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Policy sets standards and staff manuals
ethically carry them out

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sprclogoby John Bowen
It’s 3 p.m. Friday, and the final deadline is in four hours.

At issue is a package covering a controversial subject of growing importance in the community.

The staff is divided. Some want to publish the story because it is controversial, important and will create needed community discussion. Others say there has to be more balance and perspective, with all credible sides represented. Production skids to a halt as the debate heats up.

Larger questions exist:
• What are the publication’s guidelines for handling controversial topics?
• What are the dangers of negative community and administration reaction, even intervention?
• Should anonymous sources be used? How to trust them?

Most helpful to this staff would be a strong board-level policy supporting student expression. Next would be a process-oriented and ethics-based staff manual.

Having editorial guidelines and staff manual, though, does not mean they are right or effective.

In the last year, we have seen:
• Instances where having too much information in a policy can lead to unforeseen consequences, including censorship;
• Instances where wrong wording created inaccurate interpretation and potential intervention from outside the staff;
• Instances where items presented with policy can lead to procedures interpreted as policy.

We now see a need for strong board-level media policies. We see a need for separately sectioned, but linked ethics statements and staff manuals.

That led us to new models for media policies and staff manuals and a project we call Foundations of Journalism Package.

Those instances led to a change in thinking about editorial policies and staff manuals.

We continue to see a need for strong board-level media policies. But we also see a need for separately sectioned, but linked ethics statements and staff manuals.

That leads us to new models for media policies and staff manuals and a project we call Foundations of Journalism Package.

The project has three components: policy, ethical guidelines and staff manuals.

Editorial policies – the principles

Editorial policies, says Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, are like double-edged swords.

“Carefully drafted,” Goodman said, “policies can be used to cut the bonds of censorship. If not carefully worded, however, they can ultimately create more trauma for advisers and students than having no policy at all.”

“If your school has one giving student editors content control,” Goodman said, “that policy can effectively exclude your student media from the limitations of Hazelwood.”

Ethical process       

Ethical principles, rooted in legal principles, set a publication’s ethical compass and create what Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, called “ethical fitness.”

Right-versus-wrong choices, Kidder said, were matters of law. Ethics involve right-versus-right choices.

“Right versus right, then,” he wrote, “is at the heart of our toughest choices. Right-versus-right teach us depth in shaping our deepest values.”

The ethics portion of the package should be designed to guide decision-making for student media. Guidelines should be presented as “should” statements, not “will” or “must.” An ethical code is not legally enforceable because it represents guidelines, not rules.

Staff manuals

A strong and effective staff manual implements policy principles and ethical guidelines. It is the procedure that stems from these and describes day-to-day actions.

Staff manuals are like working encyclopedias: They provide information as wide as handling sources or as narrow as how to interview children.

Staff manuals change as students or advisers change. Because change only affects the staff, manual procedures should not appear with board policy. Each year, staff members have the opportunity – and obligation – to revisit the staff manual to see it serves their needs and those of their audiences.

A good staff manual creates a road map students can easily apply.

Look for our Foundations of Journalism Package in the upcoming days for our policy-ethics-staff manuals project.

Look for our Foundations of Journalism Package in the upcoming days for our policy-ethics-staff manuals project.

Responsible journalism, truly the cornerstone of democracy, starts at the scholastic media level. We hope our updated policy, ethics and staff manual changes enhance that process.

Over the past year, the SPRC has seen situations where unclear policies, sometimes mixed with staff manual language and ethical guidelines, have created misunderstanding between advisers, students and administrators. We have designed a Journalism Foundations Package to attempt to eliminate those misunderstandings.

Look for its posting using this graphic in the
next several days.

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