external image image_normalThomas (Tom) Bivins is the John L Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.[1] Born in Alabama to a military family, he moved around a great deal until attending the University of Alaska for two years. As the Vietnam War was taking place, he was drafted and became a broadcast specialist in the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He left the military voluntarily and went back to the University of Alaska. There, he completed his BA in English in 1974 and his MFA in Creative Writing in 1976.[2]

Bivins worked in radio, television, documentary film, advertising, corporate public relations, graphic design and was an editorial cartoonist before deciding to become a university professor and starting his PhD in Telecommunications in 1980 at the University of Oregon. He completed his doctorate in a record two years and taught public relations and television production at the University of Delaware from 1982 to 1984. During this time he eventually specialized in public relations. Bivins was happy to return to University of Oregon when a position opened. He became the John L Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics in 2001.[3]

Bivins is an author of books on media ethics, public relations writing, publication design, advertising, and newsletter publication.[4] Bivins’ primary research focuses on mass media ethics, with emphasis on public relations ethics. He is currently working on a book on persuasion and ethics.[5]

Ethics in public relations
Historically there have been three interpretations of public relations as practice: Controlling publics, responding to publics, and achieving mutually beneficial relationships among all publics.[6]

Bivins investigated the need for public relations to be an ethical practice and compared the ethical guidelines of the American Bar Association (ABA) to those of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).[7] Using this model, he identified two major roles for public relations professionals: Advocate – Its primary purpose is persuasion, and owes first allegiance to the client or employer; and counselor/advisor – Its primary purpose is for objective observation and analysis of the client’s or employer' situation and prescribes solutions, as well as being justified in taking interests of outside audiences into account when looking at an issue.[8] Because the advocate is considered a non-professional, they have less autonomy than the advisor, who is considered a professional, does.[9] Moral considerations are best left, according to Bivins, to those who are able to object from a position of autonomy.[10]

Teaching ethics
Teaching media ethics in a classroom can be challenging. The standard approach, according to Bivins, is to offer a number of case studies and work with students to cover all the bases. Without the foundation of ethical theory, discussion about case studies will result in lots of opinions and an insufficient number of reasoned decisions.[11]

Because the public relations industry is still developing a framework for studying ethics, there continues to be a need to study ethics within the context of public relations.[12] Most authors of introductory textbooks have attempted to introduce a discussion about ethics, however much of that discussion relies on the PRSA Code of Professional Standards as the only yardstick for measuring ethical action, and on case study discussions.[13]

In his Principles of Communication Ethics course, Bivins introduced students to classical and contemporary ethical and social theories. Immanuel Kant, John David Ross, Aristotle, John Locke and Henry David Thoreau are only some of the thinkers the students learned about.[14] After the foundation was established, he took his students through case studies using a series of questions to be answered and discussed.[15]

Worksheet for ethics instruction
1. What is the ethical issue/problem? (Define in one or two sentences.)
2. What facts have the most bearing on the ethical decision you must render in this case?
3. Are there any other external or internal factors to be considered? (Economic, political factors, etc.)
4. Who are the claimants and in what way are you obligated to each of them? (List all affected by your decision.)
5. What are the operant ideals?
For you
For the client/organization/ profession
For other affected parties
6. Do any of these ideals conflict? In what order would you honor them?
7. What are your options, and which would he favored by each affected party? (List at least 3.)
8. Which options could cause harm to any claimant?
9. Would honoring any of the ideals listed above invalidate any of your options?
10. Are there any rules or principles (legal, professional, organizational, or other) that automatically invalidate any of your options?
11. Which ethical theories support or reject which options?
Mill's "Harm Principle"
Ethical egoism
Utilitarianism or risk-benefit analysis
Ross's duties
Kant's "Categorical Imperative"
Aristotle's "Golden Mean"
Other duties (religious, etc.)
12. Determine a course of action based on your analysis.
13. Defend your decision in writing to your most adamant detractor.
  1. ^

    School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon – Tom Bivins. Retrieved October 22, 2010, from
  2. ^ Bivins, T. H. Tom Bivins, John L Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics. Retrieved October 24, 2010, from
  3. ^

    School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon – Tom Bivins. Retrieved October 22, 2010, from
  4. ^

    Bivins, T. H. Tom Bivins, John L Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics. Retrieved October 24, 2010, from
  5. ^ School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon – Tom Bivins. Retrieved October 22, 2010, from
  6. ^

    Bivins, T. H. (1989b). Ethical implications of the relationship of purpose to role and function in public relations. Journal of Business Ethics, 8(1), 65.
  7. ^

    Bivins, Thomas H. (1989b)
  8. ^ Edgett, R. (2002). Toward an ethical framework for advocacy in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14(1), 1.
  9. ^ Bivins, T. H. (1987). Applying ethical theory to public relations. Journal of Business Ethics, 6, 195.
  10. ^ Bivins, T.H. (1987)
  11. ^

    Bivins, T. H. (1993). A worksheet for ethics instruction and exercises in reason. Journalism Educator, 48(2), 4.
  12. ^

    Bivins, T. H. (1989a). Are public relations texts covering ethics adequately? Journal of Mass Media Ethics
    , 4(1), 39.
  13. ^ Bivins, T. H. (1989a)
  14. ^

    Bivins, T. H. (1993)
  15. ^ Bivins, T. H. (1993)
  16. ^

    Bivins, T. H. (1993)