8 Ways the SOJC Teaches Ethics
A decade ago, faculty and alumni of the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) considered an important question: What does the school stand for?
The answer was obvious: The foundation underlying the SOJC’s mission for more than a century — and that continues to guide its path in the rapidly evolving media and communication professions — is ethics.
“For more than 100 years the SOJC has prepared our graduates to serve the public interest by informing the public,” said Tim Gleason, journalism professor and director of the Ancil Payne Award for Journalism Ethics. “With the tools of digital communication more accessible than ever, it is an ethical practice that defines and gives value and credibility to the work of communication professionals. Communication in the public interest is the foundation for education in journalism, public relations, advertising, and all of the communication professions.”
Ethics joined innovation and action as an official pillar of the SOJC in 2011, but it’s been central to the school’s courses and programs from the beginning. Read on to learn about some of the major programs and courses focused on ethics in communication at the SOJC.
Journalists make tough choices each day to adhere to their stringent code of ethics, even when it means casting aside their own interests and withstanding pressure from those in power.
The Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism celebrates the ethical superheroes who navigate these moral thickets with courage and resolve. Established at the SOJC in 1999 by acclaimed Seattle broadcaster Ancil Payne, the award has championed the U.S.-based journalists whose work is guided by ethics for the past two decades.
“With journalists and journalism facing unprecedented political and economic pressures, Payne Award winners cut through the noise to affirm the power of ethical journalists,” said Tim Gleason, director of the award program.
—Kyra Hanson '20
Throughout his career, Charles Snowden was an influential mentor for many aspiring journalists as editor of The Oregon Journal and The Oregonian. To honor that legacy, in 1998 his family established the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism, an endowed internship for journalism students throughout the state of Oregon. The competitive internship program, housed within the SOJC, places top Oregon university students at media outlets across the state.
Because ethics was one of the guiding forces in Snowden's career, it’s a cornerstone of the Snowden internship. As part of their training, Snowden interns examine case studies, learn decision-making models for ethics, and unpack the important role that professional ethics plays in media.
“In addition to practicing daily journalism, Snowden interns engage in discussions with their colleagues about journalism ethics and write case-study reports about these discussions,” said Nicole Dahmen, co-director of the Snowden program. “It's a critical pillar of the program. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we teach the next generation of journalists to think critically and act ethically.”
—Kyra Hanson '20
Ethics of Engagement Workshop
Practicing journalists from across the nation gathered at the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center in July 2019 to discuss the ethics of engaged journalism, a new industry practice that encourages journalists to partner with the public to create and share information.
According to the center’s associate director and the SOJC’s Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement, Andrew DeVigal, the practice of engaged journalism requires a new ethical framework — one that grapples with potential tensions between traditional journalistic values and the prioritization of lasting, respectful relationships with communities.
The Agora Journalism Center’s Ethics of Engagement workshop was the first step in developing that framework. More than 20 engagement journalists, Portland citizens and journalism educators convened at the SOJC Portland campus to “collaboratively explore the ethical principles that undergird engagement work, and the tensions that journalists sometimes encounter as they practice deeper engagement with communities.”
“We gained critical insights from the collective experience and wisdom of the group,” wrote DeVigal and Regina Lawrence, associate dean of SOJC Portland and director of the Agora Journalism Center, wrote in a Medium blog post. “Mindful of the limitations of this single gathering, we did hear a number of values and principles articulated that might guide the emerging practice of engaged journalism.”
As the online world increasingly interacts with the physical one, SOJC associate professor Donna Davis believes it’s a critical time to demand a coherent, human-centric set of digital ethics.
As director of the SOJC’s strategic communication master’s program, Davis teaches classes on digital ethics and has focused much of her research on the potential uses of virtual worlds, with a special interest in their effects on marginalized and vulnerable communities. She argues that governments, corporations and mainstream society must create guardrails for emerging communication technologies to prevent profit from becoming the sole motivator for tech companies and virtual world-builders. Otherwise, she believes, human health and safety will suffer.
“Ultimately, I think all of our content is going to come with the Surgeon General’s warning that this content may be hazardous to your health — your mental health, your physical health,” said Davis, who added that professional communicators must weigh the ethics of each new media technology. “We’re not just teaching people how to make these things. We’re making them to think about why.”
For reporters and photographers, white nationalism is one of the most dangerous beats in the country. It’s also one of the most important. Yet the journalists asked to cover the issue say they feel siloed, ill-prepared and uninformed about the continually mutating movement they’ve been tasked with understanding and explaining.
To help journalists overcome those obstacles and establish ethical guidelines around coverage of the movement, in October 2019 the Agora Journalism Center partnered with the Western States Center to host a daylong work session and discussion on Communicating about White Nationalism. During the event, more than 50 reporters, photographers, editors and academics worked together to reach an understanding about the extent of the white nationalism movement and its roots in American history and share best practices for communication.
“White nationalism is a complex movement to explain to the public, and it shows no signs of going away anytime soon,” said Lawrence. “It’s critical that journalists find ways to cover this movement more thoughtfully, to include the voices of people directly impacted by it.”
According to a 2017 study on corporate social responsibility, 8 in 10 people working in advertising believe brands have a responsibility to better society, and more than 70 percent of U.S. consumers want companies to address social justice issues.
To prepare the newest generation of advertising professionals for industry conversations about brands’ ethical responsibility to society, the SOJC recently launched the master’s in advertising and brand responsibility. The program, which is the first of its kind, offers a curriculum focused on theory, research, creativity and practical skill building. In addition to courses like Ideasmithing, Essentials for Brand Strategy and Green Brand Strategy, all students take a three-term brand responsibility seminar that dives deep into the definition of brand responsibility.
“Our advertising program, both undergraduate and graduate, advances ethics in advertising by training students to be honest brokers in the creation and implementation of persuasive communication,” said program director Kim Sheehan. “As the SOJC promotes ethics at every turn, our students leave their programs with a strong understanding of their own personal responsibilities in whatever creative industry they join.”
One of the core courses all SOJC students take is Media Ethics. Led by media studies faculty, the course teaches the theory, history and functionality of communication ethics to give students a foundation for making ethical decisions in their professional careers. Students explore ethical problems in the media, including privacy, violence, pornography, truth-telling, objectivity, media codes, public interest and media accountability.
“After taking this course, students will know an awful lot more about media,” said professor Thomas Bivins, the SOJC’s John L. Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics and Responsibility. “They will have a different and more well-rounded understanding of how media works once they see how ethics fits into the equation.”
To join the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), professionals must learn and commit to the organization’s Code of Ethics, which serves as an ethical guidebook for the industry and outlines the importance of professional values such as advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.
Students in the SOJC who join the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) learn about this code firsthand. The student group helps them learn about public relations ethics and professional standards and provides valuable networking and professional development opportunities.
“The Code of Ethics is particularly important in the public relations field because, at the core of what we do, we serve as our organization’s ethical conscience,” said associate professor and public relations area head Dean Mundy, a longtime PRSA member. “We need to be the ones in the room to speak up and speak truth to power when needed.”
UO School of Journalism and Communication students Tim Trainor (multimedia journalism master’s), Kyra Hanson (public relations) and Kristin Kessler (journalism) contributed to this article.
The Ancil Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism is celebrating 20 years of honoring journalists and news organizations who have made tough decisions in the newsroom and in the field—decisions that make a difference in the community but are often invisible to the public.