The growing need for ethics in our education – and everyday

by Laura Teed

[This is the ninth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

Young GraduatesOn the day the bombs went off in Boston, within hours, suspects were being pinpointed, apprehended and released. Police were not acting solely on their own investigative reports, but looked to sites like Reddit and Twitter for possible identification of perpetrators (Dickson, 2013). This was a case of citizen journalism, which is on the rise globally, yet, holds many questions ethically.

This can be very helpful, but it also can be just as harmful since social media also wrongly identified and accused two people as bombing suspects early on.  Not all information published online is true, nor is it always morally guided – it shifts with the market (Harris, 2005). Is it socially responsible to disclose information we may not know to be true?  As public relations practitioners, we like to believe we would be able to confirm all our sources, yet, we too can be guilty of fostering misinformation through our use of social media and sponsorship of certain sites (McLennan and Howell, 2010). This is why an ethics education is more important than ever.

In a society which is often in a crisis of faith, whether finances or health – morally-sound ethics seem to be relatively minimal or weakly practiced.  As we dive deeper into the pool of social media (and the narcissism which accompanies it) few people stop to question their motives and purpose.

If we look to a survey conducted by scholars Gale and Bunton (2005), we see that while there still seems to be a “chasm between ethical issues in journalism and public relations” (p. 273), it is widely agreed among all practitioners surveyed that we should be teaching communications students to critically dissect and morally test against ethical theories, the messages they are attempting to relay.

Discussing potentially questionable ethical situations has been demonstrated to help students understand the importance of ethics in business and society (Gale & Bunton, 2005).  The study on the impact of ethical education has presented clear facts: communications students who took ethics classes were much more ethical in their awareness, approach, analysis, application and action in the public relations practice (Gale & Bunton, 2005).

Before I entered the field, I had received one “overview of ethics” class in my post-graduate certificate program. Therefore, my professional ethical decision-making was basically driven, like many who received their public relations in a public institution (not a private one) (Gale & Bunton, 2005), by my workplace. I’d do what I was told and not question the possible ethical repercussions I normally would in my private life.

Social media has stepped forward as a truly effective avenue for public relations, especially the “Mommy” blogosphere. Mom blogs have high readership and influence over target demographics and are always open to PR stories and products to review – they are product PR goldmines. We’d sponsor blogs with very clear agendas listing blog post dates, topics and giveaways. The “mom blogger” would use our information, allow us to edit, OK and then pretend she had originally authored the post.  According to many practitioners like Smudde (2005), this neglects the true nature of the blog as a dialogue and would therefore be ethically compromised.

Although scholars like Harris (2005) would assert that if we didn’t sponsor mom blogs, someone else would, and they may (or may not) employ a much more ethically responsible sponsorship – we note that facts and enlightenment in media have become second to economics and possible profits. The ethical divide seemingly grows deeper. Had I received a better ethics education, like now in graduate studies, I know I’d have raised concerns or comments as to the questionable ethics my workplace practiced.

According to the United Nations, it is the role of education to:

…be a means to empower children and adults alike to become active participants in the transformation of their societies. Learning should also focus on the values, attitudes and behaviors which enable individuals to learn to live together in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism. (UNESCO, 2013)

If ethics were a mandatory course in undergraduate degrees, not only communications or PR, students (and citizens) would have a clearer understanding of the values necessary for ethical conduct in society. As stated by the UN, it is the duty of education to provide this (UNESCO, 2013).

Laura Teed is a PR practitioner whose experience ranges from San Francisco Startups to international agencies and is currently pursuing her Master of Arts – Communication full time at Mount Saint Vincent University.

[Ed.’s Note: See Educating communication Professionals: The Case for ethics in the curriculum in the Journal of Professional Communication, Nov. 2013]



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