James W. Carey
The case study method of inquiry, and the Socratic dialogue that goes along with it, have a long and distinguished history. We generally identify them today with training in the law. Indeed, the subject matter of the law comes predigested in the form of cases, and thus the method fits as naturally into the classroom as into the courtroom. The case study method has also been used in schools of business, where the cases must be created (sometimes hypothetically; but more often by virtue of the pioneering efforts of the Harvard Business School) through the distillation of actual commercial and industrial experiences into a realistic case format.
Yet the case study method has not been widely used in journalism schools, with the exception of teaching press or communications law and, to a lesser extent, in classes in advertising or media management. One area that lends itself naturally to the case study method and Socratic dialogue is the teaching of ethics, a subject often subsumed under the heading of "critical issues" or "contemporary problems" in journalism. The case study method can also be used to teach news judgment, editing, and a number of other subjects. However, journalism issues and problems, unlike legal ones, do not deliver themselves neatly packaged as teachable cases. They must be created from scratch. This can be done hypothetically; a method pioneered by the Fred Friendly seminars on the Public Broadcasting System. Yet such cases frequently suffer from a studied lack of reality, or else age quickly--or both. Instructors can, of course, create their own cases--real or hypothetical--but faculty are quick to point out that they lack the time, resources, and, sometimes, access to original materials that are necessary to make such cases definitive. Valuable ethics books exist that pose cases or, less satisfactorily; stage arguments on opposing sides of controversies. However, the cases presented are brief and contain only modest detail. Staged arguments suffer from the problems common to, well, staged arguments: they are a little too neat, and no obvious means are available for reconciling the conflicting views.
Because I have long felt the need for a book of journalism case studies, I was delighted when the Project for Excellence in Journalism decided to undertake the preparation of one. Yet these cases, as carefully developed as they are, still do not teach themselves. Unlike cases in law, cases in journalism do not have a clear procedure for adjudication; unlike business cases, they do not have an obvious and quantifiable goal in view, namely the maximization of profit. Thus, while valuable instructional notes are included in a separate volume of teaching notes, teachers of the cases that follow must add two things to the mix from their own experience: knowledge and reading. First, they must add a standard of judgment against which to test proposed solutions to the cases, or else classroom discussion will collapse into mere opinion or an unprincipled relativism. Second, these cases demand that careful thought be given to the procedures for reasoning them through, from the initial facts to the principles governing their resolution.
What standard of judgment is appropriate in journalism cases? Clifford Christians, in Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning, has outlined the most important and traditionally invoked of such standards: the Golden Mean and the Golden Rule, otherwise known as the Categorical Imperative--for example, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. However, I suggest that the standard of judgment to be used in attacking these cases is the ethics of democracy. Without a free press there can be no political democracy. It is equally true that without the institutions of democratic life there can be no journalism. No journalism, no democracy. And equally: no democracy, no journalism. Journalism and democracy share a common fate, for journalism is identical with or simply another name for democracy. When democracy falters, journalism falters, and when journalism goes awry, democracy goes awry.
This is a controversial principle, for it seems to commit journalists to the defense of something-to compromise their valued independence or nonpartisanship. The principle claims that journalists can be independent or objective about everything but democracy; for to do so is to abandon the craft. About democratic institutions, about the way of life in a democracy; journalists are not permitted to be indifferent, nonpartisan, or objective. It is their one compulsory passion, for it forms the ground condition of their practice. Without the institutions or spirit of democracy; journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers. The passion for democracy is the one necessary bond journalists must have with the public.
We do not need much evidence to support the principle. There were people in the former Soviet Union who called themselves journalists, who worked for things called newspapers, broadcast stations, and magazines. Such people were not journalists but propagandists; their organizations did not constitute a press but the apparatus of a state and a party. Soviet journalism was an oxymoron. Without the institutions of democracy-including freedom of expression protected by law and tradition-it was a sham. However, forces other than the Totalitarian State can destroy journalism; the Entertainment State can also destroy it. When journalists measure their success or their ethics by the size of their readership or their audience, by the profits of their companies or by their incomes, status, and visibility, they have caved in to the temptation of worshipping false gods. They have sold their heritage for pottage, as completely as those who cynically convinced themselves they were serving democracy by acting as the mouthpiece of a putatively revolutionary party.
Democracy requires more than a free press. It also requires a high level of trust among citizens, a healthy judiciary, an effective legislature, a strong; presidency, and a balance of powers among these institutions. The ethics of journalism is a matter of judging the consequences of stories, actions, and investigations for the vitality of these institutions and the continued capacity of people to act as citizens.
Doing good journalism, like writing good prose, is always a matter of judgment. What is right may change from situation to situation. Still-as anyone who has done journalism or who has read or watched closely knows- there are good choices and bad choices.
The key for journalists and for democratic societies is the process those who produce the news go through in making their decisions. Once a journalist begins to develop a disciplined, thoughtful way of making choices, he or she will build on it and refer to it over and over again, much the way a musician continues to practice scales or an athlete continues to perform calisthenics. Like most valuable talents, the ability to make intelligent choices is refined through continued practice. Without an inbred process of critical decision-making, journalists in the minute-by-minute world of news are doomed to lean on less reliable pillars: peer pressure, fashion, convention, the fear of being scooped, the toss of a coin, or, most damagingly, the pressure of competition.
This book and the concept of learning by case study is about how to make reasoned decisions when reason is tied to the needs of a democratic polity. In preparing it, journalists and teachers joined together. We thought about what decision-making areas we could cover in ten or so cases. The cases might be taught as a single course or used individually as elements in several different courses. On our list we included such areas as the discipline of verification, competitive pressure and commercial influence, political imperatives, the timing of stories, the use of sources, and the impact of new technology. We sought out distinguished journalists to serve as authors, for we believed that the creation of cases that would ring true depended on deep and systematic reporting to retell as fully as possible the thinking of the journalists in the case. Though any of these cases may raise various issues, each of them was designed to focus on one or two key ideas. Once written, each case was "lab taught" at journalism schools around the country before being edited again.
Some of these cases raise questions concerning such practices as the mutual manipulation of press and government that leaves citizens as increasingly powerless and cynical spectators. Other cases lend themselves to discussion of some very general issues: What is the role of the press in a democracy? Is it to be a watchdog? Where does such a concept come from? Who enunciated it? How well does the press play the role of watchdog? Are there other roles, even more ennobling, that the press can play?
There is no mystery behind the case study method. The point of it is to get students to think through problems in a public forum, to make and defend judgments against the criticisms brought to bear by the instructor and other students. Each case is subject to multiple interpretations, and each raises more than one issue and advances more than one principle. The creativity emerges in laying out the questions that take the student from the facts to the principle and to the debate that ensues about the validity of the principle and the degree to which it fits the facts in question. Others who teach by the case study method in different fields offer other advice. Professor Robert Bruner, distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, claims the following advantages for the case study method:
The skills enumerated are precisely those desperately needed in modern journalism: critical thinking rather than habitual reaction; trust and respect rather than cynicism and contempt; tough-mindedness rather than sentimentality, timidity, and closed-mindedness; and most of all the realization that journalism is a craft depending on lifelong cultivation of intelligence and discipline.
Beyond that, the case study method is a pleasure to use in the classroom- a pleasure for both teacher and student. Enjoy!
The late James W. Carey (academic advisor) was CBS professor of International Journalism at Columbia University. From 1979 to 1992 Carey was dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Prior to that, he held the George H. Gallup Chair at the University of Iowa. He held the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Science, Technology and Human Values, and was one of 20 elected fellows of the International Communications Association. In addition to over 100 essays, monographs and reviews, Carey published two books: Media, Myth and Narratives: Television and the Press and Communication as Culture.