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Study reveals journalistic morality is at a low point

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As we continue to witness a deterioration in the quality and accountability of the press that has coincided with the rise of digital media and financial and political pressure that came with it – there is something of a tendency to view the profession’s past through rose-tinted glasses.

For the most part, this nostalgia is unwarranted – but that doesn’t mean that bad things can’t get even worse. A new study looking into journalistic identity and professionalism, authored by the University of Colorado-Boulder assistant professor Patrick Ferrucci, has found that journalists are nowadays “less morally developed than they used to be,” PsyPost, a psychology news site, is reporting.

The study’s goal was to inspect the changing nature of what professional journalism means today. Ferrucci explains that the study included 171 US-based digital media journalists who were asked to take the Defining Issues Test – which he describes as “a moral development scale.”

However, when solving ethical dilemmas by ranking statements that most affect their decision-making, journalists didn’t show more ethical awareness when reminded of their professional identity, compared to when this “professional identity priming” was absent.

What this means is that professional cognizance doesn’t seem to be a factor in journalists’ moral reasoning. One further conclusion that can be drawn from this is that journalists might also be more prone to applying personal bias to their reporting – a squarely unethical thing – if professional constraints that would correct for this tendency don’t appear to play an important role.

For his part, Ferrucci, whose study was published in Journalism Practice, an academic journal, also observed that 13 years ago, another study based around the same test produced different results. However, he says that while the trend is downward, journalists are still “above average in terms of moral development.”

The researcher also said that the study’s conclusions blame diminishing socialization in the profession for producing journalists “less socialized in terms of ethic.”

What the study doesn’t reveal is any differences between journalists working in digital and those in traditional media, since the focus was only on a small sample of the former. Given these limitations, Ferrucci is not ruling out that the study’s results reflect a general tendency of society, and are not representative only of journalists working in digital media.

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