Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Final Post of Spring '09 Media Ethics

Has your view of ethics changed since the start of the semester? If so, how? If not, why not? Or, to put it another way, what is the one thing you are most likely to remember or find useful from this class? Please respond by Tuesday, May 12, at 7 p.m. Also please make your response more than one or two sentences. You should be as specific and complete as possible, given the limits of the blog format. And don't be shy about engaging each other in dialog if that seems productive. Thanks for an interesting semester. Have a wonderful summer. Stay ethical.

20 comments:

lisa said...

Although my view of what ethics is has definitely grown, I think how I attribute ethics to my thought process is what has changed the most throughout this semester. I have learned to look at media products much more critically and to recognize controversial issues involved in them.

The process of the group project has allowed me to witness ethical dilemmas both firsthand and from the information gathered for the assignment. I had to decide how to deal with others not participating fully. In order to make my decision I had to evaluate the importance of honesty or truthfulness to me. In the end, I am pleased at how everything worked out; I do not regret being honest. The project itself made me aware of how prominent of a "starstruck society" exists in our media. Journalists are continually feeding the public with this type of information; however it is not entirely the fault of journalists because this type of information is desired by the public.

The class has englightened me to the many ethical issues that circumstances can bring about. Before making a decision, it is important to consider these issues

Amy said...

I think the number one thing I'm likely to remember throughout my life is our discussions on carrying out tasks with care and effort vs. half-assing assignments just for the sake of getting them done. After the class where we started discussing this, I began to examine how I carried out my own tasks and assignments. I realized that I am undoubtedly guilty of occasionally focusing solely on getting something done, rather than trying to learn something from the task I'm completing. I think this theme carried on through the whole semester, as we often discussed journalists who will fake sources or write half-true stories just to get them done, or editors who will accept stories without questions simply to fill space in newspapers.

Many people, both in a school setting and in the working world, engage in this behavior. We get so caught up in "getting things done" that we stop putting our all into our tasks and we fail to learn anything from them. I don't want to get caught up in this habit - I want my schooling and my career to be experiences that I enjoy and I can learn from. I plan to try my best to dismiss any urges to half-ass my work, and whenever I feel a slight twinge of "what do I get if I put more effort into this task vs. rushing it?" I'm going to remind myself that I will get a more enriched life. Putting my all into tasks will only benefit me in the long-run.

Deidre Drewes said...

I don't believe my view of ethics has changed. I still think my mom is the woman I look to when it comes to doing the right thing. However, I have learned to take a step back and think about my decisions before I make them, rather than asking myself afterwords if what I did was ethical.

I've also learned to question the ethics of others around me, the media, and even my superiors. Its important to be able to critically analyze what others do as ethical or unethical. In my work place, this is especially necessary considering supervisors would rather push unethical tactics in order to make their performance look better and make more money. All things considered, I am in hot water at work because I don't partake in these unethical practices in order to impress the bosses. At one point, I had.

I am also very critical of news reporting, and find myself paying attention to the news less and less every day because it makes me sick. Instead, I watch John Stewart criticize newscasters for their inaccuracies and idiocies.

I currently intern at an office next to the Daily Freeman building, and as a journalism student I am enticed by the prestige of working in a newsroom. I look at their office on my cigarette breaks, and sometimes consider walking over and asking about open positions (even though it is highly unlikely any news room is hiring). And then I remember how journalists from the Daily Freeman have smeared members of my family for the sake of a good story. And I quickly become more satisfied with continuing interning for Breast Cancer Options (a non-profit) post-graduation, even though I've already gotten my credit.

I think of a lot of unethical decisions I have made in the past, and I realize that most of those decisions have been driven by money or job security. In the words of Kanye West: "Money isn't everything, not having it is."

I think the most important lesson I've learned from class is to think, and to think for myself.

Tyler said...

My view of ethics has not so much changed per se, but it has expanded greatly. At the beginning of the semester, I had an outlook that primarily viewed ethics as "Treating someone the way you would like to be treated." I found that in a few cases, such as the use of Kant's Categorical Imperative, that is somewhat prevalent throughout ethics, but I found there is a web of definitions of ethics that can expand from that lone point.

I found myself, throughout the group project and overwhelming discussion of ethical concepts, subconsciously taking note of doing work to gain something from it, rather than just to do it - like Amy mentioned. I found the group project helped immensely with helping me realize my ethical responsibility. I edited my group's video from start to finish and at times, I was well aware I would be late for class (sorry), but it was more important to me to create something that would justify the amount of work my groupmates did. It's especially interesting to me now to realize how the concepts we discussed in class were facilitated, whether that was Professor Good's underlying purpose or not.

I'm sure it was not the intention of the class, but what I found most useful was through all of the ethical dilemma's with journalism that we discussed, it showed me that that was no longer a field I wanted to pursue. Sure, people take shortcuts all the time, but to me, it seemed the shortcuts journalists were taking were more vindictive and selfish than anything I've ever heard (case in point: Shattered Glass). Such an ethically corrupt field was no longer one I wanted to be a part of. I'll focus more on my creative writing.

Marcy said...

I have taken an ethics class in the past, and even after taking the class I still believed that most ethical decisions were situational. I don't believe that as much now.

I came out of class really liking the Golden Mean theory, and thinking of it as good method to fall back on in an ethical dilemma. Though, I still feel in most cases people know deep down what the right decision should be and one should follow their conscious. It's more a matter of taking the time to really think about an ethical problem before making a choice and being okay with that choice.

I loved how the class was more about discussion then anything. Although I realize there are tome restraints when making a decision about some issues, it would be a lot more useful as a society if people would take the time and debate, whether with themselves or others, about ethical issues.

Arantza said...

Just as others have stated, my view of ethics has definitely expanded yet seems to be more fine-tuned at the same time. We have talked about a lot of different theories and ways to make ethical decisions while examining some unethical decisions and practices that people from the media-related workforce have committed.

Some of the things that have really stuck out in my head from this class is what makes a person a professional, what Amy brought up about doing things with care and effort, and what Hillel the Elder said. I think that being a professional is something that I will work hard to achieve throughout my whole life, which correlates to working hard and not "half-assing" things. This class also made me realize that it is easy to become unethical especially in this type of environment and work (media-related jobs). So we must remain critical of the media around us and always consider our decisions before we act on them.

What Hillel the Elder said, mentioned in one of our last classes,definitely stuck out in my head. "If I'm not for myself then who is for me? If not me, then who? If not now, then when?" These questions to me, mainly deal with ethics and responsibility. And I think these are brilliant and important questions that we should all ask ourselves.

Lastly, this is a very important comment made in class, do whatever you do in an ethically responsible way.

Scott Broskie said...

Has my view of ethics changed since the start of the semester? I would say yes. During this course I feel that I was able to express myself and see other people who have a similar positive belief structure. Each and every class we would have a meaningful debate over what ethics really is and I do feel that some of that knowledge will be taken with me. The very last day of class Dr. Good brought up the idea, “if not now then when?’ This idea has been stuck in my head for the past week and has given me the opportunity to move forward with some actions in my life. I keep saying to myself, ohh you are too busy now maybe next semester. This mentality has plagued my thoughts and now I have decide I have no better time to handle my issues then now.

Bridget said...

My idea of ethics has and hasn't changed this semester. I think given an ethical dilemma I'd make the same choice now that I would have made several months ago. The difference is that now I would take more time considering my choice. I would be able to understand why my choice feels right and back the decision up with sound ethical reasoning.

Although I do not believe that my basic idea of right and wrong has been altered, learning to think critically about ethics is important for all college students before they graduate. Ethical dilemmas are going to be larger and harder to think through in the business world. What feels right is enough to get most through their childhood and teen years, but it won't help once they are adults. Knowing how to think a hard decision through and tally the damage versus the possible good that can be done is a skill everyone should work to acquire.

If there is one thing I want to take with me out of this class it is the ability to think decisions through and know with certainty that what I do is right, not because it "feels" right, but because it is right.

Kelsey said...

After going through my first journalism class of my life, I have to say I definitely learned a lot.

It was hard to see what ethics really was prior to seeing actual news stories go horribly wrong due to a lack of ethics. I think that the ideas that I learned from my childhood will always stick with me, but the way I think about applying it in life has definitely changed. I never thought that I was an unethical person to begin with, but now that I see how important it is to act ethically in the journalism profession, I think I will always keep what could go wrong in the back of my head. I do not believe that I had known how much destruction an unethical journalist could cause which scares me tremendously because if I slip up, that could be me, but also makes me think before I act.

Although I have not declared being a journalism major yet, this class will give me a step up on other students surrounding me. I know that taking this class will not make you an ethical person. It is not some magical pill that makes you a god among humanity. The news today is proof of that. All I can say is that, whether I decide to major in journalism or not, this class has prepared for adulthood, and I am not the least bit intimidated anymore.

Meg Zanetich said...

I'd have to agree with mostly everyone in saying that my view of ethics has changed over the course of this class. I think I am just more aware of my actions and evaluating what is wrong or right. In this fast paced world we live in, sometimes it is hard to stop and think before doing something.

I've learned that being empathetic towards others and being a professional are two key things that help you succeed in life. I feel that this class helped me clarify some things and has made me look at work and school in a different way. Because of this class, I feel I will always choose the high road.

Matthew Conti said...

My view of ethics defiantly changed since the beginning of the semester. I would have to say that the topic of doing work in a professional way is the biggest topic that I am going to hold onto for this point on. I have to admit that in the past I have played the role of the procrastinating half-ass working student, but now I realize that I was just wasting both my time and the time of the teacher that was trying to teach me something new. As I progress from a student to a working professional I will keep this new thought process of mine close to me.

That’s not the only thing that I learned. I also learned that I need to stand up for what I believe in, if it’s the right thing to do and I know it. If I am faced with an ethical dilemma in the future I might be scared to face it, but I know that I will face it because it is the right thing to do and I don’t care who thinks I’m foolish for doing so.

As of now I feel more prepared to enter the real world and do so in an ethical way. I plan on applying these topics to all aspects of my life and hopefully it will make me a stronger and better person.

Joanna said...

When I came into this class, I thought we would be focusing on only the media. I soon realized that we went so far beyond the media in that we discussed ethical dilemmas one might face in every day life. I am grateful for the discussions that we had in class because if definitely expanded my concept of ethics. I am not a journalism major, I took this class as an elective simply because I took a journalism class in high school and I enjoyed it. This class has taught me just how unethical the media is and how to be aware of poor news reporting.

Aside from gaining knowledge about media ethics, my own ethical morals have matured. I will admit that there have been plenty of times throughout high school and college where I coasted, not putting minimal effort into assignments. I still got decent grades, and I would even think- wow imagine if I actually put more effort into this. I have always been one to work hard for money, not for grades. My education is important to me but I had this twisted idea in my head that it was okay to coast in classes that "didn't matter" and I would only work hard in the classes I liked. Looking back I realize I probably missed out on some good information... too bad I took this class in my final semester of college. Still, I will take this realization with me as I enter the real world, ready to take on challenges and give them my full efforts, whether for a grade or a paycheck.

Rachel said...

When I read what Amy wrote about ethicality pertaining to doing the best you can at everything you do and not half-assing your work or job, I agreed. But I also realized that because I didn't want to half-ass certain things, I ended up just not doing them.
It is an example of my uncertainty and not wanting to make a solid decision. I found that a problem throughout the class. When we had to make a solid ethical decision on a case, I could never make up my mind. I constantly hold the belief that everything, everything, in life is situational.
I've always practiced treating others as I would want to be treated. I also like to think that I always try my hardest, but I know that a lot of the times I don't. I make a lot of excuses.
To answer a basic question of what is ethical or not, I would definatly use "least harm to the greatst amount of people". But to think of ethics overall, I believe that each situation and experience is unique to the person and unique to that second and moment that it is happening, so it is difficult to have a pre-conceived notion of how you would act and how that situation would play out.
I definatly learned a lot from the class, but I would also say that a lot of thoughts and ideas I've always had rolling around in my head were justified. Our discussions on courage encouraged me to act on what I deep down believed was right.
The quote from Hillel the Elder also helped me accept the reason I want to work to make change. A lot of people have the thought that they are only one person and they could never make a difference. If everyone thought like that, then it would be true. But if everyone thought "if not me, then who?", then change can happen. Change in people's way of life, healthy living, the government, how people treat each other, war, and ethics. I learned that if something doesn't seem right, doesn't sound right, doesn't feel right, then I have a duty to stand up and ask, "why?"

(p.s. sry bout mi speling, mi wrd procsor brke) ;)

Arlene said...

My view of ethics has definitely grown from the beginning towards the end of the course. Before taking this course I felt like ethical people no longer existed or at least a few of them did. I felt like people no longer thought before their actions and only worried about their selves. I’ve learned that some people say they are ethical and in reality do the opposite of what is ethically right and then there are those people who are really ethical and embrace it in every situation. Overall, I really enjoyed learning from other students on what they thought was ethical and unethical. It was very alerting to learn about the situation that occurred in the “Shattered Glass” and how there are real journalists out there that do these unethical and unprofessional acts. One thing about media ethics that will definitely stay with me throughout my life is “if not now, then when?.” I will apply this to everything I do, to help keep myself motivated and to not hold back.

Francis said...

I learned a lot this semester while taking this class. I learned that college is an important time in a young adult's life. College certainly is a time to party and have fun, but it's also a time to think about who you are and what you believe in. However, some people do not use this time to think about their lives, but instead waste these four precious years. These are the same people whose deepest thoughts mainly consist of "I am hungry" or "I want to get wasted this weekend." I'm glad that I am not one of those people, but feel that I think about new things everyday. I was able get some serious thinking done about life in the ethics classroom during our discussions as a class. Before this class I used to think that ethics was what is right and wrong and that the world is black and white. The truth is that nothing is black and white because nothing is that simple. I learned in ethics that there are multiple ways to approach a problem or a case, and that you can't just look at everything as this is right and that is wrong. There is a lot more to it than that. I feel that I changed my old ways of thinking from hearing other people's perspective on major issues. I've realized that everyone approaches major ethical issues differently, and find different answers. This is because no two people have lived the same life and we make important decisions in life based on our own personal experiences. What I will take away from this class is that there is more than one way to skin a cat. In other words there are many ways to look at an ethical issue. The key is to always think about all the factors and to think about who is effected by each decision you make.

I found that the most important thing I learned from this class was how people should treat other people. The world is full of selfish people who only look out for themselves. I believe that we as people have the capacity to do good. If we follow Kant's categorical imperative and never treat people as a means to an end, than we as human beings can flourish.

Jennifer said...

At the beginning of the semester in Media Ethics, I really believed that the right decision was usually your gut instinct. I guess I felt this way because of my own experiences and from people telling me throughout my life to always go with your first reaction to something. I've always been ethical, I think, in the way I carry out situations. This may be because in my life thus far I haven't really run into the type of complex problems and situations that we discussed and analyzed in this class. Maybe it is because I haven't entered the professional work field yet.

After going through the different case studies throughout the semester, and especially after working on the video projects (my group being celebrity terrorism) I've learned that the most ethical decision isn't always in line with your first reaction. In fact, this could often have the most unethical outcome. In the celebrity terrorism case, the media needed to take the time to contemplate and think about what they were going to do before they did it. Not doing that is what put them in an unethical dilemma.

It makes sense to weigh the different options and possible outcomes of a situation before acting. But before this class, I never thought of it in that way. The different models that we were taught are important tools in judging situations that may have a complex web of parts. One must take into consideration all of these various facets before being able to make the most ethical decision. Although your gut reaction may be right sometimes, oftentimes it is not, and it is important to stop and think before making big decisions, in any aspect of life.

I've learned a lot this semester in Media Ethics, but I think that gut reactions vs. judging a situation based on principles and ethical decision making models is what will stick with me the most after taking the class.

Thanks again for a great semester!

John Purcell said...

My view of ethics has really changed from the beginning of the semester. I thought ethics was more of a personal decision, sort of like morals, that each person decided differently. In reality, ethics is something more universal and set in stone. At least that is my opinion of it now. For example, if you do a Potter Box you will come to an ethical solution — not a moral solution. I think describing ethics this way makes sense. To sum it up in one sentence: being ethical is doing something in the most professional way possible.

I think the one thing I will remember when I face an ethical dilemma is Howard Good’s face, followed by W.W.G.D. (What Would Good Do?). Hopefully that doesn’t sound silly, but it is useful for me.

I have one example, where I know I changed from what my decision would have been before Media Ethics. I was walking to class one afternoon and I just woke up, so I was all groggy and what not. I had to stop at the Gulf gas station to buy more cigarettes. Upon walking towards the door I noticed something green on the ground. Then I realize it was money, so I looked around. There was a guy filling up his car with gas, but that was it. I look at the money again and Good’s face pops into my mind. Good says, “What would be the ethical thing to do?” I know it is not keep the money. I pick up the money, notice it is a little over $30 and I walk into the gas station. Approaching the counter, I have to decide my final decision. I tell the cashier, “Hey, I found this money outside the store right by the door.” He looks at me somewhat baffled or surprised. I can’t really tell what expression he held. He said, “It is probably from one of the regulars.” Then he pauses for a second. He continues, “How bout this — if someone doesn’t claim the money by the end of the day, how bout we split it?” I say, “Okay” and go back on my way. Later in the day, after I get out of class or something, I go back. “Has anyone claimed the money yet?” He said, “Nope.” Then he pauses again. “But I gotta wait till the end of the work day.” I say okay and that I will stop by tomorrow, just how he instructed me. Well, tomorrow, he wasn’t working. I couldn’t ask the other cashier, because why would he give me the money even if the other cashier did leave it for me by some odd chance. I haven’t seen the cashier I gave the money to since that day. I gave up a little over $30 and then around $15.

I still found it odd that he said he would split it with me. I mean, if I found it and nobody claimed it, wouldn’t it be mine? Either way, I wasn’t that upset, because I hoped someone would do the same for me if it were my money. I really could have used the money, but maybe the person who lost it really needed it too. Either way, it wasn’t mine to take and I felt that I had done the right thing. Sometimes being ethical isn’t the best for your personal gain, but in the end it is the right thing to do. It is better to be ethical than to get $30.

Nicole Moss said...

I always considered myself to be an ethical person. Always wanting to do the right thing, what was fair for everyone, and how I could make other people happy. After taking this class I realized that Prof. Good was right when he taught us that it is impossible to make everyone happy. By making someone happy ultimately someone else will be unhappy.

After one of our blog topics discussing doing what is right, I realized I have always been that person that when something is being done that is wrong around me unless I feel it is necessary to become involved or speak up (ie-someone's health, life, or well being is in danger) I will keep my mouth shut. Not only did I learn during the semester that this is no way to go about life, and that by doing so people will get away with things and hurt themselves or others by doing this, but it is ethically wrong. I also learned this first hand when it came time for group projects this semester; when before this class I would have sat back and just sucked it up, I decided that it was morally wrong for people to get away with things that they shouldn't. While I still felt a bit of guilt, morally I felt like I did the right thing.

I believed that this was one of the more interesting media classes, because it made us think; we had to think about things that surround and effect us everyday. We had to think about decisions we have made or may have to make in the future. I honestly think I have become a more knowledgeable, ethical person because of the things I have learned; no longer will I just stick to what I would usually do when a situation comes in front of me, but I will think about the ethical decisions I must make in order to do the right thing. Sure, I believe that some of my ethics and morals have not changed, I more or less think decision making methods and ideas have just been added to how I will go about living my life.

Ryan Smith said...

This class has made me think about ethics more deeply. Before this semester I viewed ethics as simply right and wrong. I thought whatever caused the least harm was the right decision and you should treat others the way you want to be treated. Yes, I still think those are ethical ways to live but I realize now that there is a lot more that goes into making ethical decisions or even figuring out what an ethical decision is. I was also naive and thought that most people had the same morals as me and would normally make the same decisions as I would if i was in there place. Reading about ethical dilemmas in the media profession and just in everyday life made me see the world a little differently. I try to see the good in a people and in situations and sometimes thats not always the truth. I overestimate people's professionalism or ability to do what's right. I realized that even powerful or respected individuals don't always make ethical decisions and that is a lesson I will definitely take with me the rest of my life.

Christine Picault said...

Have my views of ethics changed since the start of the semester? I would have to say, yes my views of ethics have changed since the start of the semester. This class has enabled me to respond ethically in situations, instead of always thinking about what the outcome would be for myself, and only myself. I am glad to say that learning about different ethical methods, that I can apply to my daily life, has made me more of a truthful person not only to myself but to others. By thinking and responding ethically in situations it allowed me to think of what would be right for myself, as well as others. So yes media ethics has and will play a significant role for dilemmas I have in the future where I have to make good ethical situations.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.