Lexington, Virginia • February 10, 2009
Washington and Lee University won its fifth Ethics Bowl championship Monday when its four-member team of students successfully argued that a journalist is ethically justified to use deception as a last resort in getting a story that is in the public interest.
The annual Ethics Bowl competition, now in its 10th year, is sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and Wachovia. It was held at W&L, which became the first host school to win the championship.
The two-day event focused on ethics and journalism and featured teams representing the 15 leading private colleges and universities in Virginia. The teams were divided into two divisions and had four matches, with the two division winners competing in the finals.
Shenandoah University won all four of its matches to gain the finals from its division, while Washington and Lee and Randolph College tied with three wins and a loss in their division. W&L earned the final round by beating Randolph College in the head-to-head matchup.
The two teams debated a case in which a journalist had posed as a mortician in order to report a story that military deaths, which were being called training accidents, were actually due to friendly fire. They were asked to determine whether or not the editor acted in a responsible manner by publishing the story.
In their analyses, the two teams came to diametrically opposed decisions, making for a spirited debate.
The Shenandoah team contended that publishing the story was unethical, since the journalist had gained the information by deception. In contrast, the W&L team argued that because the reporter had exhausted all efforts to gain the information through traditional reporting, he was acting ethically. Moreover, the W&L team said that by publishing the story, the editor was fulfilling the newspaper’s obligation to serve as a watchdog for the public.
W&L’s winning team was composed of four seniors: Melissa Caron (journalism), Alexandra Scaggs (journalism), Alexander Weber (politics and physics), and Alisha Laventure (journalism and Romance Languages).
“The teams both made strong cases, and you could see the way they had improved throughout the rounds,” said Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent for the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS and one of the three judges for the final round. “What was particularly good about the final round is that the teams not only took opposing views on the case, but they also never wavered from those views during any part of their presentation.”
James Mahon, associate professor of philosophy at W&L, who served as coach for the W&L team along with his philosophy department colleague, Paul Gregory, said the team members were “remarkably consistent” throughout the competition and were, in the final round, defending a principle they had cited in an earlier case.
“Once I saw the case, I knew that they would take the position that they did, and that they would successfully defend that position,” said Mahon. “In a different case in which the issue of deception had been introduced, they argued the same principle—that is, that deception can be used only as a last resort. In that earlier case, they had argued that the reporter had not acted ethically by being deceptive, because he had not tried to gain the information by other means first.”
According to Mahon, the W&L team made its best arguments in the final round of competition, having improved throughout the event.
In addition, Mahon noted, four other W&L students composed a second group that competed as an exhibition team throughout the tournament. The members of that team were sophomore Beth Valentine, senior Robin Zheng, sophomore Granvil George and senior Gayle Hubbard, all philosophy majors.
“Both of these teams were excellent, and either was capable of winning in the competition,” said Mahon.
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 and 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 is a nonprofit, fund-raising partnership supporting the programs and students of 15 leading private colleges and universities in the commonwealth: 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 and Lee University.
Roger Mudd, a 1950 graduate of W&L and former journalist for CBS and The History Channel, and Ken Garren, president of Lynchburg College, were co-chairs of the event.
Mudd was honored at a dinner for his service to the VFIC. He has served as a VFIC trustee since 1997 and has co-chaired the VFIC Ethics Bowl task force since 1998.