Sunday, November 04, 2007


The Gallup Organization's most recent annual survey of public opinion regarding honesty and ethics in the professions (Honesty / Ethics in Professions) suggests that 58 percent of the American public rank the honesty of college teachers as high or very high. Only 26 percent of the American public rank journalists equally high. As both a college teacher and journalist, I fare much better in the former role when it comes to the public's perception of my honesty and ethics.

Knowing this, if I am at a social gathering and want to be thought well of by new acquaintances, would it be wrong to introduce myself as a college teacher and leave out my other affiliation? Would others with dual professions be wrong to do the same?

Full disclosure: This dichotomy first perplexed me years ago when, shortly after I began working as a college professor, I first heard the Gallup poll results. I wrote about it then (THE RIGHT THING; Telling the Truth, or at Least Most of It). And, for the record, nurses fare best on the list at 84 percent and car dealers hit bottom at 7 percent.

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

When strangers at social gatherings ask what you do for a living, it's not a request for your entire resume. And "good morning, how are you?" is best answered with "fine" and not a litany of health complaints. "I teach (blank) at (blank)" is a true response and if the questioner shows interest, more information can be included without being a bore. Only courts want "the whole truth." There's no shame in writing a newspaper column and if it fits the conversation, could be mentioned. How the listener chooses to interpret it is up to him.

yawningdog said...

When in a social situation, I hated saying that I was a Real Estate Agent, but now I have no trouble saying that I babysit dogs.

Anonymous said...


There is a difference between being a journalist and being a reporter. You are a journalist and your column enlightens people. A report writes stories to sell newspapers. I would be proud to be a journalist and embarrassed to be a reporter.

Gary L. Sigrist, Jr.

Anonymous said...

I had read once that a person uses only a very small portion of their being at the workplace, consequently it is inappropriate to define yourself entirely by your job.

Incidentally, I read that in a comic book. Learn where you can.

If you want to define yourself solely by your job, I guess you could do so by citing the job which you prefer or which seems to constitute most accurately your true self.

And if you care that much about how strangers perceive you at a cocktail party, you probably ought to do some realignment about your own perspective.

Personally, I like to define myself as an unaffiliated Emersonian transcendentalist, abbreviated UFO.

It makes for more interesting conversation than if I described myself as a lawyer, which is just how I happen to make a buck.

Dave Marohl
Madion, WI

Anonymous said...

I would say that believing you would be judged more positively by only disclosing your work as a college professor out of -- for lack of a better term -- fear of being looked upon less favorably should you mention your work as a journalist would lend credence to the public's perception that journalists are less ethical. Essentially, it is a lie of omission -- something car dealers, at least used car dealers -- are viewed as famous for telling.

Anonymous said...

I agree you don't have a responsibility to offer all your life roles to a new acquaintance at a social gathering. But let's not be disingenuous here. Are you often published in your role as a journalist (or reporter.. as I'm not too clear on the differences in the two)? Would the people you meet casually later recognize your name, either by reading a piece with your byline, or by hearing someone mention your role as a writer for newspapers? Would they then have a lower opinion of you for hiding that part of your life?

And as a writer for newspapers, what can you do to help raise the level of ethics among members of your second profession? How can writers for newspapers leave their biases at the door?

And in your role as a college teacher, how can you help to keep the level of ethics high among members of your primary profession? Perhaps recognition that many students (and parents) struggle to pay ever-increasing tuition? Perhaps recognize that public perception is that teaching 3 classes per day isn't full-time work? Perhaps recognize that classes spent evaluating porn movies isn't a valid use of eduction dollars, as students are likely to evaluate such movies on their own?