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Conference Paper

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Conference Proceedings of the Second National Communication Ethics Conference


The basic course is important to the welfare of the speech communication discipline. According to Seiler and McGukin (1989), the basic course is the mainstay of the discipline. Gibson, Hanna, and Leichty (1990) surveyed 423 institutions of higher education nationwide and found that at 92% of the schools’ enrollment in the basic course was increasing or holding steady (this is up from the figure of 88% reported in 1985). In a survey of college graduates, Pearson, Nelson, and Sorenson (1981) found that 93% believed that the basic speech course should be required for all students. Because of its popularity and the perceived need for it, the basic course is important to the speech communication discipline. This importance mandates that we work to keep it a high-quality offering.

Public speaking educators have a responsibility to teach both the skills needed to present a good speech and also guidelines for moral use of those skills. Just as we would not teach a child how to shoot a gun without explaining when and why it should be used, we should not teach students a powerful skill like public speaking and not provide appropriate guidelines. Greenberg (1986) argued that if ethics are not taught in the basic public speaking course, the learning is incomplete.

Unfortunately, there exists evidence that ethics are not fully explored in basic speech textbooks (e.g., Arnett, 1988; Hess and Pearson, in press). Overlooking ethical considerations in speech classes could have severe consequences. Todd-Mancillas (1987) voiced this concern over omission of ethics in communication classes: “One of my greatest concerns is that we may well be helping an entire generation of students to presume the unimportance of asking fundamentally important questions about the rightness or wrongness of given communication strategies” (p. 12). And as Johnson (1970) noted, “it may be that the most ‘immoral’ person is not he [or she] who makes ‘wrong’ decisions, but he [or she] who consistently neglects to consider the moral implications of decisions he [or she] does make” (p. 60).

This study was conducted to assess the current ethical guidance in basic public speaking textbooks. It focused on textbooks since they are the printed material students use during the course. Public speaking textbooks were examined since the public speaking focus is the most common orientation toward the basic course (Gibson, Hanna, & Leichty, 1990). By carefully examining what we currently teach in regards to speech ethics and deciding what we want to teach, we can evaluate our current status and clearly identify both strengths and areas in need of improvement.

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Communication Ethics Commission of the Speech Communication Association

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