Integrating Ethics

From Thought to Action





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Gauging Ethical Intensity



One of the things that makes it tricky to have effective ethical judgment is that every ethical dilemma is different. Academics who study ethics have come up with the term “ethical intensity” as a way to describe the various dimensions along which dilemmas can differ; each one will affect what type of judgment a person makes. The bigger the consequences, for example, or how much consensus a person has to support an action, will determine the intensity surrounding a judgment. How much that intensity increases or decreases can change the type of judgment made.

One way to gauge ethical intensity is by considering the harm or benefit that may result if a decision is implemented. A consequence with a low probability of happening is less intense. Whether the consequences will occur immediately or in the future will also affect the level of intensity—we tend to discount future events as somehow less real, decreasing the intensity.

Teaching Strategy: A Discussion on Journalism Ethics

Journalism ethics and standards describe the ideal practices journalists adopt in response to challenges to their professional “code of ethics” or “canons of journalism.” While various existing codes have some differences, most share common elements: notably, the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability as they apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.

Social media and 24-hour news outlets have changed how information is delivered and the intensity in how it is consumed, raising questions about the ethics involved in the process of dissemination. Validity and reliability of the information has made information literacy, without a doubt, a necessary skill for the readers of news, and never have there been greater challenges to the integrity of journalism. Fortunately, there are codes and canons that provide journalists with a framework for self-monitoring and self-correction.

Have students read Jim Lehrer's Rules of Journalism to discuss the following questions:

1. Compare two news outlets to find discrepancies in the "Rules of Journalism" listed by Lehrer. Why do you think these discrepancies occurred?

2. Consider the term, "fake news." How does it connect with the "Rules of Journalism" listed by Lehrer?

3. Which of Lehrer's Rules of Journalism do you find the most important to ethical journalism? In what other situations outside of journalism might they be applied? Choose 3 to discuss.

4.  Consider ethical intensity. How can news impact the intensity of politics, economics and social issues?

Teaching Strategy: Creating an Ethical Online Environment

One growing area where the intensity of situations can escalate very quickly is in the online environment. From discussion forums, social media feeds, to comment boards, people use the perceived anonymity of being online to hurt, discredit, and disparage others. Because the intensity of the platform or the dialogue has not been properly considered, messages are sometimes exchanged or posted with little regard to the anxiety, distress or physical harm a person can cause, and our judgment in how to respond can become blurred and difficult to resolve as well.

“Flaming” or “Trolling” are terms given for hostile and insulting interaction between internet users. It frequently results from discussions about polarizing issues, but can it also be provoked by seemingly trivial differences. Deliberate flaming or trolling involves posting inflammatory messages in an online community with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response that disrupts productive, on-topic, discussion.

Unfortunately, this is not relegated to social media or online environments outside of the university. Online learning opportunities are expanding rapidly in higher education, and learning management systems are widely utilized to deliver class content, and to foster the exchange of ideas through discussion boards and e-mail. The "appropriateness" of interactions found on discussion boards and e-mail exchanges between students and faculty, and between students and their peers can be quite subjective, and if not monitored, can easily escalate the intensity of the environment. This is made more difficult in classes where the content may include provocative or controversial topics.

One way to engage students to better understand issues of ethical intensity and its effect on judgment is to present various scenarios (taken from authentic experiences) of online communication occurring between faculty and students, and students with students.

How would YOU respond? Use the “Reply” button in each scenario to provide a response or intervention to the communication exchange.



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How do you imagine your students would respond to each situation? It is important to consider and discuss; how far can someone go in their online communication before it is considered "too far?"

Proximity plays a big role in how intense a dilemma is. A decision that will affect our family is more intense than one that will affect strangers. And finally, how many people will be affected by a decision can change the intensity of a situation. A judgment that could benefit many people is more intense than one that has fewer beneficiaries.

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Gauging Ethical Intensity