Q&A – Schieffer College dean Kris Bunton

We sat down with Bunton to listen to her thoughts on ethics in the rapidly evolving field of communication.

Kris Bunton, communication ethics, Schieffer College, University of St. Thomas

Q&A – Schieffer College dean Kris Bunton

We sat down with Bunton to listen to her thoughts on ethics in the rapidly evolving field of communication.

In April, TCU appointed Kristie “Kris” Bunton dean of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication. She joined TCU in July, having been associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where she founded the Communication and Journalism Department and its national award-winning online student news organization.


What attracted you to TCU?

I came to TCU because it’s a mission-driven private university preparing graduates to become morally responsible leaders who will serve the common good and because it insists that faculty be both teachers and scholars.

After six months, what’s your assessment of the state of the college?

Our college is poised for excellence. We are passionate about working with students. We want to excel. And we are ready for new directions.

You’ve used the words “integrity, civility and tenacity” to describe core values of the college. Why those three words? How do they encompass what the college stands for?

Those values derive from our namesake. For years, Bob Schieffer tenaciously asked hard questions of world leaders and key newsmakers. When he retired from “Face the Nation” last year, we heard politicians and newsmakers praise his civil manner in the divisive world of Washington and network journalism. Unlike Dan Rather and Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer was never yanked from the anchor’s chair for ethical mistakes. He produced fair and open-minded reporting on topics important to citizens. Those three ethical values – tenacity, civility and integrity – should be the hallmark of every student and professor in our college.​

What’s ahead for the college?

Our college must become indispensable inside TCU and nationally prominent outside it. To do that, we will ensure all our academic programs are equally rigorous and current, and we need to cultivate a vibrant presence outside the walls of our building, so we’ll be doing more community-based learning and outreach. We also must work to diversify the student and faculty populations in our college. And in light of TCU’s new medical school, we’ll attempt to build expertise in health-oriented communication.

The journalism field continues to evolve rapidly, and some j-schools are seeing fluctuations in enrollment. Where do you see the future of journalism education?

Actually, journalism education isn’t the only discipline in our college that faces rapid change. Think about how differently interpersonal and organizational communication, advertising, film, public relations and video production are all practiced today. For example, families celebrate holidays using Skype, while viewers watch sports highlights and TV series on mobile phones. That means our whole college has to be nimble as practices change. We have to constantly sprint with our students to stay abreast of change, but we also have to remember we’re training students to run a marathon. I don’t just want us to prepare students for their first jobs; I want us to help students learn how to learn and think critically for the rest of their lives. So teaching them to be good critical thinkers who are curious and persistent is as important as teaching them the latest video editing software.

What kind of encouragement have you received from Bob Schieffer?

I’m honored to call Bob my friend. His visits are special times for our students, with whom he always poses patiently for photos. He and I have had great fun visiting classes together. We think we’re a pretty good team on ethics and journalism.

Ethics is your teaching and research area. What drew you to that subject?

In my childhood, the radio’s morning agriculture and weather reports, the daily newspaper and my grandmother’s weekly column were sacred rituals. I fell in love with journalism through these channels, so my career choice was a no-brainer. But I quickly became more intrigued by the ethical questions raised by journalism than by being a journalist myself, not least because I felt unprepared to navigate ethical waters. I pursued graduate degrees so I could help fledgling journalists do better than I had in balancing ethical obligations for telling the truth, protecting privacy, debunking stereotypes and preventing harm. I’m glad to continue that work each spring by teaching a media ethics seminar.

You are co-author of a book on the ethics of reality television. That genre is often not associated with principled thinking, and there’s not an abundance of scholarship on it. What might surprise people about your research?

Some actions are unequivocally unethical. Plagiarism by journalists, for instance, is always stealing, and therefore not interesting to study. The media ethics questions I study are usually more complex than they first appear. It’s easy to dismiss reality TV as unethical. But I’ve found both ethical harms and goods in almost every form of mediated communication, including reality TV. It’s worth studying popular media entertainment because it constantly reflects, and sometimes challenges, our culture’s values and norms. Reality TV, for instance, should get some credit for presenting a wider array of diverse people than other entertainment forms have.

How would you like to see students dig into ethical topics in the Schieffer College?

The faculty own the curriculum, so they’ll ultimately decide what’s appropriate. However, I’ve encouraged them to consider a capstone ethics course that would join students from across our college for a unifying intellectual experience at the end of the bachelor’s degree. Training in ethical analysis reminds students of the fundamental purpose of communication: telling the human story in truthful, responsible ways. Who doesn’t want to teach and study that? Sign me up!