Teaching Notes

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shattered

Who or what was to blame for Stephen Glass' deceptions making it into print? Why did certain people not exercise "epistemic responsibility"? What needs to happen to prevent something like this from occurring again?

Please respond by noon, Tuesday, Sept. 8.

31 comments:

Adrienne W said...

First and foremost I believe that Stephen Glass is the number one person at fault for his stories making it to print when he knew that they were completely fabricated. He as a journalist, broke the number one rule- to seek truth and report it. Just because he wanted to prove himself as a journalist, did not give him the right to fabricate stories to build up his reputation. I also believe that his editors are to blame for letting the stories go to print without looking into them. If someone could figure out that the Glass' stories were fictional after several had been published, why couldn't someone have taken the time to investigate before the first one made it to print? Especially if Glass created such controversial stories, shouldn't someone have investigated thoroughly what Glass was writing about and it's truth value?
It's hard to say what needs to be done to prevent something like this from happening again. Like the chapter said, you can throw down more and more codes of ethics, but what is stopping someone from not listening to them, just like Glass did not listen to them. If someone thinks only of themselves, bettering themselves as journalists, and doing whatever it takes to make a name for themself, then what is to stop them?

Howie Good said...

Adrienne asks a series of fantastically important questions. Anyone care to answer them?

AllisonSoferSays said...

I agree that Stephen Glass should be the first person to blame for the deceptions. Adrienne really did say what I was thinking, about writing stories to build a reputation. He should be to blame for lying consistently in print.

However, I firmly agree that the editors should have looked into his stories. Fact checkers have jobs for reasons. It is the duty of an editor to make sure everything is accurate.

Because of the controversial nature of Glass' stories, I believe the adage "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is," would hold some stock in the situation. I think the editors did not do their job. Adrienne is completely right in saying that if someone could catch the fabrications, the editors did not work hard enough. I don't know why they didn't work harder to make sure Glass was correct, but they also broke the code of ethics.

I have no solution to preventative measures should be taken. The only thing I can suggest is more diligence. But even then, you can't guarantee someones work ethic.

GrobM said...

Glass is definately at fault. He tried to be a hot shot and fabricated stories to put him to the top. Kelly and Lane are also at fault for allowing these stories to print. Luckily the media has their own form of checks and balances and journalist Adam Penenberg decided to "Seek truth and Report it". Unfortunately, our society is driven by the bottom line "Money" and content is no longer what it used to be.
The only way to prevent this from happening is in the classroom. If students are taught ethical ways to report and shown how shortcuts only burn you in the long run. I think they will be less likely to lie in their careers. That goes for anything in life. If you cut corners, half-ass things and rush to get it done with, all you are left with is trash.
Our society has a sick obsession with the rich and famous! The media pushes this every single day. This drives people to lead unethical lives to try to become the rich and famous.
We have to remember that we are all mortal, no one is better than anyone else, thats what makes us equal. At the end of the day I would rather be truthful and poor, than rich and a fake!

nekaiya trotman said...

I dont think that Stephen Glass is to blame because i dont consider him a journalist. He was not doing his job or fulfilling the duties of a journalist. He didnt follow any of the codes of ethics. Its like the example that was given in class. If a student shows up to class and doesnt engage in the lesson or participate..is that really a student? Is Stephen Glass really a journalist?? hes done nothing to prove that therefore i say, NO.
The people to blame are the fact checkers and the editors. They got lazy and let his stories slip through the cracks. They must of felt as though, because his stories were so controversial,he would have all of his facts straight, but it is still up to them to check everything.
I dont really know if there is a way to prevent this from happening people are always going to be looking for a quick way to get to the top and there are always going to be lazy, careless, and neglectful people who dont care enough about their job who will let things get passed them without even knowing it.

Nick Miggs said...

First of all it is impossible to just blame one person in this case that definitively broke the first commandment of journalism. Is it only Glass' fault or was it a combined effort from the entire New Republic magazine staff. I personally believe that because you cannot definitively blame one character, the idea is to blame the culture that breeds the beliefs that fabricating stories is OK. From the start of schooling children are taught to compete by any means necessary to gain the grades to move up in the world.
Not only is it the fault of Glass in the publishing of near 26 fabricated stories its the staff around him that did nothing to stop him. The reason the staff sat by idle while Glass' words ran wild was because they believe that if a certain writer has some sort of successes that he is automatically given some sense of trust amongst his peers.
In order to fix this cheating culture that has developed in the younger journalists of today we must systematically change the culture as a whole. If we start teaching more that the truth in the material is always more important than the gravity or saleability of the material

Eve said...

I believe there are several people to blame for Glass' fictional stories making it in to print. It is most definitley Glass' fault for creating these stories in the first place. He knowingly sent these stores to his editor with hopes of not getting caught. I think it is also his editors fault as well. These events are the result of a long strand of people falling short on their ethical duties. I also believe that noone questioned his stories because of the fact that they were so controversial. People love controversy, they want it to be true.
As far as preventing something like this from happening again? I dont see how it is possible. Of course people could do their jobs right, tidiously confirm sources and check quotes. But like Adrienne said, what is to prevent people from disobeying the code of ethics. If everyone was compliant with what the code states and 100 percent ethical, perhaps there would have been no need for the code?

Howie Good said...

i think there is always a need for a code of ethics, whether people follow it unanimously or hardly ever. I say that because it reminds us what we should be doing. It serves as a set of coordinates -- a constellation -- to steer by when everything else is confusingly in motion.

i also think there are things that can be done. if i didn't, why would i teach ethics or write ethics books?

is it possible to limit entrance into the media professions, particularly journalism, to people of strong moral character?

AndreaV said...

I believe that the person to blame is Glass. The editors and the fact checkers are partially to blame for not doing their job but there also needs to be trust in a workplace. That goes for every job, not just journalism. No matter where you work, if someone doesn't do their job, it affects everyone. Fact checkers and editors should be there to catch mistakes, not have to double check to make sure an entire story is true.

There is no way to prevent something like this from happening, there are always going to be people who will take advantage when they can. There needs to be clear and consisent actions that take place when a person is caught so that people know that what the consequences are.

Howie Good said...

Andrea makes an interesting point. It's the same point almost that death penalty advocates make. If we make punishments for ethical lapses are severe enough, maybe not so many people will make them. Do you agree? Is one address Glass-like episodes to impose a lifetime ban from professional journalism on malefactors? Mike Barnicle also committed fabrication, but I read a quote from him last week in an obit of his good friend and Hyannisport neighbot, Teddy Kennedy. Should there be greater shame and pain attached to ethical lapses?

GrobM said...

If you could limit people getting into Journalism. How would you judge who has a strong moral charachter? Make a test for them? I agree there needs to be a code of ethics. Just like we talked about in class with the 10 commandments. People need guidelines to follow.

I think this is what college kids miss, they get out of school and think they served their time and dont have to work for anything. Just because you have a degree doesn't mean you will be successful, it gives you the opportunity to be successful. They realize this and make bad choices and do not put the effort in and try to fudge their way to the top. Much like Glass did.

Harsher punishments could help with enforcing the code of ethics. I doubt it will work. Drinking and driving has some harsh punishments yet people are still being prosecuted for it at alarming rates. Its like they don't care what happens to them.

Howie Good said...

Here's a story from last week's NY Times that Mike's latest comments caused me to dig up. Read down into it a way -- to the part where it says more than half of college grads have jobs they don't need a college degree for. (So what does one need a college degree for?)

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/05/business/economy/05teen.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

GrobM said...

The market is like a roller coaster, there are tons of jobs then it falls off and then levels back out again. The labor industry is hurting real bad right now. ex. electricians, carpenters and plumbers. Most are not college educated. Having an education and other skills makes you well rounded. Yes college grads may work at starbucks now... but when the market starts to pick up again, jobs will be created and now they have customer skills and public speaking under their belts as well.

Michelle V said...

Of course Glass is mostly to blame for the events that took place. However, as in most jobs or careers there is a plan in place to make sure things are done correctly, in this case that failed. He may have made things up but others failed at their jobs as well. Everyone in the situation probably had different reasons to look the other way. They were gaining readers and money, Glass was gaining fame and job security, they were benifiting from it and so choose to ignore the doubt. To insure that it no longer happens in the industry would involve removing the very things that keep it going, money and redearship. These two things are needed to keep a paper up and running and put pressure on the journalist to keep things exciting.

Julie said...

I first heard about Stephen Glass after a high scool journalism teacher of mine screened the film "Shattered Glass" in class to try to teach us about ethics. It is one of the most troubling ethical lapses that I have heard of date, and there are so many at fault for it. It should go without saying that Glass himself is at fault for passing off fiction writing as reporting. I can't fathom how submitting such blatant lies to the public didn't take a toll on him. He has to be an extremely self centered indivdual if weighed the personal gain/attention that he could have gotten for those stories higher than the sanctity of "The New Republic" and journalism. His editors could also be described as selfish, though. Why wouldn't they look into these unbelievable stories? Perhaps it was because, if they had been true, they would have brought them positive attention as well. Of course this is only speculation, and the public will probalbly never know the whole truth when it comes to the Stephen Glass predicament since everything is already so clouted by lies and cover-ups. In any case, I think it's fair to say that we can blame the editors for out and out laziness. It was simply easier for them to just believe the phony information and sources that they were given than to push themselves to look further. No one can honestly say that these eeditors were doing their jobs fully if something like this happened. It amazes me that Editor Michael Kelly had defended Glass orginally. I guess he was just trying to stand up for hsi writer, I think this is a testament to his own naive perspective. Some might say that he put too much faith in his colleague, meaning he puts too much faith in people. But how can we not trust people at all? Should we always assume people are lying and work only in their own interest? If so, how can any journalist truly be ethical? I guess answers to these questions are determined by what your ideas are regarding human nature. Consequently, one's beliefs regarding these matters would determine how you think people can be taught ethics to prevent this from happening. Maybe I am as hopeful as Kelly, but I still have some faith that nurture is greater than what can be inherently bad nature, and aspiring journalists can develop a moral conscious by learning about ethics.

Colin V. said...

i guess you could blame the institution that taught Glass. He clearly lacked a good ethics program at his school. had certain things been stressed, like the journalistic code of ethics, we could be referring to Glass the hero. but that wasn't the case, and now we are analyzing a man who was able to build his fame on lies. but that is in part due to the fact that there were other people within his field (editors, fact checkers, etc) that were failing to do their job also. so what started as a lack of a good ethics class became a huge catastrophe.

As for a code of ethics, howie mentioned how sometimes its nice to have a code of ethics to "remind us" of what should be done. what is the point of having a code of ethics if can be sparingly followed? and if the very business the ethics were designed for are failing to abide by their own rules, they are nothing than a bunch of words and wasted time. so where does the change begin? with one ethical person? or with a huge overhaul of, say journalism, to make this giant ethical being? we could easily be the change we want to see in the world and all that jazz, but if you can get away fine without it, why do it?

maybe we need to be less forgiving? as ive mentioned in previous posts we are a very very very forgiving society. which isnt bad, but its also not great. somewhere something has to give

Alyssa said...

In this case you can point the finger at a lot of people. The editor,the fact checkers even the whole community of journalism for creating a work place setting of competition. In my honest opinon I believe Stephen Glass is the main reason those stories made it to print. Stephen glass made up those stories, and fabricated sources. In the text Glass even went so far as to create a fake web site for a story he was doing. Glass gave false information to cover his tracks; so when someone went to check his work things seemed to be good on the surface. Changing the system to prevnt people like Stephen Glass form becoming common place is a pain staking task. On one hand we have the art of journalism where should be truth the most improtan part of reporting. Then on the other hand we have the comercalized Journalism that settles for gossip and rummor as fact in order to keep us entertained. Just beating ethics into people is not the answer. Time and money influnece the work of Journalist because it is a bussnes or job; when it should be treated with repect and honor.

Jaime Prisco said...

I thinks its been made obvious that Glass is to blame in this situation so I'm not going to linger on it for a while. However, to answer your questions about punishments for not upholding journalistic law, i definitely think that harsher punishments lead to results. Grobm brought up the drinking and driving law and how people still drink and drive. I think that if those harsh laws didnt exist the amount of people who drank and drive would greatly increase. People will always break the law, no matter the consequences but i think that harsh consequences could lead to a decrease in people partaking in illegal activities. It pains me to know that Glass got away with just being fired. He demolished the core of every honest journalist, the ones who actually still believe in something. He broke the cardinal rule and i just think that his actions were taken way too lightly for lying so severely. If we dont have honestly in the journalism world, then really, what do we have?

Patrick Mattei said...

I think that first and foremost, like the majority of others, I will agree that Glass is at fault and his punishment was fit. Being vilified by his colleagues may seem harsh, but when you look at just how far he stretched the "truth," sometimes making up entire stories, it's obvious that he didn't really know what being a journalist was about and had no business being in the field to begin with.

Having never seen "Shattered Glass" I may not be the best person to judge its content, but from the description in the book the other characters get off way too easy. Yes, it is acknowledged that they dropped the ball with letting Glass get away with what he did. But I feel like the people who the characters are based on should not be glorified either. They let Glass get away with over a dozen stories that they didn't bother to check in depth enough. Some even defended his false stories. In the end they did the right thing, yes, but they wouldn't have had to make such a big deal of it if they had all just done their respective jobs and cracked down on Glass from the beginning.

Brian Coleman said...

I believe that are multiple people to blame for the publication of these story. Obviously, Glass is the number one person to blame because of his actions to deceive his co-workers, public, and the field of journalism himself.However, I don't think he is the only one that needs to be looked down upon. His editors allowed these stories to be put into publication, and clearly didn't care enough to double check Glass' stories, especially with the topic of a lot of his stories being controversial.

I believe that one of the most important characteristics or qualities of being a journalist, is having your journalistic integrity and taking pride in the VALIDITY of your stories.

Howie Good said...

what brian alludes to is an internal editor or monitor. is that the only real assurance that journalists are ethical? doesn't the glass case illustrate no number of fact-checkers can prevent a pathological liar from producing tainted stories?

Sam Speer said...

I believe the the majority of my classmates that Stephen Glass is solely to blame for these fabricated stories that appeared in the New Republic Magazine. I think that although many think his editors and fact checkers are to blame, but i have to disagree. Im sure many people think newspapers have handfuls of fact checkers that are constantly checking stories, but with the newspaper industry significantly declining, they are being forced to do more with less, even if their credibility is at risk. I am a little undecided on whether Glass's punishment was harsh enough but his overall credibility and journalistic integrity will never be the same and he completely went against everything the SPJ Code of ethics is against. He firstly didnt seek the truth and report it obviously, but i feel that he did act independently and he should be at fault not his editors even though they should have recognized the fabricated stories. The fact that Glass just got fired was a little lenient considering it was well over a dozen stories. I feel that the only way to prevent this from occurring again is to have a good amount of fact checkers, which is almost impossible, due to the economic constraints on newspaper and magazines.

Lisa E. said...

Who's to blame for Stephen Glass making things up? Stephen Glass. He could not find a story big enough so he just fabricated one, actually about a couple dozen.

I don't think He's the only who's responsible. Clearly the people at the top weren't doing their jobs either. "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me." He fabricated 24 stories! TWENTY FOUR! That's a complete and utter oversight on the part of the editors. There's a reason why in court hearsay isn't permissable, because people lie. Most people follow some moral guidelines, but people will sometimes bend the rules to try to get ahead and if left unchecked this rule bending- or just outright breaking- becomes a habit. Aren't there fact-checkers to make sure that stories are truthful BEFORE they make it to print? If the editors were concerned at all about the integrity of their paper and if they had any respect for their profession, they would have made sure that Glass's stories were truthful.

How do you prevent something like this from happening? Fact-check EVERYTHING. You cannot give anyone the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how many boyscout badges they may have or how many cherry trees they chopped down.

Lindsey Claro said...

To me, it's obvious that there are several people to point the finger at in blame here. The first, most definitely is Stephen Glass. The fabrication of both stories and sources is just unacceptable and disgraceful. Perhaps it was a lack of ethical consideration or a young hot-shot journalist attitude that drove him to commit the industries cardinal sin. We may never know. As much as Glass is to blame in this situation, the editors and fact checkers are far from innocent here, as well. They have a job to do... which in this case, they failed to do. Glass also failed to complete his job to "seek truth and report it."

I agree with Eve's previous posting and how she mentioned that people love controversy. I completely agree with this statement. Perhaps this is the reason why certain people did not exercise "epistemic responsiblity."

What more can be done to prevent such incidents? Journalism and media students take an ethics class in college. Journalists see and know the code of ethics. Maybe a more harsh punishment then just losing one's job?

Pamela A. said...

Honestly, the first person to blame is Glass. However, the editors have to take some of the blame as well. His stories could not go into print without them. It explains in the chapter that many trusted Glass blindly. Right out of college, at 25, he was considered "the most sought-after young reporter" and a "star writer". He built up a reputation, probably based on lies, a young age that he could not handle.
Which makes us wonder if he learned about ethics in the first place.
On the other hand, someone on the other end was not doing their job for a long time. How could he get away with two dozen false stories if the editors and fact checkers were doing their job efficiently?
After firing Glass New Republic wrote that they felt "victimized" by his deceptions. Glass just happened to become extremely good at covering his lies after some years. If they even consider what they do to be Journalism they should consider Glass as one of the many that try to take the easy way out. I believe the first step to solving this problem is to consider restructuring the entire way they do things; even if that means taking in a new staff.
Many argued that New Republic, even before the Glass incident, showed signs of negligent reporting. Their young staff was considered the "embodiment of what is wrong with political journalism today". We should see this a a valuable point to note that Glass can not the only one to blame. New Republic wasn't doing THEIR job before Glass got there. Glass just happen to be another one of them.

Kellie Nosh said...

First of all, I'd blame the editors like Kelly and Lane for letting all of Glass's fabrications go through to print. Aren't they supposed to always check for facts? I'm new to this whole journalism deal, but even I know that facts are supposed to be checked. Second, I'd definitely blame Glass. He outright broke the first and probably biggest rule of finding truth and reporting it. Making a reputation for yourself doesn't mean you should dive in for what is completely unethical. It astounds me how often people -like Glass, among many others- still ignore the code of ethics. Even if they aren't in an ethics class like I am, they should at least still have that gut feeling or a conscience stopping them from doing this stuff.

As far as a solution is concerned, I think overall that ethics need be hammered into people more. Why aren't these rules established more concretely? Editors should also be more mindful of the possibility of some people making unethical choices to make it to the top.

Howie Good said...

But they did check the facts! And they corrected the factual errors they caught. Trouble was, the facts, so-called, were embedded in stories that were themselves lies. If editors can't trust reporters on the basic level of story (not facts, but story), then how can journalism even operate? It'd be like a classroom where prof and students don't trust each other. It's dysfunctional. . . in the extreme.

mika said...

As everyone says, I also think that first person to blame is Glass. But not only him, editers and other people who relate to print should be blamed also.
Because if other editors can stop printing,something like this never happens.
Sometimes, people are trying to get our own profits and for getting it, we tend to be blind about ethical codes.
Especially, Glass suceeded as an famous journalist by making up articles based on lie.
Then, it must have been really hard for him to get out from the unethial way and come back to the right(ethical way).
I suppose that's why he couldn't stop cheating.

Kevin Harvey said...

The person I see ultimately responsible for Stephen Glass’ deceptions making into print is himself. But the people responsible for not doing their job to the best of their ability are his editors. The real source of the problem is Glass’s lack of sources that his editors should have been able to pick up upon before twenty six articles that were in part or completely conjured up made it into print. Michael Kelly should have done more to bring Glass’s fictitious lies to light by calling him out as soon as he was ousted as editor; at that point he had nothing to lose. It would be interesting to question an editor after they retire to see if their publisher ever pressured them to overlook things, in which case I would say the publisher is ultimately responsible for allowing and even encouraging fictitious stories to be published for the sake of shock value and dollars. I don’t believe enough of an investigation has been done, and I would never trust New Republic after a scandal like this. You never know whether the journalist is to blame or the magazine as a whole. They might have made an example out of Glass’ just to make it look as if they’re doing their job and may have a few other journalist working for them that produce similar garbage. The thing is there just isn’t enough checks and balances in journalism. When I see entertainment tabloids at the checkout lines at supermarkets I feel like setting them a blaze. They consistently lie about stuff and are never once ridiculed for it. People buy them up to read them while using the bathroom, and that’s exactly where they belong in the toilet. I cringe every time I see them because it makes me wonder whether other magazines are just the same only their subject matters aren’t celebrities but issues that actually affect society.

LindsayArden said...

I agree with everyone who has said that all parties here are to blame. Glass, for fabricating stories, and the editors for not thoroughly checking the stories they print. Glass, however, is clearly more accountable since he performed the intentionally unethical act of lying. The editors merely made a mistake, which is not an ethical flaw, but a fact of life and a reflection of human imperfection.
I don't necessarily believe that there is a solution to this problem. Upon hiring a journalist, the employer should absolutely look into the candidate's history, and question their ethical stature. However, the journalist's unethical actions may not always be a result of their character coming into the job. Often times, I would assume, the pressures of maintaining a job or improving their position in the company would lead a person to commit unethical acts that they would not previously have considered. I am not by any means saying that the person is less responsible for their fallacy, merely that it may not be a personality flaw detectable upon hiring.
Ethical codes are an important guideline for journalists, but it has to be understood that some people will ignore them regardless. It is an unfortunate reality of the industry. I hate to say it, but I think the only way to prevent things like this from happening is to never trust a story based on the journalists' merit alone. Stories should always be fact checked, and opinion stories should be researched by a number of parties.

Vince said...

I think only Glass can be blamed for his lies making it to print, people assumed that since they follow a code of ethics that he would do the same so why would they question the validity of his work. Once people are forced to constantly review and double check thier co-workers work It takes energy away from the true true task.

I think Glass abandoned his epistemic responsibility to either please his readers with stories that were better than the truth or to please his superiors with more cutting-edge, contoversial stories. His motives were probably rooted in greed, he didn't care about delivering quality news to the masses that they rely on, it was all about career advancement.

Anything that could possibly be done to hinder false stories from being put into print beyond what is already in practice would be a misallocation of valuable resources. Anyone spared or taken away from thier true job to spy on journalists is a waste. Isn't it possible that people can just put aside these temptations and get a conscience?

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.