Ethical Decision Making in Environmental Journalism
JoAnn Myer Valenti, Ph.D.
Professor of Communications
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah 84602
Ph: 801-378-7020 email [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Science Interest Group, AEJMC, for presentation at
the Annual Convention, August 9-12, 1995 in Washington DC.
Ethical Decision Making in Environmental Journalism
ABSTRACT: Environmental journalism, a specialty beat in news reporting,
has been criticized for advocacy. This study of ethical decision
among members of the Society of Environmental Journalists uses an
motivation scale to measure relationships between Internal Work
and Extrinsic Guides, concerns for Personal Advancement, and
Religious/Moral Beliefs. Factor and cluster analyses replicate
other beat reporters, and identify ethical motivation differences among
the environmental journalists studied. Content analysis of a
sample of reporting from study participants explores effects of EMS
Ethical Decision Making/
"Ethical Decision Making in Environmental Journalism"
An article about environmental communication in American Journalism Review
, a monthly media industry magazine, ran recently under the headline:
the Facts Get in the Way" (Monks, 1994). The writer criticizes a
collection of media reports on environmental issues, especially slamming
New York Times environment reporter Keith Schneider for misleading
about dioxin. This is not the first attack on Schneider's
of government and science reports regarding the cancer risk posed for
humans by dioxin, or the only criticism of media's role in creating
"unreal" images of important science such as climate change, the ozone hole
and a range of environmental issues. Environmental journalism, a specialty
beat in news reporting, has been repeatedly criticized for advocacy; most
often, those writing about environmental issues have been accused of
more environmentalist than journalist. The so-called "advocacy debate"
surrounding communications into and out of media has extensive roots
(Howenstine, 1987; Meersman, 1990; LaMay, 1990; Loftis, 1992; and
1992). A shift from aesthetic to pragmatic reporting on environmental
issues has resulted in accusations of missing the
environmental justice story (Johnson, 1994), falling prey to political
rules (Leavitt, 1994), falling asleep on the U. S. Environmental
Agency (EPA) story (Willis, 1991), leaving gaps in information (Brengle,
1994), and straight up bias (Environment Writer, 1993).
Ironically, AJR's criticism implies an opposite bias to the charges of
being "too green" fired at former NYT environment reporter Phil
or an assortment of other journalists covering this beat who find
themselves relieved of a job by editors who claim their stories were not
"just the facts." The accepted journalistic norm is for reporters to
reality, not create it, an important role distinction since the
journalistic paradigm defines a second-hand reality for those who receive
information through mass media (Reese, 1990). Accuracy and balance,
often in terms of professional ethics, remain cornerstones in
Mass Communication Ethics and the Ethical Motivation Scale
Since the argument over objectivity in journalism has been somewhat laid
to rest, the question of accurately communicating facts without bias
generates greater concern about professional ethics in mass communication.
What stories are told? How are issues selected for coverage, and who
deemed a credible source? How are issues of scientific and
uncertainty or controversy handled? Some believe that environmental
reporting challenges and allows journalists to do something different,
invites a rethinking of news values. Often the environment story
more foregrounding (for audience understanding), makes long term
accountability and fairness prerequisite to the news reported, and forces
the journalist to present possible consequences. Covering the
is frequently as much about problem solving as problem exposure.
Responsible investigation of an environment story may mean reporting not
only choices (the traditionally balanced, inverted pyramid), but
and mobilizing information. To demystify complex subjects, the best
reporters dig up then siphon volumes of information. In their missionary
role of protecting the public, countless decisions have to be made.
According to social judgment theory, decision making is not an entirely
rational process, nor does conflict arise solely due to motivational
factors (Hammond et al, 1975; Brehmer & Hammond, 1977). In order to assess
information, individuals bring to decision-making situations their own
cognitive images, past experiences and predispositions. As media
point out, competency measures for journalists are in effect
under The First Amendment protection of speech and press freedom.
Therefore, reliance on mass mediated information, since it may come from
idiots or savants, makes concern about journalistic ethics well
(Black and Barney, 1990).
Communication professionals, particularly those who work in mass media and
journalism, report external heuristic guides such as the law, employers or
peer evaluation as well as internal motivations such as religious and
moral beliefs as reasons to behave ethically. Researchers have used
descriptive statistics to report dependence on internal thought processes
by editors and reporters to resolve ethical dilemmas (McAdams, 1986;
et al 1987), while others (see for example Anderson, 1987 and
990) have found a reliance on what is perceived as legal, peer
and a variety of professional codes influential in decisions made
what to report and how to report information without bias.
Using in part Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Hackman and Oldham's
Internal Work Motivation scale, Singletary and his colleagues (Singletary
et al, 1990; White & Singletary, 1993; and White & Pearce, in press)
developed and validated an Ethical Motivation Scale (EMS) to analyze
journalists' decision-making styles, job performance and satisfaction.
Singletary's EMS measures relationships between Internal Work Motivation
and Extrinsic Guides, concerns for Personal Advancement, and
Religious/Moral Beliefs. Thus far, this team of researchers finds, for
example, that journalists who use extrinsic guides are motivated to
well on the job, while performance standards are less for those who look
to personal advancement concerns for ethical motivation. Reliance on
religious or moral beliefs as ethical guides may or may not result in
acceptable job performance. They also conclude that extrinsic guides to
journalistic ethics are poor predictors of actual behavior, and are
insufficient; ethical behavior, they assert, is internal. These researchers
have also reported that males are more likely to accept personal
advancement as an ethical motivator than females.
The study reported here explores whether environmental journalists also
reflect a mainstream ethical orientation, and share commonalities with
other studied journalists. The EMS offers a useful integrative model
(Hendler, 1992), providing theoretical, ethical, profession-oriented and
relational/organizational aspects of ethical decision making.
Fortunately for this study, a relatively new professional organization has
been formed allowing the researcher to easily reach a gathering of
environmental journalists. The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)
was formed about five years ago and accepts members only through
Board review. Active members in SEJ must be full time reporters/writers
working in a designated environmental beat at a newspaper, magazine,
or television station. (SEJ has in addition Academic and Associate
membership categories for educators or freelance writers, each applicant
also subject to Board review and acceptance or denial based on
criteria to assure engagement in environmental communication other
public relations.) SEJ holds an annual conference.
This study was initiated at the third annual conference held at Duke
University in 1993 in North Carolina. During the two and a half day
conference, 52 of the 300-some attendees participated in the study.
Conference organizers estimate half of those in attendance were categorized
as "Active" SEJ members, therefore, this study potentially reached one
third of the targeted population available at this event.
Since the targeted study population (reporters) is notoriously adverse to
filling out surveys, and because this study attempts to replicate a
validated measure (the scale items were modified only
where reference to specific environmental journalism or environmental
journalism association seemed necessary for the sampled population), the
researcher decided to create a gaming opportunity, somewhat similar to
card sort, and invite the subjects to "play a card game." The intent
merely to entice participation in the study among reporters attending
tightly scheduled conference.
The card game was created and pretested among SEJ members living in the
researcher's geographic region; both print and television journalists
seemed capable of completing the
game as intended, and reported enjoying this approach to "research." The
"game" strategy appeared to be successful, even though the activity
clearly a research study being conducted by an identified academic
of the association (SEJ).
Two identical decks of 3 1/2 by 5 inch cards were designed, each card
blank on one side and carrying an EMS statement on the other side. (See
Appendix A for sample cards.) Two card sets were prepared in order to
the researcher, who sat at a table in a lobby area of the conference site,
to administer two simultaneous games. The subject was asked to go through
the deck of cards, reading each statement, and placing each card on
one of seven green cards with Likert-type statements ranging from
much like me," to "Not at all like me." The game was complete when all
cards had been placed in piles. The subject was then asked to complete
one page questionnaire (see Appendix B) to gather demographic data and
solicit participation in a second stage of the research (a content
of the subject's published or aired work). Data gathering for each subject
averaged from 15 to 20 minutes.
As each game was completed, the researcher scored the card sort results on
a master sheet for each respondent using a code book assigning a value for
each EMS statement. Card decks were shuffled for each new game. Data were
entered for analysis using SPSS-Windows.
At the most recent annual SEJ conference held in Utah, an editor for The
Salt Lake Tribune commented on the diversity apparent to him among the
400 attendees. "This group is not at
all like the Outdoor Writers Association I belong to," he said pointing out
the near equal representation of women journalists, the evidence of
international representation and people of color, and, most striking to
this editor, "They're so young!" The environmental journalism beat is
indeed reflecting changes in the world of news professionals.
Of those participating in this study, 58 percent are male and 42 percent
female. Age ranges from 22 to 72. While the average age of study
participants is 38, five are under 30 and three over 50 years old. They
report from less than 1 year (7.7%) to more than 10 years (50.0%) on
job as journalists, and from less than 1 year (13.5%) to more than 10
(26.9%) working on the environment beat. As is true of overall SEJ Active
membership, the majority of the study participants work at newspapers
(44.2%), while half as many work in other print media such as magazines
newsletters (21.2%), and less than 10 percent (7.7%) work in television.
Although SEJ also represents environment reporters working in radio,
one full time employee covering the environment for radio participated
this study. (See figures 1-9 in Appendix C for sample demographics.)
As was assumed in this study, most respondents are Active members of SEJ
(69.2%), but few report memberships in other professional associations
as the Society of Professional Journalists or organizations representing
the broadcast media. Over half of these study participants have a
degree (51.9%), and many (48%) have also earned a graduate degree. The
common college major reported is journalism or mass communication (40.4%),
with the humanities or English reported as their college major by half as
many (19.2%). Slightly over 17 percent (17.3%) report a major in the
sciences. Only 13.5 percent reported majoring in science. When asked "What
is your religion?" the majority (55.8%) report "none" although close to
one fifth of these reporters (19.2%) indicated "Catholic."
Table 1 reports factor analysis loadings, using a varimax rotation, of the
29 items adapted from the EMS. Because the original scale being replicated
for this study was developed using Q-methodology, and a factor analysis is
used here to allow for the sample size and reduced number of scale items,
the researcher set .50 as the point at which items no longer accounted
enough of the variance to warrant inclusion in a category. Only one
"public has the need to know the truth," loaded significantly on two
categories. A test for internal reliability run for each of the four
factors resulted in acceptable Cronbach's Alphas on factors one and two:
Extrinsic Guides, Alpha = .88; and Personal Advancement, Alpha = .86.
In a less reliable manual sort based on the Likert scale responses,
forcing each respondent into a high or low agreement with the items in
of the indices, these environmental
journalists scored highest in the EMS categories "Extrinsic Guides" (51%)
and "Personal Advancement" (31.1%). Fewer scored highly in the
"Religious/Moral" category (9%). As in the White/Singletary study, a weaker
fourth factor measured by only three items (religious training as ethical
decision-making; obtaining information without knowledge or consent;
personal advancement above ethical concerns) is also evident. Few (9%)
into this unnamed category. [Note: Seven respondents who scored equally
high in more than one EMS category were discarded from further
evaluated as "multiples".] To further explore the descriptive
statistical strength of the EMS, a cluster analysis was conducted on the
more reliable two factor solution. Within factors one and two, the
categories "Extrinsic Guides" and "Personal Advancement," respondents sort
into three significant clusters. (See Table 2.)
Crosstabs indicate that female journalists in this study have fewer years
of overall experience working as journalists than do the males.
Chi-square and Pearson R tests found no other significance for gender.
Within factor one, Extrinsic Guides, a significant relationship
R = .005) was found only for degree (undergraduate or graduate
degree). However, the gender difference "anomaly" reported by earlier
research is apparent in the cluster analysis, particularly within the
ficant clustering in factor 2, Personal Advancement.
To examine what effect EMS differences might have on a reporter's work,
study participants who indicated on their questionnaire a willingness
continue in this research, were contacted by phone and asked to select
examples of their work published or aired during the past year. Some
articles/tapes arrived within the time allotted. Two coders were
and content analyzed each submitted story for length, placement,
type of sources, efficacy (identified as empowering information such as an
address, phone number or steps to be taken by the reader/viewer), and
frame (defined here as balanced or advocacy).
Because the 60-some sample stories submitted before AEJMC deadline
represent the work of only 12 reporters (10 categorized as EMS Extrinsics ,
2 in the Personal Advancement category), analysis is limited. However,
possible trends to explore further are indicated. Over 60 percent
of all analyzed reporting from print media included graphics, the
of the 64 sample stories (62.5%) were judged to be featurized news
(although Extrinsics in this preliminary sample submitted more feature
stories as opposed to straight news than did those in the Personal
Advancement category). Also of possible interest, 75 percent of all
reporting analyzed was judged to be balanced.
An average of 7.8 sources were identified in each of the 60-some stories
with no apparent difference between Extrinsic or Personal Advancement
motivation, although types of sources relied on do appear to differ. A
total of 500 sources were identified in the sample reporting studied
far. As would be expected for any journalist, for both Extrinsic and
Personal Advancement motivated reporters, over 40 percent (Extrinsics =
44%, Personal Advancement = 45%) of the attributed sources were
representatives or government reports. And while the second most
cited source was an expert (Extrinsics = 32%, Personal Advancement = 18%),
possible differences may occur here and in the remaining source
categories. These limited preliminary findings also suggest possible
differences in efficacy (Extrinsics = 19%, Personal Advancement = 44%).
Conclusions, Limitations and Future Research
Although one intent of this study is to examine the usefulness of an
ethical motivation model, this research also seeks to establish possible
hypotheses regarding uniqueness or lack of uniqueness of this
specialty beat. Is communicating about the environment confronting
barriers in traditional journalistic process and form? Does
journalism face new ethical challenges in the battle to report the
facts--reality-- without accusations of advocacy or bias? Such concern
seems critical as this specialty beat reacts to backlash and when
protocol for environmental and risk reporting is under development
& Wilkins, 1995).
Is it possible, as formulaic reporting demands, to "[A]void becoming
involved in the event, form no prejudicial friendships with actors in the
event, leave your own biases at the foot of the
stage, and consider yourself the impartial observer for the vast public who
cannot personally attend the drama" (Willis, 1991, p. 1) when covering the
environment? When the destination is a truthful portrayal of environmental
reality, this researcher is sympathetic to David Broder's first thoughts
on a journalist's values: "Most sensible people will avoid journalism
career" (Broder, 1987, p. 341). As the Pulitzer Prize-winning news
correspondent points out, journalists always deal with partial information,
know less than they should, never have as much time as they need...and, in
haste as millions read or watch, display their ignorance to "people who
know a hell of a lot more about the subject than [we] do" (p. 342).
Nonetheless, even though the observers, the voyeurs rather than the
participants, journalists are charged with providing the information from
which we form our realities. In reporting about our shared
is difficult to imagine how any journalist could remain insular or detache
d. And it is a truism as we end this century, that the overwhelming
majority of people continue to rely on old and new forms of mass media as
primary sources of information, the foundation for a second-hand
This initial description of how journalists confront the environment beat
is limited by available sample size (not unfamiliar research budget
constraints), and requires additional work. In addition to analysis of
message content, follow up interviews with study participants might
insight to the writers' intended advocacy or adherence to proscribed rules
of presenting reality. With only one or two exceptions, these participants
have volunteered to continue in this study.
Looking beyond journalistic content and motivation, the audience effects
question remains. Does the audience learn about the environment
when reporter motivation style within the EMS vary? What if any effect do
EMS variations have on environmental literacy? Ultimately, only
audience effect seem relevant. Whether this research should begin with the
communicator or the receiver seems a hindsight dilemma. At both "ends"
decision structures require examination and EMS appears to provide a
meaningful first measure. The finding however of significant clusters
within these ethical decision-making factors does lend support to Social
Judgment Theory, and calls into question the role of motivation as the
criterion for how decisions are made, particularly among environmental
The cluster analysis replicates the finding for gender differences in
decision-making styles. The finding that an advanced college degree may
have an effect on a journalist's skills and decision making in covering
environment should come as no surprise to those who have grappled with
reporting on toxics, interviewed scientists about risk assessments, or
attempted to decipher conflicting reports on global warming. The
of particular courses of study should be pursued in the next stages of
It is assumed SEJ and other professional communication or media
associations will be interested in the significant finding for membership
in such organizations, and the implications for journalistic ethics in
addition to potential job satisfaction. Recent reports on U.S.
in the 1990s indicate a drop in memberships in professional
(Weaver & Wilhoit, 1994). While the Society of Professional
the largest U.S. journalism organization, represented only 7 percent
journalists in 1992, SEJ's membership has climbed close to 1000 and
expanded to international affiliations. Trends in this specialty area of
reporting may provide indicators for the continuance and quality of
journalism in the future.
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SURVEY ON ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISTS
PLEASE CIRCLE THE RESPONSE THAT BEST DESCRIBES YOU.
1. I am employed by a
c. radio station
d. television station
f. other [specify____________________________]
2. I have been employed as a full time journalist for
a. less than one year
b. 1 to 3 years
c. more than 3 but less than 5 years
d. 5 to 10 years
e. more than 10 years
3. I have worked as an environmental reporter for
a. less than one year
b. 1 to 3 years
c. more than 3 but less than 5 years
d. 5 to 10 years
e. more than 10 years
4. I am a member of the following professional associations
a. Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)
b. Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
d. Radio/Television News Director Association (RTNDA)
e. National Association of Science Writers (NASW)
f. Other (Please specify_________________________)
5. In what year were you born? 19__
6. Are you a. male b. female ?
7. Highest degree earned
a. High School Diploma
b. BA or BS
c. MA or MS
d. PhD or JD
e. other (Please specify _________________)
8. If college graduate, majored in _______________________________.
9. What if any is your religion? ________________________
If you are willing to participate in a future stage of this research please
provide your name and a phone (or fax) number, or mailing address. Thank
THE ETHICAL MOTIVATION SCALES
"Code" "EMS Statement"
AA. At this point in my professional life as an environmental reporter,
I'm more concerned with advancement than with questions of ethics.
B. As I report environmental news, I am more driven by my need for
advancement than I am by ethics.
BB. If I had to rank their importance to me, I would rank personal
advancement above ethical concerns in environmental news reporting.
C. Some environmental news people are driven by a deep sense of
professional ethics; I am driven more by a need to get ahead in the
CC. To me, ethics in environmental news reporting is simply not the
point. Personal advancement is the point.
D. When ethical decisions have to be made, for instance, whether to
use a controversial story or photo, it is important to have the
of others on the staff.
DD. I want my ethical news judgments to remain pretty closely in line
with judgments that I think my SEJ colleagues would make.
F. When environmental new judgments involve matters of professional
ethics, I want my fellow staffers to approve of my decisions.
G. As an environmental reporter I would be willing to look through
garbage cans to gain information about the life of an important person
GG. In order to get information on a person in the news, I would be
willing to stake out and observe the person without his or her
J. EPA has hinted a local daycare maybe too near a superfund site and
potentially dangerous. I visit the daycare facility on the pretense
finding somewhere to place my child. Actually, I plan to write a
I would see nothing wrong with using information gained in this way.
K. The primary reason I am in environmental journalism is because I
believe the public as the need to know the truth. I won't let
constraints interfere with my reporting.
KK. Ethical considerations are of secondary importance to the public's
need to know.
L. Ethics is a matter for the philosophers, and it should not interfere
with the public's need to know.
M. I think a lot of people in environmental industries are "on the
take," and I take special pleasure in reporting when those people are
P. If the information I gather will burn a polluter, I don't really care
how the information is gathered.
PP. The harder it is to get information from corrupt officials, the
harder I try to get it, by whatever means necessary.
OO. If there's a environmental story that needs to be reported, I would
do whatever was needed to get the facts, even if I had to use some
Q. I am more concerned about getting the real global warming story than
I am about the ethical niceties of how I get it.
QQ. People need information about toxins in their environment, so I do
whatever I can to provide it, without undue regard for ethics.
R. Audience trust is everything in the environmental news business, and
a reporter's ethics must earn that trust.
RR. Being ethical in pursuit of environmental news will win the trust of
S. Upholding the community's ethical standards will cause my audience to
T. My ethical decisions are based on standards established by my
TT. The ethical standards implicitly or explicitly stated by my employer
are correct, and I subscribe to those standards. Therefore, my ethical
standards are correct.
V. I generally try to set my standards of ethics to the level I feel is
set my employer.
W. My ethical decisions are based on what I perceive to be the ethical
standards prevailing in American journalism today.
WW. While there is not a uniform code of ethics for journalists (there
are several codes, but not all journalists subscribe to any code), most
journalists know what is right and wrong. I try to abide by the
standards of he field.
Z. My ethical decisions are consistent with the ethical standards that
prevail in American journalism today.
YY. Codes of ethics are not very important to me in my environmental new
Y. I make decisions as my situation demands. Ethics as an organized
field of thought is just not very important to me.
XX. Environmental journalists should leave ethics to the philosophers.
E. If I do what is legal, what is "morally right" will take care of
N. My ethical decision-making is based more on what I know is "legal"
than on what sometimes tells me is "right."
H. Ethical decisions really depend on what is legal.
EE. I try to let the teachings of my religion's writings guide my
approach to an ethical situation.
II. A reporter's religious training is a good predictor of his or her
I. Religion is the true basis for professional ethics.
NN. Ethical concerns are concerns only as they are defined by some
Factor Loading by Factor by
Two Three Four
If I do what is legal. .67 -.14 .18
Based on what I do is "legal"... .62 .16 -.39 -.05
...abide by the ethical standards
of the field.
.61 -.35 -.11 .39
...important to have the support
of (others on) the staff. .61 -.11 -.40 -.18
...decisions based on...standards
prevailing in American
.60 -.40 .00 .30
...depend on what is legal. .56 -.24 .31 -.27
Ethical standards implicitly or
explicitly stated by my
.55 -.44 .10 -.14
...I want my fellow staffers to
.52 -.29 -.33 .07
...in line with judgments...SEJ
colleagues would make. .52 -.23 -.32 .01
Upholding the community's
ethical standards... .52 -.26 -.25 .26
...set my standards to the level
set by my employer. .51 -.43 -.18 -.03
standards established by my
employer. .51 -.43 .08 -.14 ...public has the
truth... .58 .64
-.00 -.07 More concerned about real stories
than...ethical niceties... .46 .75 .07 -.13
needed to get the
facts... .31 .70 -.01 -.02 ...information
officials...by whatever means
necessary. .24 .60 -.27 .00
wrong... .31 .55 .25 .14 If
don't care how...gathered. .42 .53 .00 -.06
garbage cans to
gain information. .08 .52 -.09 .41 Ethics...not
public's need to know. .45 .52 -.02 .10
secondary (to) public's
need to know. .35 .48 -.03 -.02 Ethical
religious teaching. .11 -.15 .66 .33
ethics. .41 -.15 .61 .25 Personal advancement
point. .31 -.17 .61 -.26
...ethics...not very important to me... .07 .17 .46 -.04
Being ethical...win trust of the
audience. .02 -.35 -.46 -.15
...religious training a good
predictor of ethical decision-
making. .26 -.02 .12 .63
...willing to stake out and
-.12 .18 -.06 .60
...personal advancement above
.36 -.08 .12 -.45
Distances between Final Cluster Centers
Cluster 1 2 3
2 23.4045 .0000
3 26.7719 24.6818 .0000
Analysis of Variance
Variable Cluster MS DF Error MS DF F Prob.
Factor 1 2663.4092 2 68.606 49.0 38.8217 .000
Factor 2 1181.3754 2 53.797 49.0 21.9597 .000
Factor 3 14.1685 2 15.335 49.0 .9239 .404
Factor 4 2.7144 2 5.297 49.0 .5124 .602
Number of Cases in each Cluster
Cluster unweighted cases weighted cases
1 35.0 35.0
2 11.0 11.0
3 6.0 6.0
Valid cases 52.0 52.0