New study finds journalists score far lower in moral reasoning than they did 13 years ago

A new study published in Journalism Practice suggests that professional journalists are less morally developed than they used to be.

“For the last couple years, one of my main research interests has been the shifting nature of journalistic identity, like what makes up professionalism in the industry. Numerous studies by various researchers have shown that it’s kind of in flux,” said study author Patrick Ferrucci, an assistant professor at University of Colorado-Boulder.

“A couple years ago, while reading The Atlantic, I read an article about a study done in Europe that used identity priming with Wall Street folks. It sounded super interesting and cool so it got me thinking about how I could run a similar experiment with journalists. After talking to my co-authors, we came up with using a moral development scale known as the Defining Issues Test.”

In the study, 171 journalists in the United States completed the Defining Issues Test, which presents ethical dilemmas and asks respondents to rank twelve statements according to how important each was in making a decision.

The researchers found no evidence that journalists who were primed with their professional identity were more ethical. In other words, there was no significant difference between journalists who were reminded of their occupation before taking the test and those who were not reminded of it.

“If the prime did result in differences, it would imply that professional journalists think more ethically when primed with their professional identity, that their moral reasoning is heightened when thinking about their job as a journalist. This is not the case, and this shows that ethical application or moral reasoning, for journalists, are not, potentially, a function of occupation,” the researchers wrote.

Ferrucci and his colleagues also found that today’s journalists scored lower on the Defining Issues Test than a group of journalist who completed the same test in another study 13 years ago.

“The results show journalists are still above average in terms of moral development, but that might be lessening,” Ferrucci told PsyPost. “Our conclusion is that this involves a lack of socialization in the industry. And I think that’s the big one: If socialization processes lessen in any industry, there will be consequences, both good and bad. In this case, that might mean people are less socialized in terms of ethics.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“It’s an experiment with only a relatively small amount of participants, all who self identify as digital journalists — so this could be different with a wider swath of journalists,” Ferrucci explained. A major question still remaining, he added, is whether moral development is lessening throughout society. “Because if that is true, our results might just represent all of society and have nothing do, per se, with journalism.”

“In an experiment of this kind, the results should be taken as a first step toward understanding what’s happening, not an absolute truth,” Ferrucci said.

The study, “Journalists Primed: How Professional Identity Affects Moral Decision Making“, was authored by Patrick Ferrucci, Edson C. Tandoc Jr., and Erin E. Schauster.