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Wash my mouth out with soap for having criticized corporate spokesholes. According to a recent study by Lee Wilkins, a professor of radio-television journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism:

“Public relations people are pretty ethical, particularly the professional folks. They make reasoned decisions that involve a fair amount of universal principles. Despite the bum rap journalists give PR people, we weren’t the least bit surprised. Most of the PR people I worked with when I was a journalist behaved ethically.”

According to an article in the Nov./Dec. ’09 issue of St. Louis Journalism Review (SJR), Wilkins and her co-author Renita Coleman (of the University of Texas–Austin School of Journalism):

administered the “Defining Issues Test” (DIT) to 118 respondents from a random sample of professionals at the country’s 400 largest public relations firms. The test has been given to 40,000 to 50,000 people over 35 years, resulting in more than 400 published studies.

The public relations professionals ranked seventh-highest among all professionals who have taken the test. The PR people scored a 46 on the scale used to analyze the test. The highest moral development score ever achieved, 65, was for “seminarians/philosophers.” The other highly ethical professions have been medical students, 50; practicing physicians, 49; journalists, 48; dental students, 47; and nurses, 46. By comparison, the least-ethical groups ever studied were prison inmates, 23, and junior high school students, 20.

And I thought Monsanto’s spokesman, Mike Walls, ranked below a junior high school student. Maybe he does; he hasn’t taken the test, as far as I know. But if so, he’s an exception. According to SJR:

Several factors could account for the high moral development of public relations professionals, Wilkins said. These include education, experience and the fact that maintaining trust and credibility is a central goal of the job.

Wilkins does grant, though, that when public relations becomes ensnarled in the political realm, truth is often a casualty.

If the central conclusion of the study surprised me, two lesser conclusions did not:

 

–The fact that higher levels of ethical reasoning correlated with self-reported liberal bias is again consistent with other DIT studies, both empirically and philosophically. The DIT is a test of social ethics, hence the American version of political liberalism which finds a role for government intervntion on various social issues such as “whaat is good for society,” is one element of principled ethical thinking.

–These public relations professionals also scored as predicted when religion was the issue. Those who characterized themselves as more fundamentalist regardless of religious sect scored significantly lower in moral reasoning. This finding is consistent with many other DIT studies. Again, because high levels of ethical thinking demand critical analysis that allows individuals to question both rules and authority, such a finding is empirically consistent with the literature on the subject.

Fundamentalists, I suppose, would respond that God didn’t appoint those liberal DIT test makers as arbiters of morality. Evangelicals assume they know what true morality is because they heed God, the only moral arbiter. And He doesn’t much care for liberals.

Me, though, I’ll go with the standards of the DIT test writers–even if it means I have to soften my rhetoric against corporate spokesholes. Here’s a promise: I won’t use that term in future until I’ve cited a demonstrable lie. Is that ethical enough?