Doing Ethics: The Communication and Journalism Capstone

“This is it,” I thought. The Communication and Journalism (COJO) Department’s equivalent to the MLB’s World Series and the culmination of our major, the Ethics Bowl 2015 was about to commence.

Amidst a palpable energy in the foyer of the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center the morning of Saturday, May 9, soon-to-be graduating COJO majors, myself included, mulled about, some sipping coffee and some rocking side to side in the hopes of harnessing those game-day jitters.

The bowl becomes a staple

Dr. Wendy Wyatt, current COJO Department chair who arrived at St. Thomas in 2003, began the Ethics Bowl as a classroom activity inspired by the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl for which she served as a judge for many years. The bowl – “ a moral reasoning competition in which teams analyze and reach an ethically justifiable position about real cases in communication ethics,” as the rules state – piqued fellow ethics professor Dr. Kris Bunton’s interest, and she encouraged Wyatt to apply for a grant to fund a larger, inter-class ethics bowl. Upon the success of and enthusiasm for the first inter-class Ethics Bowl in spring 2005, the department incorporated it as a staple of the COJO capstone course, Communication Ethics.

In recent years, this right of passage for all COJO majors has gained a bit of a mythic quality among students. I recall hearing whispers about the event in my introductory communication course, and as I participated in both the Advertising Federation club and the online campus newspaper TommieMedia, I witnessed seniors feverishly studying for and fretting over the bowl. What precisely it was, other than a gnarly source of nerves, I wasn’t quite sure.

Getting ready to bowl

Well, this spring, as a graduating COJO major enrolled in Wyatt’s capstone course, I finally found out.

Communication ethics professors Wyatt and Bunton as well as Dianne Blake and Patrick File, two adjunct professors, had spent the year collecting real-life cases that raised a swath of communication ethics issues. They eventually chose the 10 most “compelling cases (that) represent the toughest dilemmas,” Wyatt said.

Released to students collectively mid-semester, this year’s cases challenged us with some harrowing questions, including: Should the media, such as The New York Times, publish a photo capturing the gruesome murder of two girls in a remote village in India? If so, when and on what platforms? Are reality TV shows featuring child contestants, such as MasterChef Junior and Child Genius, ethical? And, how can the media cover Bruce Jenner’s transition with integrity and respect?

We were divided into teams of three and charged with analyzing the nuances and implications of each case and, eventually, formulating a five-minute oral argument outlining and providing evidence for our ethical position. As we began prepping for the Bowl, our vague fears grew into anticipatory, “let’s-do-this” nerves. Katie Tomsche, Katie Peterson and I, collectively named “Ladyboss.” (period intentional), staked out study coves in the nooks of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library and Anderson Student Center where we combed through and debated each detail of the 10 cases.

‘Let’s bring home the win’

As all of the seniors traveled deeper and deeper into the Ethics Bowl vortex and the adrenaline began pumping, we encountered another layer of the bowl experience.

Over the years, the Ethics Bowl has fostered some serious competition among the classes. For the past six bowls, the winning team has risen from Bunton’s class. “She’s like the Yankees. She’s good. Her teams are stacked,” said Shane Kitzman ’10, a former student of Wyatt, an Ethics Bowl runner-up and one of the judges of the 2015 Bowl.

Bunton does, indeed, appreciate the competitive spirit that accompanies the academic fun of the bowl: “I tend to say two things (to my students on the first day of class): Number one, you’re actually going to find out (the Ethics Bowl is) fun as an intellectual challenge. And number two, we are going to win.”

Wyatt, on the other hand, has been more reserved in her approach to the class competition. “I really did try to say, ‘It isn’t about the competition; it doesn’t matter who wins,’ … which is all true,” she assured me. “But then there’s always this little bit like, ‘OK, let’s bring home the win.’”

Needless to say that this go-round, the teams in Wyatt’s class, myself included, were working for a win.

Going bowling

After hours spent conversing about pertinent stakeholders, moral duties and potential consequences as well as several additional hours sifting through our heaps of analysis to create cohesive, tight and articulate oral arguments, Tomsche, Peterson and I walked into O’Shaughnessy Educational Center Saturday morning with a cocktail of confidence and nerves. We were ready.

Throughout the morning, 28 teams of three rotated simultaneously through four rounds in which each went head-to-head against another. During a round, teams took turns to present their five-minute oral arguments for a given case and field two five-minute question sessions, one from their opposing team and the other from a judging panel of two communication professionals, many of whom were COJO and Ethics Bowl alumni. After the second team presented and defended their argument for their respective case, both teams left the room and the judges chose a winner.

After the morning rounds, students and judges chowed on pizza, allowing our shoulders to fall and our stress to subside. Most of us, at this point, were finished. But two cases had yet to be argued, as they were saved for the top two teams who would compete in the final round on the OEC auditorium stage.

It was a tight, competitive bowl, as six teams had gone 4-0 during the morning, making the judges decision of which two teams would compete in the final a bit thorny. Ultimately a decision was reached, and two Wyatt teams – “Kant Beat Us” and “#TheConsultants” – dueled it out on stage. The students of “Kant Beat Us,” Lauren Smith, Rebecca Mariscal and Missy Smith, were named the 2015 Ethics Bowl champs, and after six years, Wyatt’s class finally got a win. Pretty sweet, indeed.

Why do ethics?

The Ethics Bowl is, as Wyatt, Bunton and several other contributors and participants can attest, a lot of work. So, why do we do it?

“For our department, one of the primary pieces of our mission is to help foster in students the ability to do really solid ethical reasoning and to be aware of the kinds of ethical issues they’ll face as communicators in their professional and personal lives” Wyatt said.

The Ethics Bowl cases don’t identify the ethical issues or dilemmas. That’s work we, as students, must do. What’s more, the structure of the Bowl requires that we communicate our arguments clearly and persuasively to an audience that responds to and counters. It really is, as Kitzman explained, “a test that talks back, a test that changes every minute.”

So too, the bowl emphasizes collaboration and community, placing alumni and students together in a classroom, discussing issues that really matter. “It extends that learning process. So in that way Ethics Bowl has become a little bit of continuing education for our alumni,” Bunton said. “I love that.”

The Ethics Bowl is, ultimately, a “human endeavor” as Wyatt described it. The scoring system isn’t perfect. Sure, winning is fun and the competition adds some spark to the event, but it’s much more than the results of a one-day competition. “It’s about sitting with your teammates and grappling with these issues and ... hearing ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with on your own,” explained Wyatt, whose words seem even more relevant in my post-bowl reflections.

At its heart, the Ethics Bowl is a shared experience during which students, faculty and alumni engage with and do ethics, choosing to opt into the moral life. We learn to discern those instances when values we hold close to our hearts clash and conflict. We practice processing and responding to those dilemmas. And, ultimately, we become more astutely and intimately cognizant of our roles and responsibilities to others as we move through and participate in this world.