Teaching Notes

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

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good Work

Please respond to question #3 under ABSENCE OF MALICE on page 167 of our text. Deadline for your response is noon Wednesday, Feb. 17.


Maxim Alter said...

I really like this question because I never really thought about it before. In my experience at school, I've noticed that a lot of attention is paid towards technical excellence. People with good grades are applauded, as are those that complete their work without technical error. I have seen a lot of people copy each others work and get away with a perfect grade. I have seen people not study for tests and just be generally lazy and still manage to do well. These are the kind of situations where I see technical excellence be celebrated over moral excellence. However, studying and working within the Journalism Department, I have noticed that it takes a lot more than just being technically excellent to get attention. I work at the Oracle, and when I fact check an article or we discuss an issue on what should be published, we always look at what is morally right over what will make the paper look technically good. If anything given to us by contributing writers is plagiarized, we won't accept it, regardless of how technically good it is. When we need to decide what our editorial cartoon will be, even if the idea is really clever, if it is also offensive, we don't publish it. For myself, I believe moral excellence is more important than technical excellence because if what you or anyone else is doing is morally wrong, then whatever it is achieving technically is devoid of any quality in my eyes.

Meg said...

I agree with Maxim in terms of that a majority of the attention given at school is for technical excellence, or as he said good grades. Especially in high school, thinking about it now, there would be times when people would get the highest grades on tests even though they never studied and slept through class. Those were the kids getting praised simply because they did the "best" on a test. What if there was someone who knew the information just as well, or even better, but isn't a good test taker? Does that mean they he or she shouldn't get recognition as well for putting in all of their effort? I'm sure many people could name someone who cheated on a test and got away with it. Is it right that that person could get a high grade while those who actually studied and did things morally didn't get as much recognition. I feel like teachers would never celebrate how hard a kid studied or how much effort they put into studying for the test, but rather celebrate the end result (the test grade). Maybe it's changed a little for me in college, but I think it depends on the different classes and teaching styles. Some professors really care about the learning process and want students to take away all the information they can with them, while some just seem to try and get another grade in the book and won't give the assignment a second thought. I'd much rather have my professors pay attention to my progress and not just my grades ( the technical excellence). I think moral excellence is much more important in seeing how someone accomplished something or did some assignment rather than just asking did they do it or not. I want to know if my efforts paid off. I think in terms of journalism, having moral excellence will pay off more. There may be a time when you have to work for someone who wants you to just get things done, being morally right or not, but I think in the long run people go farther being morally responsible. It can show trust and credibility, and may in the end, get you farther in journalism than if you just printed the stories because you were forced to.

Anonymous said...

This question is very interesting because when people get recognized for something great they do ,I never thought to separate it between technical excellence or moral excellence. In my own personal experience I have noticed that technical excellence has been rewarded more than moral excellence. Many times when anyone achieves something great like an athlete or a scholar, the means in which they achieved those goals are hardly ever looked at. When someone does something that is morally exceptional, it is something that I would rarely, if ever hear about. In high school I remember most of the times the excellence we would hear about would be athletes achieving something or even less than that would be academic achievements.If somebody was good at something, then they would get rewarded, but a tough moral decision is something that I have hardly ever seen recognized. The only time I feel like tough moral decisions are talked about is when people believe the wrong moral decision is made and then they talk about it.Since in my experience technical excellence has been much more rewarded than moral excellence,it seems that doing technical "good work" is more important than doing moral"good work." Sometimes i feel like people just assume that if you achieved something technically, you must have done it morally as well which we all know is not always the case. I feel like with moral excellence people just assume that we should all make good moral decisions and the only time they are talked about is when people do not agree with the decision, when it is the opposite of moral excellence. I think that both of these should be equally important and both should be recognized equally. When someone makes an exceptionally excellent moral decision they should be talked about and rewarded as much as someone who does something technically excellent. Moral decisions should not be talked about only when they are bad ones.

Kim Dubin said...

What tends to get the most attention to me is technical excellence. Besides the fact that I have noticed this in school whether it be telling a friend not to worry she will do great on a test and then I'm the one to do bad, or for an SAT for example. For the SAT students prep, study and take courses. The final grade we get on the test is what makes us and basis our choices for colleges on what that number is. Colleges look at that number sometimes before the extra curricular activities you participate in, or what makes you really you. It has been disappointing to take notice in this through high school years, finding out that if your not a good test taker it might be harder to impress people and get their attention. In my opinion I think that people should be noted on the good they do for the public, those moral choices that make us genuine people rather than on a score or number. When people ask what your GPA is... does that mean if you have a low one your not worthy of the hard work you put into at least trying? Even when it comes to jobs, through my own experience I have had jobs from both sides. Some of my previous jobs have acknowledged me for the work I put into it and the hours and the ideas. While on the other hand other jobs only took note of how well I do the job itself and much profit I'm making. People need to take a step back and realize what people should be noticed for... we're not just a piece of paper with a letter grade on it, were an essay that describes ourselves and elaborates saying were more than a grade and we can show you if you give us the chance.

Lindsey said...

I believe that there is a fine line between technical excellence and moral excellence. I would define technical excellence within school being people who basically get good grades but sometimes do it in a poor way. In my high school there are kids that cheated their whole way and ended up at Ivy League colleges. They cheated on tests, assignments, and even the SAT’s. Since these kids had “good grades” they were awarded and got more then the kids who have moral excellence. Moral excellence in my eyes would mean kids that try as hard as they can by studying or going to extra help and putting the time and effort into their schooling. These kids sometimes get left out of the “smart” group because they didn’t get the highest grade. It’s really not fair to the kids that actually try and care rather then the ones who cheat there way through school. Kids with moral excellence don’t get praised because teachers and administrators expect everyone to act in a moral way even though some don’t. The thing that bugs me the most is that the people that cheat their way or aren’t moral, get more praise and recognition then the ones that actually do what they’re supposed to do. In my high school there was a girl who wasn’t the brightest but she new how to get around things. If there were a test she’d cheat, even if the teacher moved the desks far away from each other she’d somehow come up with a way to cheat. One time she tried to cheat off me and I really didn’t know what to do at the time so I whispered to her to cut it out, and so she went to the next person. Some of my friends thought she would be screwed because in the SAT’s you really couldn’t cheat but somehow she did, and eventually got into the University of Maryland. The University of Maryland is such a great school but she didn’t deserve to get in. I applied there and tried so much harder then she did and did it with “moral excellence” and didn’t get in. It seems in high school the kids with “technical excellence” strived over the kids with “moral excellence”.

Chelsea LaDue said...

I disagree with Lindsey's definition of technical excellence which was "technical excellence within school being people who basically get good grades but sometimes do it in a poor way." Just because something is technically excellent, does not mean it was morally wrong. However, in high school and even a lot of times in college, technical excellence tends to get more attention than moral excellence. It is very easy to cheat during a test or copy someone's homework without being caught. This would end in a good grade, but it would not be morally right. A teacher or professor, however, is not going to praise you on how morally you did your homework or test, but on how well you did technically. The same goes for the work environment. When I worked at Journey's Shoe Co. it was all about who could sell the most merchandise, since I worked on commission. There were a few times where I would be working with someone and walk away and then one of my co-workers would start talking to them and end up getting the sale. We would be praised for how high our percentage was at the end of the day, not for how hard we worked despite the percentage.
For me, I think technical and moral excellence should go hand in hand. If you are being moral about the way you are getting the job done and doing it to the best of your ability, then it should be technically excellent as well. I agree with Maxim when he said "if what you or anyone else is doing is morally wrong, then whatever it is achieving technically is devoid of any quality in my eyes."

Howie Good said...

i have to agree with chelsea -- cheating is either technically or morally excellent. it's just cheating. an example of technical excellence without moral considerations might be a scientist who develops an effective nuclear missile or means of execution.

KHutchinson said...

I can answer this question only if I can separate my high school life and my college life.
In high school, I forever noticed the way students with high test scores and the intelligence to get into advanced classes got treated with more respect than the rest of us. In these advanced classes, the material was harder, but there were many perks that came with the class. Teachers would give special privileges to the students in their classes; extending lunch periods, or going on exciting nonacademic related field trips.
When these students were in regular classes with integrated intelligence levels, the teachers always paid more attention to the "smarter" students, calling on them more. And when they did call on the students that didn't tend to SHINE or stand out, they often used a demeaning and insulting tone.
This always bothered me because I was the kind of student that strived hard to be successful, but was never able to excel past other, smarter students. I always had my work done, worked hard in class, and studied even harder, but this never seemed to impress any of my teachers, because my test scores were only average.
That's pretty much why I loved college when I got there. For once, the fact that I always contributed in class, had my work done made a difference. It always helped that I'm so outgoing and open with new people. I don't really even need to try when it comes to class participation. I'll express my opinion and ask questions no matter the class. It's just who I am.
Finally! College had given me the opportunity to be rewarded for the fact that I work hard to achieve moral excellence.
The fact that in college people have the ability to be recognized for moral excellence gives students a fresh plate to lower their guards, because for the first time grades alone are no longer the deciding factor to their scholarly lives.
It's sad that kids in high school have such a burden placed on them. For so long it's stressed that grades are what matters; forget individuality or effort, it's the A that really means something! It creates a lot of unneeded stress, and I know personally instilled a good amount of fear about the future. It was a great realization when I came to the conclusion that my grades and transcripts are not what define me.
I think it gives the total wrong impression to young people. It gives the feeling that their accomplishments on paper mean more than any moral or ethical choice they could ever make. In this line of thought then, any decision they make is more important in the academic sense than it is in the moral sense. Ok then, that means that when presented with a moral or ethical dilemma, the answer they will choose will be the one that leads them to success, no matter if they have to shove aside their ethics or morals to get to the top.
I think I value my morals more. It's not a conscious things, as we've discusses in the blog and in class before. It's my instinct. I don't want to walk away from a situation feeling like I've done the wrong thing, and to me, the wrong thing always comes with an icky feeling in my stomach.
That icky feeling might be juvenile, but it's how I make my decisions.
What feels right?
When I'm faced with the decision to discard my morals to get ahead, it's not really something I have to think about. It's just something I wont do.

pspengeman said...

Personally, I hold moral excellence in a higher regard than technical excellence, though the latter is much easier to identify and measure. I find this unfortunate, but can't think of an ideal way to truly measure moral excellence.

When one excels technically, the outcomes are much easier to define or notice. Moral excellence doesn't always equate into a tangible or easy-to-see conclusion. I think the definition of "good work" deals with someone who holds moral excellence in the highest regard with skills in technical excellence to help articulate truth.

IN my experience, I've seen technical excellence get more attention, and although I see those people excel in terms of how society expects us to excel (getting good grades, going to great schools, aspiring to attain great and desirable jobs), I don't envy them because without an attempt to contain high moral excellence, all outcomes become irrelevant.

Julia said...

I actually used to think about this question in high school a lot. The students who were technically excellent always received the most attention. The students who did the right thing in certain situations, where it wasn’t always easy, may have been noticed by one or two people, but the achievement was soon forgotten. My junior year, my high school had a real problem with doing the “ethical thing.” Bomb scares, fights, and kids just not getting along was the norm. It got so bad that the administrators paid for a program called Rachel’s Challenge. Rachel was one of the students who died in the Columbine shooting. The program is a presentation put on by her friends and her brother asking kids to basically wise up and do the right thing. I wish I could say that things immediately changed, but I can’t. Things began slowly but, as of this year, my high school hasn’t had a bomb scare. My mom is a teacher at my school, which is very small, and she says she sees the benefits and the changes every day. It takes some inspiring but eventually the students who are morally excellent are given the most attention. I think it takes a lot more to be morally excellent than being technically excellence. Doing the right thing is not always easy, but that’s what makes it all the more important.

Andrew Limbong said...

I find it difficult to separate the two. As Professor Good has stated multiple hard work is good work. Technical and moral excellence are indeed part of the same scale. That being said, in earlier years (high school), I've noticed technical excellence being far too heavily weighed and acknowledged compared to moral excellence. It isn't without good reason, though. In a school as big and overcrowded as mine was, it simply wasn't practical to reward, or even notice, anything beyond technical excellence. Standardized tests were the norm, and left little breathing room for the kids that "just didn't get it."

In college, though, I've found that the two are balanced more evenly, with only a slight lean towards technical excellence. Those that get ahead in college do seem to deserve it. Those that get the attention from professors are the ones that make their voices heard, whether through good test grades or vocalizing themselves in class. But a slight lean towards technical excellence could be a good thing, though. As we get older, we start to lose the ability to blame the institution. We never lose it completely, because no institution is perfect, but the weight is definitely the student's to bear.

DevonP said...

In my experience in high school, obviously technical excellence got more attention because it is much easier to identify then moral excellence. Aside from this, I believe that moral acts were praised and defended in my school. My junior year, I let a friend copy my homework, and the teacher noticed that my friend copied my homework eventhough he didn't write it verbatim. We both got lowered scores eventhough I didn't cheat. Also, at the end of sports seasons athletes would win awards for technical acheivements, but there would also be a "sportsmanship award," awarding the athlete that displayed the most integrity during the season. Teachers reward technical excellence but I think they assume that with technical excellence, comes moral excellence, which isn't always the case. But I always felt teachers had very strong feelings about citing your essays, not plagerizing, etc. I don't feel there is any way for moral excellence to be rewarded according to school work unless technical excellence comes with it. The only thing you can do with moral excellence is enforce it, and punish those who do not follow. For myself, with technical excellence comes moral excellence. I want to acheive good grades in a just way. When I was younger, I would from time to time peek and check out someone elses test answers, but then I realized that if I do not know the answer, I won't put down someone elses.

Samantha said...

I think in school students are rewarded more for technical excellence than moral excellence. Sometimes when teachers are teaching so many students a day they stop worrying about if they're actually learning anything or if they're just memorizing facts to regurgitate them onto a test. I remember having a teacher who didn't care how you knew the answers on the test as long as you wrote down the correct answers. He simply looked the other way if a student had out a "cheat sheet" and gave them a good grade. I think the reason for this is because it is easier to quantify technical excellence than moral excellence. When you hand in homework the teacher doesn't ask you to write down how many hours you spent on it. Maybe in that case the student who worked really hard on an assignment but didn't get everything correct would get a higher grade than someone who did it that morning on the bus. However, even if teachers tried to enforce this rule students could just lie because there is no way to prove it. Also, would this new system penalize students who know the material so well that they can do the assignment quickly and properly? Clearly this proves that technical excellence is easier to identify than moral excellence.

Personally, however, I think moral excellence is more important than technical excellence. For example, if I am working on a project and everything is not going as well technically as I had planned, I would rather turn in an assignment that I did all on my own without cheating that may not be 100 percent technically perfect than a project that I cheated on to make it look better. However, in school I think it was beaten into our heads that you have to get good grades and do well on tests or else you have no future. No one ever said that you have to be a good, moral person to get ahead in life. I think if they had then there would be a better balance between moral and technical excellence and each would complement one another.

Kim Plummer said...

I think technical excellence gets more attention than moral excellence, especially at the undergrad level. Sure, the two work best together, but there’s an undeniable technical craft of journalism that tends to be the focus of each class. J1 introduces you to the concept of finding truth and reporting it accurately. J2 teaches more structure, how to develop story ideas and follow a beat. Then there are specialty classes to prep for different kinds of writing. Then there’s one class, Media Ethics, which isn’t necessarily a requirement for all journalism majors.
I’m not trying to knock our journalism program, I think the reality of the situation is that these technical aspects are easier to teach to students. Most professors try to teach moral excellence in reporting as well, but there’s never really the opportunity to discuss why or why not something is morally sound. Professors share students’ stories of technical excellence on projectors in the classroom, praising their organization and technique, because it would be hard for them to identify moral excellence in a story unless students also contributed a sort of reporter’s notebook along with their assignments.

I think what it says is that sometimes moral excellence becomes an afterthought. It’s also harder to judge moral excellence in a story. Like in the movie Absence of Malice where Carter calls for a comment once, right before they go to press, and when they don’t get a comment in that instant, they publish it anyway and consider it enough of an attempt to cover their own asses. In the story, if you hadn’t seen the movie, you might really believe they gave him an opportunity to comment and he declined, which might as well be telling the reader an untruth. I think what things like this say is that there’s a constant battle for good work.
Technical excellence is identifiable, but moral excellence is like how you put in class when you said it’s doing good, even when no one’s watching.

Journalism can’t be journalism without technical excellence in regards to fairness, accuracy and truth in reporting a story. But, if it’s done without moral excellence, a journalist is abusing the First Amendment privileges provided him, and equally important, the journalist abuses the public’s trust. For good journalistic work with integrity, you need both moral and technical excellence to work together.

Chanel Arias said...

Being a major in media production and a minor in black studies, I think I get to experience two totally different sides of the spectrum. It seems to me that in fields like production, where the technical aspect seems to be given more importance, technical excellence gets more attention. But in the field of Black Studies, or I guess any other major that deals with ethnicity and culture, more attention is put upon the moral statements you make in the classroom or in projects.

If it weren't for my Black studies classes I wouldn't know what it meant to gain attention for moral excellence. In my school experience here, I have also witnessed presidents of clubs that should be headed by someone who is passionate of the cause, but instead is obviously headed by someone who knows their presidency would look good on their resume. Although they are getting the job done, they are being praised for carrying out a job that they mostly see as benefit for themselves.

I guess I can't blame people who use causes that should be headed by a morally excellent person, because we are taught that doing the job right technically is the most important way to get a job done. We are taught this through reinforcement in classrooms where morals aren't even brought up.
Although technicalities hold their importance, I find that moral excellence is far more important than technical excellence.

JustinMcCarthy said...

In my experiences, I’ve found that technical excellence prevails. What I will say I’ve found, however, is that over time, those who lack moral excellence get what’s coming to them.
When I was in junior high school, I knew a girl who cheated on everything. She actually was smart and did her work on some occasions. But especially when it came to assignments that involved true or false answers, or gave choices between a, b, c or d, she would always consult her answers with a number of people in order to ensure she got the right ones.
I had many classes with her and watched her do this for two years, receiving good grade after good grade. In ninth grade, however, she got caught and ended up getting an automatic failing grade for two of our classes after two teachers consulted with each other and realized she was a cheater. She also accrued a reputation as a cheater and was embarrassed by the teachers in front of everyone.
To me, moral excellence is obviously more important. Technical excellence is also important. But at the end of the day, I’d feel content with being a useless, but morally sound individual.
Having low or no morals seems like it would negate excellence in anything else. And while technical excellence is often rewarded, the rewards don’t make up for a lacking in morals.

MBachmann said...

I would like to say that schools would applaud moral excellence over technical excellence, but when it comes down to it they are just looking for work done correctly. So that means if it is done through cheating, as long as they don't know they do not care. Because "good work" is work that is correct. I feel like this is why so many students feel the need to copy and cheat, aside from the fact that most are lazy and dont want to do the work but I know there have been times where I felt obligated to copy homework so I can achieve that high grade instead of attempting to do it on my own and learn and get a lower grade. Instead of "good work" being right I think that the full definition should be work that is done correctly as in the right way, so it can be technical and moral excellence. I do believe that moral excellence is above technical excellence. If you dont do it right the first time it's just going to come back to.

George Selby said...

In all the schools and jobs that I have been at, there has never been any established way to measure moral excellence. It’s not that having good morals isn’t ever important, it’s that there is no way to keep track of who is moral nor is there a reward system for those who practice moral excellence. The idea is that you can be the nicest guy in the world, but if you can’t do your job technically right, then who cares?
I think that before anyone can notice your moral excellence, you must first exhibit technical excellence. Also, there aren’t too many moral obstacles to maneuver around at high school, college, and part time jobs. You either cheat or plagiarize or you don’t. You steal from the register and give the customer dirty food or you don’t. Of course nobody notices when you don’t do these sorts of things.
At all the institutions I’ve worked at, there has always been a moral minimum…you just need to be moral enough to not get fired. Of course, I think this is the way it is in all jobs, including journalism.
Personally, I think that the most moral people at a job will also be the most technically excellent. It takes a certain amount of morality to give a damn about what you’re doing and how you do it. Moral people would do the job that they are paid for, and they would do it to the best of their ability. But the superiors would never note this as “moral excellence.” It would just be filed under “He’s good at his job.”
Moral excellence goes unnoticed, or gets mistaken for technical excellence. Technical ineptness is immediately noticed while moral ineptness can go unchallenged for years. In today’s world, you do not necessarily need to be moral, though in certain circumstances it could help a little.
For me personally, technical and moral excellence goes hand in hand. I consider it a moral failing on my part if I do not do all the work that is expected of me. I think that all my technical excellence wouldn’t matter if I did not have the drive, or the pride, to do anything well. People who lack technical excellence often try to make up for it morally, and vice versa. Having both is what makes me feel the most complete. Being moral is doing what will “feel good later,” and if you add some technical excellence in there then you “feel good and can take pride in your skills later.”

Howie Good said...

i'm going to argue that moral excellence doesn't go unnoticed or isn't unmeasurable. toyota didn't display either technical or moral excellence and is now facing not just massive recalls, but also ruin. what you notice in this instance (and in the instance of the buffalo plane crash) is: 1) moral and technical excellence are mutually supportive; and 2) the absence of moral excellence is measurable in the number of dead, the number of cars recalled, the number of indictments, etc.

Sarah Boalt said...

In my experience, both technical and moral excellence have been something that is important. However, I think there's a little bit of difference in these two in high school and in college. In high school, I noticed it was a bit more important for the teachers to see the good grades than it was for them to see that you weren't cheating. While if any of them saw you blatantly cheating, they would reprimand you, but it was something that went unnoticed more times than not. I also noticed it was excessively easy to cheat in high school. If you could look at someone's paper slyly or have friends who didn't know what was going on either you would help each other. I'm not going to sit here and pretend I was some pristine princess who's never copied homework or had the buddy system going on during a test, but that doesn't mean I didn't do well on my own. For many in high school it was just easy to cheat and get good grades. While the teachers preached otherwise, it was apparent they didn't act on as much as they should.

I college, however, I find this dynamic different. I know for myself, college is something I wanted to do, so why wouldn't I try to do well and do the work myself? I'm here because I wanted to be. If I didn't care about what I was learning, I would've gone to DCC for two years and got a job at the supermarket until something better came along in my life. I'm here for the whole experience, and I feel as though others are too, so cheating isn't something that is done as frequently. There are also harsher consequences for this in college, but the professors as well look at cheating as something more serious because if you're paying so much money to be here, you should be doing the work and coming to class and getting something out of it. College isn't about taking the easy way out, it's about learning what you need to live in the real world.

I feel that in some situation, even in the work place or in school, there is much more of an emphasis on technical excellence. The company tends to care more about numbers than moral integrity, until bad morals become noticeable to the public and thus effect their technical excellence. School's look a lot at grades rather than that you studied a lot harder than the kid next to you who passed when you failed, even though you worked harder for that failing grade. I feel as though a lot of the time moral excellence gets lost in the bustle of everyday life, but can still prevail in society if people are willing to make it happen.

LImpagliazzo said...

In college, technical ethics gets more attention by observers. But I personally feel that moral ethics gets more attention from myself. I need moral ethics to get my work done. My professors need to see my technical ethics. "Good work" is shown by technical ethics, but you have to have the moral ethics to get the work done. I need moral ethics to get anything done.

Allison said...

I have seen throughout my educational career, that technical excellence is highly regarded over moral excellence. Back in high school, there was a constant war between the field hockey team and the girls soccer team. Both teams were in, battle over field time and equipment. The school rarely got involved with the girls shenanigans. The conflict escalated to vandalism of opposing teammates cars. It all started off innocent with saran wrap and toilet paper, than drastically switched to rocks and dog feces being thrown. None of the girls were punished for any of their actions. Both teams were competing towards the state tittle, and the school wanted the wins. At what point does playful pranks go to far, and punishments have to be stet in place. In this case Technical excellence prevailed over moral excellence. If any of the girls vandalized another girls car off school grounds, it would have become a legal issue; or if the student's were not athletes there would have been a different outcome. I believe that moral excellence should be considered over technical excellence. Being good at one thing doesn't justify an unethical action.

Alana Davis said...

Different levels of education have made this question harder for me to answer. If you think about it, there is kind of a roller coaster effect that goes on. When you begin your education in kindergarten or elementary school, you are praised for knowing when to share, knowing right from wrong, not making fun of another student; those are all examples of how moral excellence exceeds technical. If you can't learn to cut in a straight line just yet, well that'll come to you eventually. On the flip side, high school was all based on technical excellence for me. It was all about putting together a proper paragraph, remembering your header and footer, etc. Technically all my papers were good work to me, but they were all uniform and without real moral questioning. Now in college, thank God, ethical issues are weaseling their way into my papers. Moral excellence is much more apriciated in college and in my view, I think that should be valued over technically good work.

It's the same thing as we were saying about how people are under the assumption that anyone can be a journalist, but if you really think about it, of course they can't! If you don't have both technical good work and morally good work, and are able to skillfully combine the two, you should not be in journalism. Maybe I'm just being harsh, but something can be technically good and fabricated, as we saw with Glass.

This up and down scheme of good work can hinder some students, I believe, I think it somewhat hindered me when I graduated high school. I was somewhat shaken when I had to somewhat learn myself how to write an essay that was more morally based then technical. I think on a social scale, that's quite alarming. Are we a society that throws morals at us when we are very young, but buries them under piles of what is technical excellence?

In the example about the former New Paltz grads, this technical excellence trumped morals. And sadly, I think it's happening way too often in the journalism world. Where editors see a well-written, seemingly well-reported story and get excited and run it. Sometimes morals never go into play there. I'm not sure if I'm really making any sense, I feel like I'm rambling, but I do get it. Haha.

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.