Lexington, Virginia • January 30, 2009
"We're all opinionated, in a good way, and we all defend our arguments well," says Alisha Laventure, a senior journalism and communications major at Washington and Lee University, "so one of the biggest challenges for our teams in this year's ethics bowl will be reaching a consensus on the position we want to take on the subject."
Laventure is a member of Washington and Lee's team in the 10th annual Wachovia Ethics Bowl, which will be held at W&L on Feb. 8 and 9 and will consider "Ethics in Journalism." Fifteen leading independent colleges and universities, all members of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, will send four- or five-member teams to the event. As host institution, W&L is allowed two teams in the competition. The students are an interesting mix with philosophy, politics and journalism majors. None of the students has taken part in an ethics bowl before.
Paul Gregory, associate professor of philosophy and one of the organizers of the W&L team, explains that there are usually at least some philosophy majors on the team, but that this year they also fished for students in the department of journalism and mass communications. That's because W&L has the endowed Knight Program in Journalism Ethics.
"I took Professor [Ed] Wasserman's class on ethics in journalism and I thought it was phenomenal," says Laventure. "It was the first time I really understood why being a journalist can be so controversial, such as the potential to cause harm to sources and the effort to remain objective. There are so many different values that you try to uphold and sometimes they conflict."
The students began preparing for the Ethics Bowl in January, meeting every Sunday evening. James Mahon, associate professor of philosophy, specializes in ethics and is in charge of coaching the students. "I see my role as a facilitator," says Mahon, who concentrates on giving the students general principles to apply on truthfulness, respect for people, helping the weak and not exploiting the vulnerable. Then they explore principles more specific to journalism such as respecting those you write about, being truthful in writing stories, obligations about keeping confidences, freedom of the press and the role of journalism in a democracy.
And then they discuss practice cases, a lot of practice cases.
Melissa Caron '09, a business journalism major who has also taken the course on ethics in journalism, says she has really enjoyed the case studies. "It's refreshing to hear someone else's thoughts on an issue, and having philosophy students on the team has really helped make us multifaceted. I am really looking forward to talking with students from other schools as well, and seeing their different perspectives. Ethics is hard. There are no black or white answers. But that's what makes it fun."
"Eventually they will have covered all the angles that we can anticipate," says Mahon "so when the competition takes place they will have experience in applying the principles, preparing lines of argument, anticipating objections, and they'll be good on their feet."
The Ethics Bowl is not a typical pro or con debate. Each team will have five minutes to agree on a single position on a hypothetical case and prepare its response. The opposing team will then give its response. "It's entirely possible that both teams will arrive at roughly the same conclusions," says Mahon. "That's when the students can distinguish themselves by how well they make their argument and how clearly they respond to the ensuing questions from the judges."
The VFIC's first Ethics Bowl took place in 2000. W&L won in 2001 for Ethics and Technology and was co-champion in 2002 for Ethics and Civil Liberties and National Security. W&L won again in 2004 for Ethics and War, in 2005 for Ethics and Politics and was runner up in 2006 for Ethics and Sports. Mary Baldwin College won the 2008 Ethics Bowl.
The VFIC a nonprofit fund-raising partnership supporting the programs and students of 15 leading private colleges and universities in the commonwealth. Members of VFIC are Bridgewater College, Emory & Henry College, Hampden-Sydney College, Hollins University, Lynchburg College, Mary Baldwin College, Marymount University, Randolph College, Randolph-Macon College, Roanoke College, Shenandoah University, Sweet Briar College, University of Richmond, Virginia Wesleyan College and Washington & Lee University.
The Ethics Bowl will begin with an opening session on Sunday, Feb. 8 at 3:00 p.m. in W&L's Stackhouse Theater in Elrod Commons with the first round of debates scheduled for 3:30 p.m. On Monday, Feb. 9, rounds three and four will begin at 8:30 a.m. The final round will take place at 11:30 a.m. and the winning team will be announced at 12:45 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.