Ethics professor examines sociology in today's media organizations

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Patrick Plaisance joined the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications faculty this summer as its Don Davis Professor in Ethics. A former journalist who frequently references philosophers such as Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, Plaisance says the Bellisario College is “walking the walk” when it comes to media ethics education. He said he looks forward to being a resource for faculty and students.

In addition to his outreach, Plaisance’s research focuses on the intersection of media sociology and moral psychology in modern-day newsrooms. He joined academia after 15 years working for newspapers in New Jersey, south Florida and Virginia. Plaisance received his doctorate from Syracuse University and comes to Penn State after 15 years teaching at Colorado State University.

Q: Why the transition from journalist to researcher? How did that happen?

Plaisance: I had a great, fulfilling, challenging career in newspaper journalism. I loved it. I was one of those freaks in high school who just knew I wanted to go into journalism. I don’t know why. At my last journalism job, I was a senior writer for a mid-sized newspaper. It was the best job in the world. After I started teaching part time, I started to ask myself, “What’s the next step?” I didn’t know what media ethics was at that point, but I knew I was interested in big questions. At that time (the late 90s), college programs were integrating media ethics into their courses. It was an emerging, sexy topic. My luck was incredible and I realized that research was my love. I find journalism work and academic scholarship really analogous. They are both about gathering information, synthesizing it and presenting it to a particular audience.

Q: How do you define the role of the Don Davis chair?

Plaisance: Personally, it’s an exciting position because it provides support for the things that I am passionate about. It is a super valuable position that shows the college is not just paying lip service to ethics, but walking the walk to show that we are serious about the role of ethical deliberation and ethical values in everything we do. From Dean (Marie) Hardin on down, the chair position is here to be the showcase of ethical theory, ethical values and educational programming, as well as the support for media ethics research. I am not here to tell people they are doing things wrong. I am here to be a resource. For example, we have great practitioners who are great teachers in the classroom, but maybe talking about ethics theory and Aristotle and Kant is not their strong suit. I would love to come in and connect those topics to media practice for their students.

Q: Speaking of teaching, what do you see in today’s students when you’re in front of your media ethics classrooms?

Plaisance: I see excitement. I see thoughtfulness. I see curiosity. I see naiveté. I see obliviousness — the whole range. What is most important to me, and my philosophy with the classroom, is that ethics is all about talking things through. Ethics is all about increasing the quality of your deliberation, stepping up your game on deliberation and really understanding. What do we mean by minimizing harm? What do we mean by justice? What do they look like and do we know what we are talking about? Those questions go back through ages of thinkers.

For example, a real buzzword the past few years has been "transparency." Everyone wants transparency. It’s popular in media and business, but why is it valuable? Why does it matter? When is it OK not to be transparent? When are hidden cameras in journalism OK? Do we understand transparency enough to make good ethical cases in doing or not doing something? These are the types of questions I want students in my class to struggle with. If I am standing in a classroom saying you should do this or do that … that’s not ethics. Ethics is all about muddling your way through difficult situations. It’s hard and it’s messy.

Q: Do you get aggravated or disappointed when unethical things happen?

Plaisance: I am amused, more than anything, that we as a society must continually relearn lessons. Every year, in journalism, public relations and marketing you have cases that are clearly and often highly publicized ethical lapses, conflicts of interest or deceptive practices. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but it’s also exciting because we can show students the huge mistakes they don’t want to make. I can teach them what Kant says about duty. I can share lessons like: Consider these questions before the deadline defines the quality of your work. It is human nature and a part of the learning process.

Q: What research projects are you working on?

Plaisance: I am doing theoretical work on the moral ecology of media organizations. How do we understand organizations and systems, and the often obscured moral factors that help people in that system do well or act virtuously? What are the factors that help or hinder moral action? I’m interested in examining the morality-related components of the socialization process that goes into a newsroom that enforces standards.

More long-term, I would like to update a lot of what is known about media sociology. Back in the 70s and 80s, we had a lot of media sociology studies on how newsrooms work and what makes journalists tick, but much of it is dated. We don’t have a grasp on new emerging media organizations like Buzzfeed and digital-only, social media promotional firms. How do they tick? I am very interested in getting in there and interviewing folks in the organization holistically — not just the editors and chiefs — everybody in the system.

Buzzfeed is putting millions of dollars into their newsroom. It’s no longer just clickbait. They are breaking news. What is their culture like? What makes them tick? Did the systems all carry over from the legacy publications? I don’t think so. 

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Last Updated November 08, 2017