Philosophy in Real Life

“News As a Moral Battle Ground.” That’s the name of the ethics course taught at Duke University by Sarah Cohen, the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, and she has invited me to talk to her class about my book.
What would my memoir have to do with ethics? Quite a bit, it turns out.
One of its narrative themes is based on the ethical dilemmas that I faced throughout my newspaper career. What makes my history interesting is that I didn’t always do the right thing.
One benefit of being a sinner was that I had credible stories to tell when I taught media ethics at Chapel Hill. It’s hard to teach the course without getting sanctimonious, and the cure for sanctimony is to season your lectures with some personal confession.
Many journalism students come to ethics courses expecting to memorize a list of rules. But the real-life problems are not that easy. The rules will be in disagreement part of the time, and there will always be situations where a journalist must choose which of the conflicting rules to observe. Learning how to analyze those situations, gaining the skill to discover and act on your true values, is the real goal of the course.
One of the assignments I gave my students in ethics was to read a history of a media institution or a biography of a media figure and then identify and analyze the ethical decisions of that person or institution. It was a good way to see how the world works.
“I’m not here to make you a better person,” I would say. “I don’t know how to do that.
“But I can help you anticipate the kinds of decisions you will have to make in your career so that when the time comes to make a moral choice under deadline pressure, it will not catch you entirely by surprise.”
I guess I’ll tell Professor Cohen’s students the same thing.