- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Lee Wilkins remembers well the reaction she often would get when identifying herself as a reporter.

“I had a standard line,” said Miss Wilkins, now a journalism professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “I would always say back, ‘I won’t accuse you of all the ills of your profession if you won’t accuse me of all the ills of mine.’”

Research by Miss Wilkins and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University may provide some vindication for members of a profession that has taken a beating in recent years with high-profile blunders.

The two professors surveyed journalists for the first time using a decades-old model for assessing one’s morals, a test given to more than 30,000 people representing numerous professions. According to the researchers, journalists are significantly more ethical than the average adult — eclipsed only by seminarians, doctors and medical students.

“We did not really think that journalists would come out as high as they did,” Miss Coleman said.

The researchers traveled to newsrooms across the country for two years interviewing a sampling of 249 journalists. Using a version of the Defining Issues Test, developed in the 1970s at the University of Minnesota, the professors offered participants six ethical dilemmas, each followed by a dozen questions that seek to determine what motivated a journalist’s decision.

Journalists had an average score of 48.7 on a 100-point scale, meaning that just about half the time, members of the profession make decisions based on the best-quality ethical reasoning. That rate was exceeded only by seminarians/philosophers at 65.1, medical students at 50.2 and practicing physicians at 49.2.

Among journalists, their study showed no significant difference between broadcasters or their print counterparts.

The findings conflict with public perception of journalists. A Gallup poll of 1,015 persons taken in November showed that only 23 percent of the public rated the ethical standards of TV reporters as high or very high. For newspaper reporters, it was 21 percent.

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