Teaching Notes

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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Musee des Beaux Arts


Under "Links of Interest. . . " on this blog, you'll find a poem by W. H. Auden titled "Musee des Beaux Arts." By 4 p.m.  Sunday, April 21, please post a comment as to how the poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others.

23 comments:

Caterina De Gaetano said...

This poem doesn't just talk about empathy but how it plays into our everyday lives and how we fail to be empathetic. While Auden seems to be very empathetic himself, or at least aware of the suffering that takes place each day,he is saying that people go on with their lives not realizing what troubles people endure. He writes, "The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along..." here, I take this as people just go about their daily routine and maybe can't be empathetic to others because they do not see the suffering taking place nor do they have time to care. The poet's closing remarks really moved me and saddened me because there is such truth to this: "the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." How often do we scroll through stories on twitter about murders and war and poverty and just shut our devices and carry on with our lives never even looking back or thinking about it another second? I think this is what he was referring to and in our fast paced, media crazed society, this is more true. Empathy has no room it seems, and even though we are informed of the horrors we could show empathy toward, we don't.

kristin moran said...

It sounds to me like the poem talks about how not enough people feel empathy because they are too concerned with their own daily lives and self- desires to care about what is happening to other people. This poem shows how no one cared about the fall of Icarus and illustrates this by saying that the expensive and delicate ship must have had somewhere to be and sailed calmly on. The ploughman probably heard the splash but it was no great failure to him. I think Auden's main point is that the lack of empathy is detrimental. The last part of Caterina's post hit home with me because I did exactly what she talked about yesterday. I was trying to write a paper when I heard about the Boston explosions. I looked through pages of news stories and pictures and came to the conclusion that somehow my paper is more important and that I should go to a place with no internet so I wouldn't be distracted by the news. Thinking back on that decision now, I almost feel disgusted by myself. Those explosions are terribly important and so are the deaths of those people. I shut off my internet and went on with my day. The ploughman's ears probably perked up, but he didn't even look.

ChelseaEdson said...

The biggest problem regarding empathy is that it has limits. It is too difficult (emotionally and physically) because of the amount of effort it takes someone to feel, as well as human’s selfish nature to be empathetic if it is not a first hand experience. It’s too difficult for humans to relate to something so abstract, which is why we so often find ourselves “continuing on” after watching the gory news. My favorite part of the poem is how the child continues to calmly sail away. Children are arguably the most vulnerable in society, and by seeing a series of tragedy after tragedy they become desensitized, which is really what the media has done to us , making us unable to empathize, because the behavior unfortunately, becomes predictable to us.
This may sound cynical, but the past few months have made me feel hopeless for the future, even with bombings in Boston the other day, does that mean I didn’t continue on and go to work and even laugh out loud at a joke later that night? No, the concept of empathy is too complex for humans at this state to comprehend or to react to. It’s everyday something happens, we stopped we’d never evolve, at the same time are we really evolving if this behavior continues to get worse?

Hannah Nesich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah Nesich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah Nesich said...

I believe this poem’s main point is that human beings have no problem feeling sympathy for others, but rarely choose to be empathetic. We all (wisely, the poem argues), know suffering occurs as we eat, open windows, and walk around dully, going through our daily routine. We read news stories about devastating events and go through pages and pages of Google image results to find information after a tragedy occurs…and then we check our facebooks. Where I think the poem could not necessarily be true is how it claims that we are all aware of this. I am aware of this. I am sure everyone posting on this thread (and teaching this class) is aware of this. But I am not so sure the average American is. I don't say this because I think we are smarter than the average American, but because we are studying media and media ethics, and this is the type of content we analyze. It doesn’t take being a genius to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. But I personally know people who think that they are being deeply compassionate and empathetic, when all they are doing is expressing sadness or pity.
Playing off what Caterina said, I think many people are informed of the horrors they could show empathy towards, and then sit there patting themselves on the back, thinking they were empathetic because they posted a one-sentence facebook status about it.

Maria Pianelli said...

In line 2 of the poem, Auden notes that the "old masters" understood suffering "well." After reading both this piece and "Welcome to Hell" for last week's assignment, I believe "old masters" refers to the great philosophers, who were well-trained in the art of empathy. As time passes us, though, empathy is given less and less regard by society. In the "Welcome to Hell" chapter of "Media Ethics Goes to the Movies," Professor Good talks about how difficult it was for him to even find empathy mentioned in an ethics textbook- how times have changed. The poem mentions that it is "human" for us to have regard for others, and it can happen in the most mundane of moments, such as when someone is "eating or opening a window or just dully walking along." Even so, the empathetic nature of society seems to have "run it course" as time ticks on. Now, the poet stresses that people tune out others' distress. An example of this is how they "turn away quite leisurely from the disaster" of Icarus' fall. In an ideal world, people would be sympathetic to others pain, but here, as Icarus falls from the sky, they are too involved in their own lives to give regard to anyone else. Although some people are aware of Icarus' suffering, such as the ploughman who "may have heard the splash" and "forsaken cry" but decided it was an "unimportant failure." This shows that if an individual isn't directly involved in a conflict, they often do not care or show any empathy. In other words, this man is self-involved and caring for Icarus will not do him any good. In my opinion, the poem is the most powerful towards its end. The poem describes an individual's chaotic fall from grace, yet at the same time, the sun mocks him, continuing to shine as if there's nothing wrong. Moreover, life goes on as it should, "sailing on" despite the fact that a boy "just fell from the sky." It's disturbing how unmoved we are by dramatic, horrific worldly occurrences because of our desensitization and absorbed self-interest.

vic morrell said...

We are too busy to wast time feeling empathetic. At least, that's what Auden is saying. We may take into account tragedy and human suffering, but at no consequence of our own; so we go on living our lives, because while we may feel sympathy who has time to really dwell on it all? We as humans make the decision not to give in to empathetic feelings because we recognize that it might be debilitating; Auden says that in the last line "and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." If we all gave our whole selves to tragedy there would be nothing else for us to do, individuals could not go on, and thus the human race would suffer a great deal of progressive neglect.I sort of think we shield ourselves to empathy because of practical (however selfish) reasons. What I mean is, if we all stopped to mourn strangers every time we read the news we might soon find ourselves caught up in a grief, and battling a depression that isn't even our own. It sounds terribly selfish,morbid even, and while I hate to admit it, I know I'm not the most empathetic person. Although I'm not sure if this was done purposefully I couldn't help but notice the Robert Frost quote toward the bottom the poem's website. Frost is right in saying that life goes on: whether we like it or not.

Kerri Potter said...

This poem discusses how everyone is suffering but people just go on in their daily routine. Suffering occurs, "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." People tend to shy away from people who are blatantly suffering which means they do no have empathy. The poem says, "In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster". This means that people will just leave a bad situation and pretend it is not happening if it doesn't directly affect them. This just reflects the kind of world we live it. It shows how cold we are towards others because we have more to worry about within our own lives.

Jay Figueredo said...

This poem places great weight on empathy as one of the defining characteristics of human existence.

As humans, we are perhaps the only living organisms to have organized our living habits well enough to relatively "understand" the nature and functions of our own behavior, and so empathy for other living things functions to try to serve benefits for as many living things as possible, and not just oneself. This is interesting because that seems to be attempting to overcome the natural evolutionary instinct of most living organisms, which would be to self serve so that the organism may survive most productively and pass on its genes for the benefit of the organism, and therefore also it's species. In this respect, perhaps altruism and empathy are truly designed for selfish purposes, which I do not believe to be a bad thing at all. If the self is benefitting, and others are benefitting as well, as long as most living things are benefiting, then it is for a hypothetically better cause. The word "better" in this sense is being used as a tool to invent and sustain a "higher" cause to which humans must flock to in order to embrace the nature of knowledge and making life in general run more efficiently.

The poem, in addition to prioritizing empathy as a factor of the human condition, may be a little too harsh and unjust in it's accusation of humans as so non-empathetic. Two circumstances it makes points of this in are the famous tale of the "Fall of Icarus" and childbirth.

It tries to make the people on a nearby ship seem morally at fault for not actively participating in seeing a man fall out of the sky. The poet is not making it clear if this ship has actually seen the people, or if this ship really exists and has demonstrated such behavior. Should they definitely have seen the man fall and not done anything about it, that may be a testament to this, because from a human moral perspective they should have stopped to see if he was alright and cared for him. If perhaps there was genuinely nothing they could do due to circumstances and they were really pressed for time for something perhaps of even greater importance like transporting medical supplies or patients, then maybe it is not unethical.

As for childbirth, it is an amazing thing that is the very foundation of human life. To create a life that may so graciously impact the world as our species has done is an amazing thing. The poem makes a slight jab at children, saying they do not appreciate childbirth and that is a negative thing. Children genuinely do not understand, they are not nourished and knowledgeable of the amazing aspects of life that they hold the potential to. It should not be held against them, there mistakes. These mistakes hold purpose in structuring together all the events that one may face in his life so that later on, a person may make better decisions and thus have a better effect on their life.

Knowledge is the key to innovating reality. This is why we aim to teach, and this is why we aim to make people aware of world events. Though in practicality, all tragedies cannot be given the amount of care and attention as it may necessarily need. I do not believe this should be held against us, we can all do our best all the time and things can still go wrong. Perhaps though if we all tried, and did our best to implement empathy in practicality to each tragedy, we can find peace in our efforts and more benefits for more living things with our actions.

Courtney Moore said...

My interpretation of the poem is that human suffering and tragedy are natural, however, people would rather look the other way and get along with their life. Even the dead move on. What the media does is drag on tragedies for weeks. It sensationalizes them as the "worst ever_____" the "most shocking______" and so on. And it draws people in to be fascinated with the situation, but not necessarily feel for the ones directly impacted. Those directly impacted would be the families, close friends, and victims themselves. The media doesn't allow those affected to grieve and heal when photos and articles and newscasts constantly remind them of what happened. If the media were to show empathy, they would let the public know of the situation if they really needed to know. If the public at large was in danger. If there was a trend of burglaries or fires. If a shooter was on the run. If there is a health risk. Those are the things,to me, that seem like public information. Closed incidences don't need to be sensationalized. There's no empathy and understanding of human suffering in how events have been covered.

Montana Wilson said...

I believe that this poem revolves around just the opposite of empathy. Empathy is when you are able to share or understand feelings with others. To me this poem shows not enough empathy, but is more along the lines of being self centered and only caring about themselves. People these days are more concerned about themselves and only the well being of their own suffering, and not about the others who are also in pain around them. Auden shows this well, because he says how there is no effort towards empathy for others present. Empathy is hard for people to sometimes comprehend and feel for others because some aren’t sure of who they even are or how they feel themselves. While there are devastating events happening around us in the world everyday, that doesn’t mean we cant show empathy for those who are suffereing. Less selfishness would make a big difference in this world. Finally, with one of the closing lines in the poem, the boy falling out of the sky with a destination at hand meant something to me. I feel it meant that with every fall there is a new beginning as well. We need to pay closer attention to these new beginnings and focus less on our daily routine of seeing, reading, and then disregarding and carrying on with our day.

Steve Guigliano said...

This poem discusses a lack of empathy in human nature-where no one seems to have the time or concern to feel for other people due to only being focused on their own troubles. It acknowledges how the majority of society acts only to serve themselves and fulfill their own agendas in life, feeling there is no time to be bothered by the struggles of other people. I believe there is an overwhelming false sense, in our country specifically, that we're making a difference in something, where realistically nothing is getting done. And we're the first ones to commend ourselves for it. Social media is a great example of this-to again extend off of what Caterina and Hannah mentioned. The reactions to some of the posts I've seen by friends and acquaintances on social media since the tragedy in Boston have been dripping with such a sense of phony concern, it really is pathetic. It's sometimes blatant (maybe due to knowing the tendencies of these specific people) that these posters really don't care deeply about these events, as it doesn't affect them first hand, but a "#prayforboston" along with a brief reaction throws their compassion in the pile, and that's all thats needed from them. I don't know if it's just me, but sometimes it appears to go down like a contest. It seems as though fake empathy is something that exists today too, with people going through the motions of how one is expected to react on facebook to such an event. It's like everyone is trying to out "empathize" each other after an event like this, but it's not really helping anything or doing anything for anyone. They're just writing about it so people can see it when they look on their page. Like what is that reaction really doing? does writing a post like that do more for your image or helping victims of the bombing? It's obvious we all feel the same way about this event, you don't need to post about it to throw your two cents in. It's absolutely horrific and a lot of innocent people were affected by it. But media and our reactions to it desensitize the whole thing, more often then not exposing the victims, and not allowing them to cope in a healthy, appropriate way. It brings the whole thing back around-making the most compelling post, ultimately so person can improve their public image. people aren't helping, they are basically just focusing on themselves. Obviously this isn't always the case, I do believe a lot of people are genuine and do a lot to help outside of a tweet or a facebook status, but generally memes, hashtags, and phony empathy have appeared to replace actual helpful actions like donating blood to victims, etc.

Sheryl Katz said...

“About suffering they were never wrong…how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Right from the beginning of the poem, suffering is described as happening while other people are doing minute everyday tasks like eating, opening a window or walking around. People are suffering all over the world while everyone else goes about their lives. It is as if no one sees the tragedy in disaster anymore. By reading the newspaper, watching the news, or scrolling down Facebook and Twitter feeds, those receiving the news spend those brief minutes reading, watching or scrolling and continue to eat, brush their teeth, or go to work, without any hesitation or empathy toward the subject matter they just learned about. “But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water.” Unless it was to be directly related to them, people do not pay much mind to the news. But as soon as a person finds even the slightest bit of importance in news, he or she is immediately affected by it and proceeds to take action, in a major or minor way. Many major tragedies are forgotten not long after they are announced to the public. For a short period of time they are obsessed over and spoken about constantly, but the chatter about them eventually fades away and dies out. “…And sailed calmly on.” While tragedy and suffering happen, life goes on for others. Some people believe they have more important things to be concerned about in their own personal lives than the lives of others they read about.

Jennifer McGreevey said...

In my opinion, the poem's main point about empathy is that people lack it because they choose to look the other way when they see people in unfortunate circumstances. Human suffering is inevitable, occupying a large space in our world. Most people know this; they know that as they sit calmly at their kitchen table peeling an orange, people are dying before they should and experiencing all kinds of other hardships. But it is easier to remain sitting. This poem asks of its readers to be better than that. Having empathy for others is a powerful thing because it allows others to have empathy, too. Moreover, it is not right to pretend as though certain things do not happen just because you are turning your head. Having empathy requires us to look at evil face-on and console those who have been afflicted by it.

gracen said...

Auden's poem relates to feeling empathy for others because it's all about the ways in which people obsess over the details of their own lives, but ignore everything that doesn't directly affect them. While people commonly have empathy for their friends or family, or the people they see everyday, it's considerably harder to feel empathetic towards individuals you have never met. Whether this is selfishness or just a product of society, Auden's portrayal of the fail of Icarus shows that people are often unconcerned about anything that does not touch their own lives. Even something as strange as a boy falling out of the sky and drowning barely merits a glance, because while it may be extraordinary, it didn't affect anything they particularly cared about.

Alex said...


This poem relates to feeling empathy for others and how it is present in our lives every day. It seems to be saying that too many people do not feel empathy for others because they are too preoccupied with their own lives to care about anyone else. The author must be empathetic himself, or at least see how much people are lacking this quality to be able to comment on this problem and even write a poem about it. He uses the example of Icarus to prove how empathy is lacking. Icarus fell into the water but the ploughman, who heard the splash, was too busy, or didn’t care enough to save him. Because the ploughman did not have empathy, Icarus was doomed with no one to save him. This relates to every day life, and especially now, because people seem to not be surprised or even blink when they hear about the current events, such as Boston, Chicago and Texas. These events happen so often now that we are used to just turning off the news and going about our daily lives. This is a problem because by doing this, we are not empathetic and do nothing to help the people who greatly need it.

Suzy Berkowitz said...

This poem explains how empathy can be felt and not felt in certain situations. The line "bout suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood Its human position" explains that suffering is just a human, natural occurrence that should be understood but not particularly spent too much time on. The line "how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure," however, explains that some people choose not to feel empathetic because suffering and "disasters" happen in everyday life and to feel empathy for suffering or disasters for every occurrence would mean feeling empathy all the time since suffering happens every day. I think when broken down, this poem really talks about how human and natural and, unfortunately, common suffering is in this world. It kind of explains that life goes on, no matter what, and dwelling on the horrible things that happen doesn't do any good because you would be dwelling on those horrible things forever. Life goes on, regardless of how many horrible things or how many disasters or how much suffering happens, and the way to feel empathetic about those occurrences without letting them consume you is to go about your life as usual and make the best of every situation.

maggierose melito said...

First off, DAMN.

Beautiful imagery.
I myself would like to go skating on a pond at the edge of a wood with the other kids.

But I’m here. We all are. We get to see more then any other generation before us, literally any picture we want we can find. People starving, animal abuse, corporation negligence and we scroll riiiighhhhhht through it.

As David Foster Wallace explained, we are the most important part of our universe. We’ve never experienced any situation when we, our selves aren’t the center. That’s true, I mean he has a point. Although, it seems as if we’ve taken that to a whole new level.

We’re delirious because we don’t even think JUST our minds are the center of the universe, we think our facebook, twitter and instagram accounts are the center of the whole world. It just further intensifies how insensitive we are to other people.

This poem talks about the man drowning and everyone going about their day and ignoring the man in need.

I also kind of thought, maybe today, everyone feels like they’re drowning.
We’re all sad.
We’re all paranoid.
We’re all scared.

Maybe our lack of empathy is triggered by the idea that we all feel like our body is being taken by a force much greater then anyone could ever control.
We cant feel for others because we feel so scared for our selves.
I’m all over the place here
But maybe today, we’re all Icarus.

Leeanne Carroll said...

This poem talks about how people don’t recognize the empathy in others, and the importance of recognizing the empathetic situations of others. People are too wrapped up in their own lives but even then, sometimes neglect empathy towards themselves. People can feel sad, and recognize the horrible things that others are faced with, but it is rare that someone truly takes the time out of their day to feel empathetic towards others.
“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood /Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” This explains exactly that. How we know that others are suffering and that there are many situations we can stop and take the time to feel empathetic about, but we do not. As humans we live an extremely fast pace life especially here in New York. Our culture is about staying busy and very involved in the things you do on a daily basis. We recognize the things that are wrong and may choose to feel sympathy for it, but it is rare that people feel truly empathetic to those who are suffering.
The poem at one point makes a reference to dogs going about their daily routine which further shows what the author of the poem is talking about. “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot /Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse /Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. “
I believe that what the poem is saying is true. People are too busy to feel empathy towards others in every little situation that requires so. A lot of it has to do with the media as well. As this is a class discussing media ethics, we have talked a lot about how the media portrays situations and how that impacts the viewer. When it comes to feeling empathy for public situations and tragedies, I believe a lot of it has to do with how the media portrays it. If the media hypes something up and has a lot more coverage of it then people will be more aware about what is going on, and feel more empathetic towards the situation and those involved. Things that are pushed under the rug or kept more private, people don’t see the importance of taking time of their own lives to feel the empathy for others or another situation outside of themselves.

Leeanne Carroll said...

This poem talks about how people don’t recognize the empathy in others, and the importance of recognizing the empathetic situations of others. People are too wrapped up in their own lives but even then, sometimes neglect empathy towards themselves. People can feel sad, and recognize the horrible things that others are faced with, but it is rare that someone truly takes the time out of their day to feel empathetic towards others.
“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood /Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” This explains exactly that. How we know that others are suffering and that there are many situations we can stop and take the time to feel empathetic about, but we do not. As humans we live an extremely fast pace life especially here in New York. Our culture is about staying busy and very involved in the things you do on a daily basis. We recognize the things that are wrong and may choose to feel sympathy for it, but it is rare that people feel truly empathetic to those who are suffering.
The poem at one point makes a reference to dogs going about their daily routine which further shows what the author of the poem is talking about. “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot /Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse /Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. “
I believe that what the poem is saying is true. People are too busy to feel empathy towards others in every little situation that requires so. A lot of it has to do with the media as well. As this is a class discussing media ethics, we have talked a lot about how the media portrays situations and how that impacts the viewer. When it comes to feeling empathy for public situations and tragedies, I believe a lot of it has to do with how the media portrays it. If the media hypes something up and has a lot more coverage of it then people will be more aware about what is going on, and feel more empathetic towards the situation and those involved. Things that are pushed under the rug or kept more private, people don’t see the importance of taking time of their own lives to feel the empathy for others or another situation outside of themselves.

Jenna Harris said...

The poem discusses the issue of society and the lack of empathy everyone bodies. It speaks about how there is always something else that people are preoccupied with that seems more significant than what everyone else is going through. It beautifully states the blatant disregard society has for what is going on in the world. It is almost like everyone wears blinders when it comes empathy. Today's world is such a fast pace and busy environment that people forget to take a step back and think about others. As the poem addresses, no one even realizes that there is someone about to drown and die. People continue on the daily routines. It is a shame the lack of empathy today's media has. This poem can directly relate to it. People no longer think about the affects things can have on other people... they simply are concerned with ratings and profits. The competitive nature of the media industry has allowed the lack of empathy to grow at a disgusting rate. Unfortunately, I do not see this changing anytime soon. This industry does not think about the bigger picture or the consequences of their actions. They just continue on no matter what, just like everyone in the picture the poem discusses.

Naomi Scher said...

The problem with feeling empathy for others, is that most people don't view other peoples' struggles with the same gravity that they have for their own. Breughel illustrates this in his painting, "The Fall of Icarus" by showing the bystanders looking away from the man crashing into the sea. The ploughman with the horse is looking down, and the shepherd is looking up at the mountain. Only one man, who is sitting on the side of the mountain, can be bothered to direct his attention towards Icarus, whose feet are flopping comically around in the sea, surrounded by a cloud of feathers. However, this man does not look as if he intends to take any heroic action to save Icarus. Auden's poem is a commentary on what has been named the "bystander effect," or the "Genovese syndrome" (after Catherine "Kitty" Genovese, who screamed to her neighbors when she was stabbed and raped outside of her apartment building; no one came to her assistance although a dozen people heard the attack). Auden notes that this phenomenon has existed in human societies for a long time. If The Old Masters portrayed gruesome or tragic mythological events while people idly walked along nearby, the "Genovese syndrome" has probably been historically ingrained in or psyche for centuries. When Auden writes of Icarus' fall, "But for [the ploughman] it was not an important failure; the sun shone," I am reminded of the way that most people, myself included, respond to other people's botched attempts at success. We remind our anguished friends and acquaintances that "life will go on," that they "shouldn't let it upset" them. We say this only because the failures of others are not our own failures, so they do not make us upset. We do not see how others could be suffering from disappointment while the sun still shines on us. It is only when we experience disappointment with ourselves that we call upon the empathy of others, only to find that no one really has any emotion to spare.

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.