Identifying Patterns of Ethical Sensitivity in TV News Viewers: An Assessment of Some Critical Viewing Skills.

Author:Lind, Rebecca Ann

Recently, some media ethics scholars have recommended that more attention be paid to the behaviors and responsibilities of TV audience members in their role as news consumers in a democratic society (Peters & Cmiel, 1991; Voakes, 1997). Most media ethics research to date has focused on message content or journalist/gatekeeper attitudes and decision-making (Christians, Fackler, & Rotzall, 1995; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1991). Aside from general surveys of audience attitudes on TV news, and media credibility studies (Gaziano, 1988), there has been relatively little empirical research on how audience members select, interpret, and sometimes critically evaluate ethically controversial news stories.

Understanding the role of the audience is essential to developing a more balanced view of media ethics, and has gained renewed urgency with increased attention in the 1990s to critical viewing skills education and to media literacy program assessment (Brown, 1991; Christ, 1996). Media literacy programs help viewers interpret the codes and conventions of TV discourse, become more sensitive to problematic messages, and demand more quality and diversity as they begin to use TV -- particularly news -- as active, responsible citizens (Christ, 1996). Critical news viewers can comprehend news stories, can evaluate reporting choices, and can infer consequences of stories for themselves and society (Brown, 1991).

This study uses a model of viewer response to ethically controversial news stories (Lind, 1993) to assess one critical viewing skill -- ethical sensitivity. Ethical sensitivity (ethsen) is defined as an ability that "involves an awareness that something one might do or is doing can affect the welfare of someone else (or may affect others' welfare by violating a general practice or commonly held social standard" (Bebeau, Rest & Yamoor, 1985, p. 226).

This study identifies patterns of ethsen among 104 adults who viewed and evaluated a local TV news story containing several potentially problematic elements: invasion of privacy, graphic content, and sensationalism. The focus is on viewer ability to notice relevant story characteristics, specific ethical issues in story reporting, consequences of those issues, and stakeholders.

The Research Model

This study uses Lind's (1993) research model, which is based on Rest's (1983) Four Component Model of Moral Behavior. Rest lists four processes involved in enacting moral behavior: Interpreting the situation as involving moral issues and being able to see the issues and their consequences (ethical sensitivity); making a moral judgment by determining what course of action would best fulfill a moral ideal; deciding what to do by selecting from among competing moral and non-moral values; and executing a plan of action.

The present study employs a research model of audience response to ethically controversial TV content (Lind, 1993) which parallels these processes. Prior research on our Component One, in which viewers select and view a news story and may or may not interpret it as having ethical issues in reporting, indicates that viewers differ in their ability to see ethical issues in TV news stories (Lind, 1997; Lind & Rarick, 1995). Component Two assesses viewer judgments of whether a news story should be aired, and research has found that most viewers can provide ethics-based reasons for airing (or not) ethically problematic stories (Lind, 1993; Lind & Rarick, 1992). In Component Three, viewers decide what to do based on their evaluation of a news story; prior work suggests viewers can report what should be done to improve TV news, and can also suggest what they individually could do (Lind, 1992; Lind, 1995). Research on Component Four, has found that viewers differ in their reported behaviors and justifications relating to channel changing, using viewer guides, or filing complaints to try to improve TV news (Lind, 1995; Lind, 1993). The current model is consistent with prior information-processing research on TV news viewing (Bryant & Rockwell, 1991), which has found viewers may selectively attend to and comprehend various aspects of a news story (Gunter, 1991), may use prior knowledge or abilities to understand and evaluate stories (Graber, 1988; Price & Zaller, 1993), and may or may not decide to take action about the news story (Lind, 1995; Montgomery, 1986).

Purpose And Research Questions

This study builds on prior work on Component One by identifying different patterns or profiles of viewer sensitivity to ethical issues in how a TV crime victim news story is reported. Previous research has identified several abilities underlying TV news viewers' ethsen: (1) ability to notice/comprehend relevant special characteristics of the story; (2) ability to see the possible ethical issues in how the story was reported (including the ability to differentiate between the ethics of the news professionals and those of the topic of or people involved in the news story); (3) ability to see possible consequences of the choices made by the journalists; (4) ability to identify stakeholders who would be affected by those consequences; and (5) ability to see how these factors interact to comprise a reasoned overall pattern of understanding (Lind, 1997; Lind & Rarick, 1995; 1998). The present study focuses on the first four of these abilities.

After showing 111 viewers a local TV news story and interviewing them about the story, interview transcripts were content analyzed using cognitive mapping techniques. The map data were profile analyzed via cluster analysis to reveal patterns of ethsen. The research questions were:

[RQ.sub.1]: How ethically sensitive are TV news viewers in terms of four variable abilities of comprehension, awareness of ethical issues in reporting, awareness of consequences, and awareness of stakeholders? [RQ.sub.2]: What patterns of ethical sensitivity, based on differential abilities on the four ethical sensitivity variables, can be identified in TV news viewers? This study is limited to one TV news story and its associated ethical issues, and uses a restricted sample of viewers so results cannot be generalized. However, coupled with prior studies of other TV news stories (Lind, 1997; Lind & Rarick, 1998) it provides added evidence of the usefulness of Component One of the research model, may assist in developing more effective media literacy assessment programs, and may help news gatekeepers become more aware of the range of critical abilities of their audiences.

General Ethical Sensitivity Research

Research on Component 1 of the Rest (1983) model began with Bebeau, Rest, and Yamoor's (1985) development of the Dental Ethical Sensitivity Test (DEST), which measures the degree to which dental students see ethical issues or problems in three dramatized dental office scenarios. Students' role-played responses to the scenarios are scored by expert judges according to awareness of special situational characteristics, operative ethical issues, and actions that would serve the welfare of others in the situation. Ethsen is reflected in students' ability to comprehend and select relevant information, and apply prior knowledge structures about ethical theories and professional norms.

Researchers in professional ethics have developed a variety of measures of ethsen, including rating the ethicality of certain practices in sales (Dabholkar & Kellaris, 1992); identifying ethical issues in medical or business settings (Hebert et al., 1990; Karcher, 1996); and role playing situations in counseling (Volker, 1983).

The present study was informed by the Bebeau et al. (1985) DEST research, but instead of using role playing and scoring by expert judges, this research developed an objective method of content analysis of peoples' responses in a structured interview given after exposure to the news story. This content analysis is rooted in a cognitive mapping procedure (Axelrod, 1976) that creates visual representations of key concepts (relevant story characteristics, ethical issues in reporting, consequences, and stakeholders) mentioned by the respondent. The concepts are mapped, with arrows depicting respondents' linkages among the concepts. Thus, rough chains of reasoning...

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