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A class activity to learn
both law AND ethics

Posted by on Nov 2, 2015 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

sprclogoby Candace Bowen
“The first lesson she asked me to teach is lawnethics,” the excited student teacher said, adding more slowly, “But now I’m not exactly sure what that is….”

Sadly, she wasn’t alone in a class of education majors who would soon be licensed to teach journalism in a large Midwestern state. In fact, ask some teachers already in the classroom, ask their principals, and, while they would know it’s not all one word, they might be hard pressed to explain the difference between LAW and ETHICS.

But not knowing the difference makes it difficult to teach these two concepts effectively. They are separate fields, though they do overlap in theory and practice, and plenty of journalistic situations require us to assess both legal and ethical components.

So let’s look at them carefully. The simplistic definition says, “Law tells us what we COULD do, and ethics helps us decide what we SHOULD do.” Other definitions point out laws are passed by governing bodies of a town, state or country and breaking a law has specified consequences. In other words, you can be punished for not following the rules.

Ethics, on the other hand, is more about an individual or team process to arrive at the best way to act for the situation. According to the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, “Ethical questions arise most typically in cases where there is genuine puzzlement about what should be done in various types of situations. There is usually some practical importance or urgency to such questions. Is it ethical for journalists to reveal their sources to the courts, despite their promises of confidentiality? Is it ethical of journalists to invade the privacy of politicians to investigate allegations of unethical conduct?”

It’s impossible to spell out all the ethical options because situations constantly change, and what works in one situation may be wrong in another that’s somewhat similar. Journalists need guidelines to help them make ethical decisions, but hard and fast rules won’t always work.

That’s why so many organizations have ethical guidelines that are flexible. Read the SPJ Code of Ethics: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent. It says nothing about firing a journalist for using an unnamed source or setting up an undercover sting, but the bullet points under each of these main tenets give the media some guidelines.

The Principals Guide to Scholastic Journalism also helps explain the difference between law and ethics and includes an extensive list of links to valuable resources.

Experienced journalism educators usually find it more effective to teach legal issues first, then ethical, because that’s the approach journalists take in the real world. What COULD we do? Would we be libeling someone if we printed that? If it’s illegal, go no further. But legal situations may have ethical implications. SHOULD we use the victim’s name? What about the accused? Both names? Neither name?

JEA’s law and ethics curriculum follows that same organization (for JEA members only). Even the three-week module handles the First Amendment, court cases, unprotected speech (libel, copyright, invasion of privacy), reporter’s privilege, FERPA, FOIA, before “Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” and additional ethics approaches.


Copy shot provided by the artist

Hypotheticals are a one good way to get students to look at a situation’s legal and ethical issues, like this one about a piece of art and how the student newspaper could and should report it:

As an art class project, the teacher told her students to create a scratchboard drawing, either from imagination or using a photo as its basis. Tammy used a picture in a school board-approved book, The Family of Man, that depicted a woman balancing a basket on her head. The art teacher thought her finished product was wonderful and wanted to put it in a display case at the end of the art hallway, but she wasn’t sure she could — the woman was nude from the waist up. When the teacher asked the principal’s opinion, he said, no, don’t hang it in the hall. Tammy was furious and so were some of the newspaper staff when they heard the story. Would you cover this incident? How? As an editorial? A news story? Whom would you interview? Would you consider running a copy shot of the photo? What would the principal likely say? First, think about the legal issues — is it obscene? Is it a copyright violation? Any other possible laws you might break? If nothing is legally wrong, what about the ethics? What is your reason for running it? (Download the picture here)





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Who has your back?

Posted by on Oct 26, 2014 in Blog, Ethical Issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Practicing ethics can help make sense of coverage

by Stan Zoller
Prior restraint. Censorship.

They are things all media advisers dread.

Imagine what it would be like if your principal started telling you what your kids could and could not cover in their media.

Many advisers don’t even think about it because their  principal is “really nice” and understands journalism.

Now suppose, just suppose,  a gubernatorial candidate went to your principal and objected to something scheduled to be covered.


That’s probably what Dave McKinney, Springfield Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times probably thought.


In one of the most bizarre tales of the Illinois gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Bruce Rauner allegedly went to the publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times to block a story McKinney, along with WMAQ reporter Carol Marin and producer Don Moseley were working on because Rauner and his staff took exception to it.

Briefly, while the Sun-Times brass stood behind McKinney, when all was said and done, he had to take some time off, was told his byline would not be on upcoming stories and was offered other positions at the paper which, he said in his resignation letter, he considered demotions. In the midst of all this, the Sun-Times endorsed Rauner for governor.

Oct. 23, McKinney resigned and said, among other things in his resignation letter, that “I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.” His resignation ether can be read here.

So what does a professional reporter with 20 years of experience have to do with scholastic journalism?

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Does your mother love you: Get three sources;
Is the Verification Handbook useful: Check it out

Posted by on Feb 2, 2014 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 1 comment

As scholastic media and their advisers move more to online media and use more social media as a reporting tool, verification remains a critical issue.

Enter the Verification Handbook, a product of Poynter’s Craig Silverman and American Copy Editors Society (ACES) Merrill Perlman.

Subtitled “A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage” it comes across as a thorough, easy to use and authoritative tool for our students to use as they grow into digital and social media reporting.

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Students Tackle Coverage of Rape Culture

Posted by on Jan 28, 2014 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Fourth in a series of articles about student journalism that makes a difference

Jane Blystone, MJE
Covering a taboo topic like “rape culture” can be very daunting to any journalist. However the scholastic journalists at Palo Alto High School did not let the culture of silence deter them from telling covering this story that their peers needed to read. Students saw 3000+ copies of “Verde” distributed and 25,000 hits to their sister publication’s website,, move into the public arena.

Their adviser, Paul Kandell, shared the intensity of the work done by the students to cover this story in a thorough and sensitive manner. “With 3,000 print copies, 25,000+ online hits (as of May 1) and countless retellings through print, radio, TV and online interviews by Verde editors, the “You can’t tell me I wasn’t raped” package has broadly impacted awareness and discussion of a taboo subject: “rape culture” and its presence in high school life, particularly when combined with alcohol abuse. The package feels like a public inoculation: It’s hard to imagine any teen reading the story and being as cavalier about drinking or sex – or slut-shaming girls who have been raped. The more who read it the better.”

Students took the initiative to work with the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, the Student Press Law Center,  the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a Poynter Institute course work on “Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Was the work intense work? Yes. Was the issue hard to write? Yes. Was the work worth it? Yes. Has it made a difference? Absolutely, and for all time.

Kandell is right and we share these documents with you to show you that well-trained and uncensored scholastic journalists can tackle hard-hitting stories with great depth, broad coverage and a sensitivity that is humbling.

1. Lisie Sabbag’s article “‘You can’t tell me I wasn’t raped’”

2. Will Queen’s piece “Breaking the Silence,”

3. Staff Editorial editorial.

4. Interviews of male students From a different perspective: a discussion with Paly guys,”

5. Savannah Cordova’s column Taking it Seriously: Ever made a rape joke? This column is for you

6. Staff infographic The state of rape today

7. Complete issue of Verde PDF of Verde Magazine on issuu

8. Letter sent to faculty



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When law and ethics and good journalism combine

Posted by on Nov 11, 2013 in Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching, Uncategorized | 0 comments


An experienced Ohio newspaper adviser teams up with a former student — who now has a law degree — to teach the staff about using public records. An alleged rape on campus requires student editors to stand their ground accessing information about it. Once they have details about the incident, they have to decide just what they should – or maybe should not – use. It’s a tale that has all the makings of excellent reporting.

 The incident
An unexpected faculty meeting 10th period in mid-September. Police in the halls earlier in the day. All the students at Shaker Heights High School were talking, but the journalism students were more than curious.

“When I came back (to the journalism room) after the meeting, I told them I was forbidden to talk about it,” adviser Natalie Sekicky said. “Yes, there was an incident. Yes, something happened. But we have to be sensitive.”

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