants of ethical decision-making (each of which will be discussed below
in detail
along with the findings for each determinant): Individual, Small Group,
Competitive, Occupational, Extramedia, and Legal.
     Shoemaker and Reese suggest that there exists a "hierarchy of influences"
media content, and one of the key research question here is whether such a
exists in influence upon ethical decision-making.  If the structure of the model
somewhat complex, the dynamics of the model are no doubt even more so.  As
Figure 1
suggests, there is a body of values that is grounded in social responsibilities
and ethical
principles, but those values do not automatically influence a journalist's
decision.  There
is no guarantee of finding ethics in any of the above-listed determinants.
grounded values may or may not have a presence in any one of them.
     Nor is any social determinant more "ethical" than any other.  For example,
journalist may feel that to betray a source and name him in an article may
organizational policy, but it also may advance her career because of the story's
blockbuster potential.  In this case, the company policy appears to be grounded
in moral
values and principles, while the Individual influence seems morally vacant.
     One of the most useful features of this model is that it allows the various
determinants to be in conflict with each other, as some determinants can
effectively block
out ethical values while others provide the conduits for ethical values.
However, the
model also allows for an ethical decision that can be supported by every one of
determinants in the model simultaneously.   Such a confluence is rare, however,
an ethical problem, almost by definition, involves a resolution of conflicting
        Under what conditions and influences is a certain decision made in an
situation, and is there a hierarchy of these influences? To attempt to answer
questions, a telephone survey of daily journalists was conducted.   A sampling
frame of
journalists in southern Wisconsin was developed with the cooperation of (nearly
news executives at television and radio stations with news operations, and at
daily and
weekly newspapers of general circulation.  A probability sample of 118 was
stratified, to
ensure equal numbers of print and broadcast journalists, and equal numbers of
working in large news organizations and medium-to-small organizations.
     The telephone interview schedule began with the presentation of three
hypothetical scenarios. In the first, a news reporter and photographer sneak
into a
nursing home (on which they are doing an investigative piece, and from which
they had
been formally denied access) by posing as janitors. It taps the ethical issue of
The second scenario concerns whether to publish (or broadcast) the name of a
suspect in a highly-publicized murder in the community. The ethical concern here
invasion of privacy.  In the third situation, a mayoral candidate is the target
allegations, lodged by disgruntled former employees, of improprieties. A news
decides to report the allegations without verifying them or presenting the
candidate's side
of the story. This scenario raises the ethical issue of fairness.
     The first survey question after the telling of each scenario was whether
journalist's behavior is acceptable to the respondent, on a numerical rating
scale of one to
ten, where one is utterly unacceptable and ten is perfectly acceptable.  This
rating of
acceptability, especially when it is combined across all three scenarios,
becomes the key
dependent variable in the study.
     Of greater concern in this study than the rightness or wrongness of a
decision, however, are the primary independent variables that comprise the
hierarchy of
influences upon that rating of acceptability.   Each respondent was asked to
react to
several closed-ended items, each intended to represent one of the seven
variables.   Respondents were asked to rate the salience of each statement on a
scale of
one to ten, where one meant that the statement was irrelevant to her thinking
about the
journalist's actions, and ten meant that the statement was crucial to her
thinking as she
pondered each scenario.  The items were stated three times, once for each
     Because two  items represented each category of influence (independent
variable), their scores were examined to determine inter-item correlation. The
correlations were not only significant but robustly so, for nearly every matched
pair in
every scenario, and certainly in the overall correlations.  The coefficients of
the measures
for each determinant were significantly correlated (at p < .01) across all three
as well  -- thus enabling a summary analysis that, with few exceptions, does not
need to
distinguish between scenarios.
     What, then, did the 118 journalists surveyed reveal about their
processes in sticky ethical and legal situations?   Table 1 reports the means of
the items
representing the social determinants.  The key research question, regarding the
influences of these determinants upon an ethical judgment, suggests multiple
analysis.  Table 2 reports the relative strength of each of the social
determinants.  The
results and patterns among the variables will be discussed below in the context
of each of
the determinants.
     {Bivariate correlations between several demographic or objective items
(type of
medium, size of medium, degree in journalism, etc.) and the acceptability of the
journalists' decisions were measured.  However, none of these indicators enjoyed
significant association with the dependent variable at an alpha level of less
than .05.
Whatever else may be influencing how a journalist decides, it does not seem to
be the
influence of age, gender, education or any of the other similar measures taken
in the
     We now turn to a closer examination of the conceptualization and empirical
performance of each of the social determinants.
     The conceptualization of the Individual influence centers on the journalist
There are influences that each person brings to her journalistic work from
unrelated specifically to her work -- sources that reside intrinsically in her
making processes.  Specifically, there are three dimensions of Individual
personal background (and personality); personal attitudes, values and beliefs;
personal moral reasoning.  Each emphasizes the qualities in individual
that may act independently of external, socially-shared influences.  Thus the
two items
that comprised the index for Individual influence were "I like to reason these
things out
on the basis of my own logica nd feelings," and "I rely on my own personal
values in
situations like this."
     There are some indications in the literature that Individual influence is
central to
the ethical decision.  Carlin (1966) found that "inner disposition" predicted
strongly to
"ethical lawyering"  in a study of New York City attorneys.  Weaver and Wilhoit
found that journalists cited "family upbringing" as a prominent source (though
not the
most prominent source) of their ethical orientations.   Whether one views the
as a singular psychological complex or the product of lifelong socialization and
learning, there is a set of values and a personal history that, again
independently of
external forces,  reflects varying degrees of ethical principles.
     Analysis of individual media workers fell out of favor several years ago as
researchers' attention turned to the larger social forces influencing media
content.   One
substantial exception  is the work of Stocking and Gross (1989), which applies
on cognitive processing to such journalistic processes as news gathering and
Stocking and Gross assert that the human capacity for processing information is
thus people take mental shortcuts, primarily falling back on familiar and
cognitive routines. But unlike White's early thesis that much depends on
idiosyncrasies, Stocking and Gross recognize that each journalist's cognitive
map is not
the product of an individual mind in isolation.  They cite important influences
on the map
-- external, organizational, occupational -- which also coincide with the other
determinants in the present model.  Other communicator research in this vein
seems to
suggest a revitalization of the concept of the individual "virtuous journalist"
as an
important force in the resolution of ethical issues.  In fact, White and Pearce
found that only intrinsic factors predicted to the non-exploitive decision in a
ethical situation.
      The central hyporthesis of the study was this:
     Among the seven independent variable concepts, the Individual influence
will enjoy the strongest predictive value across all three scenarios.  This
reflects the
general findings, described in the literature above, that personal, intrinsic
values, largely
unfiltered by social influences, have great predictive power.  As tables 1 and 2
demonstrate, the hypothesis lies in disgrance.  The  overall salience of
Individual items
was lower than the mean for all determinants,  and the relationship between the
and the dependent variable also remained nonsignificant throughout the
     The tables indicate, however, the Individual factors are not irrelevant to
journalist's orientation.  Despite its poor showing overall, Individual
influence did exceed
the mean response occasionally.
     Beyond the realm of the individual psyche, but not too far beyond, lies the
influence of the small, informal groups in which the journalist performs her
work tasks.
This is one of the more subtle levels of influence, but most journalists
acknowledged its force -- sometimes grudgingly.   As a level of analysis of
behavior or ethics, small groups have received scant attention.  Neither Hirsch
(1977) in
his earlier examination of levels of analysis of news making, nor Shoemaker and
(1991) assigned a discrete category of influence to small groups.  Both
regarded this influence as part of the organization's influence.  It could very
well be,
however, that the policy of an organization may formally require behavior that
routinely ignored because of the dynamics of small-group relations (among other
influences as well).   It is here, at the small-groups level, that social
structures and social
interactions come into contact with the individual, who ultimately must make the
decision. The Small Group influences on behavior are usually subtle and
informal.  This
is familiar territory to social psychologists and sociologists, but it has
seldom been the
focus of media sociology, let alone journalism ethics.  The broader literature
three dimensions to the influence: socialization, interaction, and roles.
      If ethics involves a person's application of values, we must first
discover whence
the values arrive.  The answer lies largely in socialization, the process by
individuals learn skills, knowledge, values and roles appropriate to their
position in a
group.  Some socialization of journalists occurs in college-level journalism
and to a lesser extent through occupational associations and publications, but
the most
direct and pervasive context of socialization seems to be the newsroom itself.
setting seems to offer little formal training as to social rules, but they are
quickly learned
nonetheless, through the ongoing observation of editors and co-workers (Breed,
The indicator used  for this dimension concerned, naturally, the respondent's
of the behavior of peers: "I try to recall whether my co-workers have done
similar in the past."
     After the socialization has taken place, what are the interactive processes
in small
groups by which decisions are made?  The small group usually -- and certainly in
journalism -- is part of a larger organization that has assigned tasks and
duties to the
group and its individual members.  The desire to succeed in any group induces
to conform (Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1992) as the anchor/reporter's story above
Most journalists do not want to say or do things that "diverge from the common
wisdom" (Shoemaker & Reese, 1991, p. 142). The indicator for this dimension
concerned this interaction: "I talk to a co-worker or editor whose views I
respect before
I (engage in behavior similar to what was described in the scenario)."
      As the frequencies in Table 1 show, the mean of responses to the Small
indicators was close to the overall mean.  But the overall regression analysis
surprising strength in this influence.  Table 2 shows that Small Group achieved
a final-
block Beta coefficient of .21, whose significance level of .065 makes it worthy
mention.  Small-group considerations seemed to move respondents toward a
And the decision was positive; that is, the Small Group influence seems to
predict to
approval of the controversial actions in the scenarios.  Most of the other
determinants were negatively associated with the respondents' reactions to the
Thus the items' reference to colleagues and editors emboldens a journalist to
take some
risks ethically, sometimes in the face of cautions presented by Occupational
Extramedia forces, or even the law.  It is also interesting that the
influence failed to achieve a significant correlation in the regression
analysis.  Thus if
one's co-workers -- and especially one's immediate editor -- agree with a
strategy and if others nearby seem to have undertaken the strategy in the past,
considerations of larger company policy seem to fade away.
     Perhaps the most well-traveled level of analysis in this study's
theoretical model is
the Organizational level.  As an administrative and functional structure
established to
facilitate group activity, an organization by its nature places restrictions on
autonomy.  Considering that moral agency requires at least a modicum of
implications for ethics arise immediately.   In order to meet the organization's
goals, a
person is required to respond to the demands of others from various directions
demands which inevitably conflict from time to time.
     The literature on organizational behavior suggests three key dimensions to
way an Organization influences a journalist's decisions. The first is what Beach
would call the "shared image" of the organization.  This is a set of  generally
attitudes of the management, reinforced by the organization's history, which
provide a
philosophical or ethical heuristic for each member.  The second dimension
concerns the
structure itself of the organization -- and the constraints inherent in the
Despite its outward professions of public service, journalism is arduously
engaged in
private enterprise, and most every news organization holds economic goals as
--  regardless of the degree of competition they confront in their markets.  The
constraints are seen often in the budgetary restrictions on news operations, as
well as the
more technical requirements of production.  The final dimension of
influence is the simplest and most exclusively related to the formal
organization: Explicit
policy directives from the management.  But the degree to which company policy
known, or even exists at all, especially in the realm of ethics, is unclear.
Pritchard and
Morgan (1989) found that the existence of a company code of ethics had no
effect on a journalist's approach to a hypothetical situation.  This third
supplied the indicator for Organizational influence in the survey.  Respondents
asked to what extent they consider whether their company has a written policy on
issue in each scenario.
     This study found what researchers have previously found: that the
influence enjoys strength.  The Organizational category scored a higher mean
than any
other category of influences.  In terms of influencing the dependent variable,
the Organizational factors lose some of their initial prowess.  In the multiple
the Organization's originally strong correlations fade to levels of
nonsignificant influence;
considering the increase in the Small Group coefficient through the regression,
organization's influence could be mediated by the influence of co-workers.
     Unlike the Small Group influence, which was associated positively with the
respondents' approval of the journalists' actions, the Organizational variables
maintain a
steady negative association throughout the analysis.  Their thoughts of the
seemed to lead respondents away from approval.  The implication here is that
organizations have been thought to put pressure on journalists to abandon their
caution, at least in these three scenarios the organization was leading the
respondents to
some degree of moral caution.
      Competitive influence is a close conceptual cousin to the Organizational
influence, as it is concerned with the organization's relations with competing
news media
in its market, as well as the organization's place in the market.  It is an
external, indirect
manifestation of the organization's influence.  The literature suggests two
dimensions.  The first is a function of direct, head-to-head competition in
Does the competitor's treatment of a subject influence my own treatment? Weaver
Wilhoit (1991) found that Competing Media ranked sixth out of the nine choices
influences on news judgment.  The second dimension of the Competitive influence
is less
direct.  It involves a more general notion of the organization's distinct place
in its market,
and what the members of the organization must do, especially in terms of
maintenance, to sustain that place in the market.  The Competitive influence was
represented by this item in the survey:  "I think about my company's need to
stay ahead
of the competition with important exclusive stories."
      We can see from the tables that the Competitive influence, while not among
strongest, does deserve a place in the model.  Table 1 shows Competitive
significantly below the overall mean for these variables.  But the Competitive
does seem to have some bearing on the journalist's ultimate decision on the
situation.  In the multiple regression (Table 2), the Competitive influence
blossomed to a
coefficient of .21, with an alpha level of .06.  And the coefficient, unlike
most others, is
positive.  Whenever this influence does become salient, the salience directs the
toward acceptance of the ethically risky action.
     This determinant too finds a different home in others' conceptions of
upon the media.  Shoemaker and Reese (1991) included it as one of several
influences, but they immediately distinguished it from all other types of
factors.  The Occupational influence does help shape the communicator's personal
orientation,  but not in ways that are peculiar to each journalist entering the
field. There
is instead among journalists a common system of values, attitudes and beliefs,
which is
transformed, through the process of socialization, into a system of norms to
behavior.  The Shoemaker and Reese model therefore loses an important
distinction: The
journalist's personal preferences in an ethical decision may in fact run
opposite to the
norms of the profession.
     Many journalists and scholars suggest that there is a body of values or
we can identify as professional ethics.   The notion implies that the
journalist's guidance
from the occupation, by virtue of education, training, familiarity with the
formal codes of
ethics, continuing-education seminars and such, can lead her to do the right
thing.  But
we can infer from the sociological literature, and we implicitly suspect from
this study's
theoretical model, that this is not necessarily the case.  Ethically-grounded
values may or
may not have a presence in each social determinant for any given situation.
professional values with strong moral roots can be undermined by other
values -- being the first to break a story involving a prominent personality,
for example --
that have less moral basis.  Professions and ethics do not necessarily belong in
the same
phrase.  A more appropriate reading would be that occupational norms influence
behavior of journalists, and that these norms carry varying degrees of ethical
content and
ethical foundation.
       But how is it that the professional identity, or occupational norms,
actually do
influence the decision in an ethical situation?   Here three dimensions are
identified. The
first dimension  is the most concrete: the formal "professional" standards of
The codes of national journalistic organizations are rarely if ever enforced
1991), but they do provide the articulation of the attitudes and general
behavior that
provide journalists with an occupational identity.   Weaver and Wilhoit (1991)
found no
indication that codes of ethics shaped journalists' general ethical orientation:
learning and personal background were cited most often as the prominent
And in specific situations?  Even less is known.  Hence the inclusion of this
item after
each scenario:  "I think about whether there's anything on (the issue in the
scenario) in
our profession's codes of ethics."
     The second and third dimensions of Occupational influence are less
and formal.  There is the influences of early journalism education and
socialization into
the occupation, and the ongoing processes of education and socialization.
Often a
future journalist undergoes "anticipatory" socialization in journalism courses.
finally, there is the ongoing process of socialization.  Once a journalist has
through the formal education and training phases, the learning of norms and
of professional identity does not stop.   In addition to the constant teaching
reinforcement engendered by colleagues in the newsroom (the Small Group
some journalists are active in professional associations, and through meetings
publications are exposed to issues common to other journalists.  The second item
Occupational influence represented a journalist's evolving sense of what
comprises the
"professionalism" in journalism.  Respondents were asked to react to the
sentence, "I
think about whether this (action under consideration) fits with my view of
     From the overall results above we see that Occupational factors showed
frequencies; the combined mean for the Occupational indicators was significantly
than the aggregate mean for all "influence" variables -- especially the item
respondents' notions of professionalism.  But for all its strength in frequency,
Occupational category seems not to predict the dependent variable significantly
in any
one direction.  It could be that some conceptions of professionalism led
journalists to
reject the hypothetical outcome (producing a negative correlation), but that
conceptions induced support for the hypothetical outcome (producing a positive
relationship).  For all their frequency, they may have cancelled each other's
     This diverse category of social determinants, termed "Extramedia" by
and Reese, is composed of influences from outside the organizations and
structures of
the news media.  Because the origins of the Extramedia influence are so
disparate, it is
not surprising that this category of influence, perhaps more so than any other
can  pull a journalist in  different ethical directions.
     This study has identified four major dimensions of the Extramedia variable.
first is sources of information.   This is no doubt the most studied aspect of
influence on news making in general.  Media sociologists have written at length
what Gans (1979) called a "symbiotic" relationship between journalists and their
institutional sources  (see also Gandy, 1982; Fishman, 1982;  Paletz and Entman,
If a reporter disagrees with or angers a powerful source, she runs the risk of
being cut
off from the flow of information. The fear of that outcome keeps most reporters
challenging their sources, and by extension challenging the organizations they
The second dimension is the influence of advertisers.  Some advertisers threaten
cancel accounts from time to time to voice displeasure with editorial content,
but more
often the influence from advertisers is less direct and results in a kind of
The third dimension is audience influence, which is usually even less direct
advertising -- but closely related.  Audience reactions to media content affect
and ratings, which affect advertising revenue and consequent investment in
product.  Journalists often worry more broadly about the credibility of their
(Shoemaker & Reese, 1991).  The fourth Extramedia diemsnion is the influence of
subjects. The dimension is akin to the sources' influence, but here the person
outside the
media is not a source, but rather the subject of the  story.
     The means of Extramedia closed-ended items were the lowest of all seven
determinants (Table 1).  But that does not mean its presence is unimportant as a
determinant: Extramedia influence was significantly -- and negatively --
associated with
the acceptability of the journalists' decision (Table 2).  Those who assigned
to Extramedia factors tended to disapprove of the hypothetical action.  The
was represented in the survey by two indicators:"I wonder what the (subject or
will do (or think) when they see the story" represents the perception of the
influence of news sources or news subjects.  The other indicator, "I wonder what
readers (viewers) will think when they see this story" represents the more
anticipation of audience reaction.  It is hardly surprising that statements of
concern over
the reactions of sources, subjects or audience would induce a reluctance to
proceed with
the risky story.
     It is virtually impossible to consider moral obligations without
considering legal
obligations.   Moral reasoning  provides the foundation for most court rulings,
and other formulations of law.  And, as the model in this study suggests, the
law exerts
some degree of influence on most every formulation of an ethical decision.
sociologists often describe two domains for the social influence of the law:
formal and
informal.  They are polar opposites along the same conceptual  dimension. At the
end of the continuum we would expect that journalists who confront a situation
legal implications (1) know there are legal implications, (2) use their
knowledge of the
law as the primary basis of their decision, and (3) act to comply with the law.
With the
informal aspect of the law,  the impact is indirect at best -- and at times
nonexistent.  A
common "informal" approach  seems to be reliance on others who have knowledge of
the formal law -- either an attorney on retainer or an legal advisers at a
statewise press
association.   The first indicator of Legal influence in the survey was designed
to tap the
more formal side of this dimension: "I try to recall if there is a law or a
recent court
decision about (the issue)."  The other item was meant to induce legal thoughts
formally:  "I wonder if (proceeding with the act) would bring on a lawsuit
against myself
or my company."
      As we might expect, the Legal influence was among the most powerful in
study's matrix of influences -- but not predominantly so.  With a mean response
of 7.73
for the combination of both Legal items, this determinant was outdone by only
one other
category in the model -- Organizational (Table 1).  As for their predictive
power, the
strong salience of the law predicts significantly to a disapproval of the
action (Table 2).  In fact, Legal influence is the strongest in a block of
strong variables,
and it is the only one to retain its significance throughout every  regression
at an alpha
level of less than .05.
Conclusions and Implications
      The Shoemaker-Reese "hierarchy" model  proved a sturdy template for a
of influences on ethical decision-making.  In the course of the study, however,
it became
apparent that because ethical decisions are different from media content, some
and specifications were necessary for the new model. But the original metaphor
apt.  There does seem to be a hierarchy of influences upon journalists'
decision-making in
ethical and legal situations, in that some factors steer the journalist toward a
more prominently, or influentially, than others.  Some factors appear
influential at first
glance, yet regression analysis shows their influence to be mediated through
factors.  As with most social-scientific conclusions, of course, much depends
contingent conditions.  We have seen that the results can depend upon how the
was measured.   The principal measurement in this study was multiple regression,
determine the predictive strengths of several independent variables
simultaneously.  But a
variable's failure to produce a directional association -- either approval or
disapproval of
the journalistic act -- does not always mean the variable lacks any kind of
strength.  Its
salience, regardless of its directional influence, must not be overlooked.
     If we were to order the hierarchy on the basis of all the measures involved
in the
study, Legal influence emerges as the single most influential factor, but its
influence is
not overwhelming, relatively or absolutely.  Also showing influential strength
are the
Small Group, Organizational, Occupational, Extramedia and Competitive
Only Individual influence was consistently without salience or influence.  The
seem to set the traditional paradigm of scholarship for media ethics on its ear.
Apparently, the individual moral agent is not acting on the basis of her own
values and
moral logic, isolated somehow from external forces. Time and again other, more
forces, weighed more heavily upon the decision to embrace or reject a
     The utter inability to declare one " most powerful" determinant is perhaps
best result we could have hoped for at the outset of the study.  There is no
single source
of ethical direction, and this conclusion has obvious implications for media
     Ethics should matter to journalists, and it should matter to media
Journalists' credibility, their fitful progress toward professionalism and
perhaps even their
legal rights and freedoms depend to a large extent on the manner in which they
treat the
people they cover.  But in pragmatic, policymaking terms, who are the
agents for this new level of awareness?  There are several possibilities.
     This study has found that Small Group, Organizational, Occupational,
Extramedia and Legal determinants are important to journalists' decision-making.
salience is present already; what is needed is an infusion of higher ethical
awareness at
one or more of these levels of influence.  Some opportunities are more feasible
others.  At the Organizational level, for example, companies can move to create,
Beam (1990)  and Kohlberg (1976) have both suggested, an environment that is
conducive to professionalism -- even to moral reasoning.  This can be done
by minimizing the numbers of situations in which organizational demands and
occupational norms conflict, or the situations in which personal moral standards
overridden by morally vacant organizational demands.  But as the theoretical
model for
the study has insisted, raising the salience of a particular determinant alone
does not
guarantee morally correct behavior.  The profile must be raised in ways that
sensitivity to the moral dimensions of a situation.  One suggestion would be
regular but
informal discussions among news workers about the day's (or week's or month's)
prickliest ethical situations.
     Because the Small Group influence was also one of the more powerful,  its
ethical content can be changed to some extent also by managers of an
organization.  If
journalists do indeed heed the examples and thoughts of their co-workers and
supervisors, media managers can pay attention to what Kohlberg would call the
maturity of the people they hire and promote.  More effective than a company
policy of
"do's and don't's" would be the influence of key people in the newsroom who are
ethically "mature."
     The Occupational influence is not as easily dealt with at the
organizational or
interpersonal level.  A large part of one's Occupational orientation, this study
and others
suggest, occurs during college journalism training and the first years on the
job.  Ethics
could become a more important part of journalism education than it is now, so
that the
professional values with which young journalists identify can be more firmly
grounded in
ethics.  This study affirmed the weakness of the influence of national
professional codes
of conduct, but there may be role for national professional organizations
Publications and local chapter activities of such groups as the Society of
Journalists could raise the profile of ethical situations and moral reasoning,
conveying the
message that part of  behaving "like a professional,"  is to become adept at
     To the social scientist, ethics may seem forever in the domain of the
prescriptive scholars who are more concerned with what ought to be than with the
scientist's pursuit of what seems to be.  But ethics ought to be observed, and
observed as
a part of the larger network of attitudes and behaviors of journalists that have
attracted media sociologists' attention.  This attempt at the integration of the
literature of media ethics and media sociology is offered as an initial step
toward a more
systematic observation and explanation of journalism ethics and law.  The next,
steps would include deeper examination of the values that inform these social
determinants, especially to look for connection between those values and ethical
principles.  There will probably never be a seamless merging of these disparate
disciplines, but to the extent that each research tradition edges closer to the
other, each is
strengthened.  The ethicist who understands how an ethical decision is made in
newsroom and what actual effect it has upon an audience can be more precise and
speculative in her moral evaluation.  And the social scientist who can assess
and effects in the context of a system of values and principles can add a new
of social meaning to her empirical findings.  The impossibility of marriage of
these two
paradigms should not preclude the opportunity for dialogue.
                                             Figure 1
                         Ethics and the Social Determinants of Newsmaking
                    SMALL GROUP
     Values              COMPETITION                   Decision            News
                                                       Audience Effects
                        Table 1
Means of the  Measures of Social Determinants
                                       Nursing Home   Juvenile's Name
Candidate Overall
Individual            6.97 (2.43)  6.63* (2.59)   6.96 (2.38)    6.87 (2.17)
     Personal Values      7.01 (2.87)   6.69 (2.80)    6.91 (2.68)    6.88
     Own Logic  6.92 (2.68)   6.56* (2.69)   6.95 (2.49)    6.82 (2.31)
Small Group          7.00 (2.24)   7.38 (2.10)    7.47** (1.95)  7.27 (1.81)
     Observe others       6.01** (2.75) 6.47* (2.77)   6.47 (2.59)    6.31*
     Talk to others  7.99** (2.70) 8.31** (2.40)  8.47** (1.93)  8.26** (2.04)
Organizational   8.10** (2.77)     9.15** (1.68)  7.63** (2.56)  8.32** (1.92)
Competition           6.11** (2.67)     5.53** (2.65)  6.17** (2.71)  5.97**
Occupational          7.27 (2.11)  7.46 (2.07)    7.41** (1.80)  7.37* (1.69)
     'Professionalism'     7.86** (2.59)     7.73* (2.26)   8.07** (1.95)
7.90** (1.88)
     Code of Ethics        6.64 (2.61)  7.19 (2.68)    6.77 (2.38)    6.87
Extramedia            5.09** (2.47)     5.90** (2.40)  5.58** (2.27)  5.53**
     Audience   5.44** (2.87) 5.43** (2.71)  5.98** (2.67)  5.61** (2.32)
     Subjects    4.70** (3.21)     6.34* (2.76)   5.17** (2.62)  5.42** (2.21)
Legal                 7.83** (2.69)     8.16** (1.67)  7.21 (2.23)    7.73**
     The Law     8.28** (2.44)     9.26** (1.35)  7.68** (2.53)  8.40** (1.65)
     Threat of suit   7.38 (2.69)  7.07 (2.76)    6.73 (2.93)    7.07 (2.42)
Column mean    6.91       7.17           6.92          7.01
 n = 118
     1) Values expressed are the means (and standard deviations) of the
responses (on a  scale from 1 to 10) to closed-ended items.
     2) The indented phrases represent the individual items that comprise the
boldfaced, composite variables immediately above them..
     3) Asterisks denote significant difference, either higher or lower, from
the mean of the responses for that column, as determined by
a two-tailed t-test (* p<.05, ** p<.01).
                                             Table 2
                         Predicting Acceptability of Journalists' Actions
     in Ethical/Legal Situations
     Multiple Regression
                                   Simple r       Step 1         Step 2
Step 3    Incr. R2
Demographics                                           .04
     Gender (male)   .00       .04       .04      -.02
     Age       -.16      -.15      -.04      -.11
     Education  .12       .13       .13       .04
Other Key Characteristics                                   .03
     Ever Threatened
     with a Lawsuit  .11                 .19       .11
     Yrs./ Journalism  -.13                  -.16      -.12
Social Determinants                                    .15**
     Individual     -.04                           .00
     Small Group    -.07                           .21^
     Competition     .05                           .20^
     Organizational -.21*                              -.06
     Occupational   -.23*                              -.18
     Extramedia     -.21*                              -.22^
     Legal          -.26**                             -.26*
Equation F-ratio                                            2.40 (.009)
  n = 118, ^p<.10, *p<.05, **p<.01
     1) Dependent variable is the acceptability of journalists' actions, summed
across all three scenarios.
     2) "Other Key Characteristics" are objective variables whose strong
bivariate associations had suggested possible predictive power
in a regression equation.
     3) In Step 3, the coefficients of Small Group, Competition and Extramedia
achieved alpha levels of significance, respectively, of
.065, .062, and .053.
     4) "Equation F-ratio" refers to the ANOVA test as to whether the blocks of
variables entered in the equation explained a significant
amount of the variance in the dependent variable.
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