By Dick Friedman
Fake News may have met its match in Tom Cooper. Since 1983 Cooper has been a professor in the Visual and Media Arts department at Emerson College. The author or co-author of seven books, Cooper is an expert on media ethics. In 2017, he was approached by the United Nations to be among an international panel devising educational programs on this topic and others. The result is Education for Justice (E4J), which now presents online “modules” for use in classrooms worldwide.
“The United Nations is seeking to find more people who can share their talents and, in this case, their ethical training with people around the world who often don’t have the resources or maybe the political ability or the awareness that ethics instruction even exists,” says Cooper. “The U.N. is reaching out not only at the university level but—and this is very heartening to me—at the high school and even at the elementary level as well. So as with ClassACT, there’s some outreach, some new ground and some support for people of integrity, wherever they are.”
Cooper explains that the courses have two audiences. “One is teachers themselves,” he says. “Now there is online a universal curriculum that can be customized. The second is, all those young people who have some kind of longing for a better world but don’t know how to go about achieving it. They can learn a plan of moral reasoning.”
The E4J courses deal with many aspects of the craft of journalism, among them accuracy, objectivity and transparency. In an era when media are in flux and under attack, ethics are often the first casualty, for many reasons. “One is speedup,” says Cooper, noting the way newsroom staffs have thinned even while reporters and editors are now responsible not only for the print stories but also for fast-breaking online items. “And one of the victims of speedup is ethical decision-making, People don’t take the time to verify sources and think things through.”
What are the program’s main precepts? “You have to open both your mind and your heart in ethical decision-making,” says Cooper. “A closed mind is usually prejudging. A closed heart may not be able to empathize with all of the innocent people in a situation. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of all parties. Don’t go in with an assumed verdict.”
In all his ethics instruction, Cooper looks for what he refers to as “green-light ethics.” These can be embodied in “moral exemplars…Mandela or Gandhi or Mother Theresa, from whom you can learn a positive approach to ethics. So by virtue of that, the book that I have coming out next is called Doing the Right Thing. It goes back in history to find 12 moral exemplars who had very difficult ethical decisions to make who nevertheless rose to the occasion and managed to make a decision that changed the world. And the most recent of those is Malala. She’s the final chapter and one of the green-light models I hold up to my students, because she’s the same age as they are. Our own attention in ClassACT to Malala comes for different reasons by virtue of Pinkie Bhutto, whom I barely knew but greatly respected. And here we are, finding her to be important to our work.”