Several media scholars have examined work in moral development theory, which addresses how people develop in their thinking about ethical matters. In particular, scholars have drawn on Kohlberg’s (1981) work, which places priority on justice as a universal ethical principle. Some of them have contrasted it with the work of feminist scholar Carol Gilligan (1982), who emphasizes care and the interaction of people in relationships.

  • • Barger (2003) used Kohlberg’s moral development theory to evaluate moral language in newspaper columns and letters to the editor. She found that most arguments did not rise to Kohlberg’s postconventional level, in w'hich fairness and justice become central considerations.
  • • Wilkins and Coleman (2005) used the Defining Issues Test, which was influenced by Kohlberg’s framework, to evaluate how journalists think through ethical decisions. In relation to other professions previously studied, journalists rated relatively high in moral reasoning level via scores on the test. Plaisance’s (2015) study that included 12 moral exemplars in journalism (along with 12 in public relations) found their scores were higher than the averages for the journalists previously studied. He pointed out that this meant they showed a consistent ability to draw on postconventional reasoning. Wilkins and Coleman (2005), though, reported a disturbing finding from a study of students using a test of moral judgment: White journalism majors were significantly more likely to use lower levels of ethical reasoning when evaluating photos that showed Black rather than White people. Spurred by this finding, the authors called for a renewed emphasis on social justice in the teaching of journalism ethics. Black journalism majors (Coleman, 2011a) showed no significant differences in levels of reasoning regardless of the race of the subjects, and the same was true for Black, Asian-American, and Hispanic professional journalists (Coleman, 201 lb).
  • • Lind (1996) evaluated the presence of justice and care orientations in viewers’ evaluation of ethically controversial television news stories. She found that considerations of justice, emphasizing issues such as objectivity, were considerably more prevalent than considerations of care, emphasizing matters such as benefits and harms—but that both were commonly used. The orientation varied depending on story topic.
  • • Steiner and Okrusch (2006) criticized a justice-based model for journalism built on rights—what they see as the prevailing ethical foundation for journalism in the United States—as too “thin” (p. 103) and explored the contribution of care to the strengthening of journalism ethics, urging journalists to “care toward justice” (p. 116). They suggested that public journalism has already melded the two and argued that “incorporation of some revised ethic of care would help revitalize a stronger and more philosophically and politically defensible concept of justice and (human) rights” (p. 119).


The ethical issue of justice has also been stated or implied in other work on journalism. Several scholars (Christians, 2007; Meyers, 2003, 2011; Patterson, Wilkins, & Painter, 2019; Plaisance, 2014) have discussed W.D. Ross’s (2002) prima facie duties, which include justice, as a framework for journalistic decision-making. Ward (2010, 2011) has argued for a global journalism ethic in which the priority is promoting the individual, social, political, and ethical goods of people across societies—making justice a central consideration. Brislin (1992) applied just war theory developed historically in Christian theology to create a model of just journalism in which issues including intention, degree of harm, and alternatives are considered in evaluating the ethics of actions that, like war, would be extreme—in a journalistic context, actions such as deception or invasion of privacy. Pippert (1989), in a book focused on truth as an ethical value, argued that reporters who seek truth will also uncover issues of justice. He said this aspect of stories will emerge in coverage of a variety of topics from civil rights to sports and business if reporters look for it. Ettema and Glasser (1998), while not explicitly focusing on justice as an ethical value, argued strongly that investigative reporters are making moral judgments throughout their work as they cover stories of wrongdoing in society.


As the previous discussion of concepts and literature makes clear, scholars have thought about justice and applied this principle to journalism from a variety of perspectives. Some of this work has raised questions to guide coverage or suggested topics for attention. This section will explore another framework (Craig, 1997, 1999) that uses justice and related considerations as a tool to critique and improve news coverage—particularly coverage in which justice is an important dimension of the story itself. This framework and the questions it implies will be presented, followed by discussion of the relevance of these questions to coverage of medicine and science, business, and other topics.

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