Louis “Lou” Hodges, who explored the murky depths of ethics in journalism and religion as a longtime professor at Washington and Lee University, died Monday. He was 83.
Before his retirement in 2003, Hodges was the Knight Foundation Professor of Journalism Ethics. He also taught religion during his 43 years at W&L.
Hodges was remembered for his insightful study of applied ethics, which included two-day seminars that examined real-life examples of the moral dilemmas that can arise from the practices of journalism, business, law and medicine.
He also co-authored a book: “The Christian and His Decisions: An Introduction to Christian Ethics.”
“With his thoughtful and visionary incorporation of ethics into all aspects of our liberal arts curriculum, Lou embodied principles and values that we hold dear at W&L,” university President Kenneth Ruscio wrote in a statement from the school. “He made a lasting impact that we will uphold and build upon for years to come.”
Years ago, Hodges had an informal relationship with WDBJ (Channel 7), where he would serve as a sounding board when ethical questions came up in the pursuit of news, recalled Jim Shaver, a former vice president and news manager at the Roanoke television station.
“I think there was a little theology behind all of it,” Shaver said of the advice that Hodges imparted.
But Hodges, an ordained Methodist minister, never came across as preachy.
“He was not pompous in any sense of the word,” Shaver said. “He was just as levelheaded and straightforward of a guy as you would ever want to meet.”
As one of the first to teach a class and later develop a program on journalism ethics, Hodges was a member of many professional organizations and became sought after for lectures at schools across the United States and as far away as India.
“He was a real trailblazer in journalism ethics, both at W&L and across the country,” said Pam Luecke, head of the school’s journalism department.
In 1983, Hodges took issue with The Roanoke Times & World-News over its detailed coverage of an accident in Carroll County in which four young men drowned after the car they were riding in plunged into the New River. The account quoted a survivor describing how he saw the outreached hand of one of the victims submerged in the back seat, but was unable to save him as the car sank.
After learning that detail by reading the newspaper, the victim’s mother wrote in a letter to the editor about how the image would haunt her for the rest of her life. The newspaper published an editorial defending its story — at which point Hodges weighed in with an opinion piece that questioned whether such painful details should have been made public.
“I do not question the paper’s constitutional right to tell it,” Hodges wrote. “But the editor had no moral right to tell it, since it inflicted unnecessary additional pain on a person who was already the victim of a tragedy.”
A native of rural Mississippi who grew up during the Great Depression, Hodges was known for his colorful yarns and a way of speaking that was foreign to the highbrow world of academia. “He was a professional country boy,” said Brian Richardson, a retired W&L journalism professor who worked with Hodges.
After retiring in 2003, Hodges remained active in the Lexington community, serving as a guest pastor in local churches and pursing his hobbies of hunting, gunsmithing and beekeeping. His death in a nursing home came from complications from a fall he suffered six years ago.
Over the course of Hodges’ career, Richardson said he has seen a change in how news organizations confront ethical questions. “They do it much differently, and they do it much better,” Richardson said.
“I think Lou had a lot to do with that.”
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