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Teaching ethics: making it personal

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*Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of rotating columns by commission members to appear Wednesdays. Megan Fromm will present best practices for teaching ethics; Jeff Kocur will discuss common problems student leaders and advisers face and how to overcome them; Candace Perkins Bowen will examine journalistic ties to Common Core standards; Mark Goodman will write about current events and impact on law as it affects scholastic media and Marina Hendricks will address ethical issues and online journalism.

by Megan Fromm

I remember vividly the day my high school newspaper adviser called an emergency editor meeting.  Editors filed into the office, lunch bags in hand, and waited not-so patiently to hear what the fuss was all about.

Once settled, our adviser informed us that a student group at the high school was waging some rather serious accusations against another student group in the form of a letter to the editor.

The details elude me, but his point was two-fold: How would we “cover” this story (if at all)? And, was it appropriate to run the letter to the editor as-is, or should we offer the accused group a chance to respond in the same issue?

For 30 minutes, he sat back while the editors discussed a course of action. Ultimately, we decided to hold the letter until the accusations could be investigated and both sides could be presented. Ding! The lunch bell rang, and our adviser stood up.

“Good,” he said. “You guys made a good decision, and if something like this ever happens, I know how you’ll handle it.”

We’d been duped.  The “emergency meeting” was nothing more than an ethical fire drill.  And luckily, as a staff, we’d made it out of the building in an orderly, responsible fashion.

One of the most common questions on the JEA listserv and to SPRC members, is how to teach journalism ethics.  The truth is, there are many ways to do it right and only two ways to really screw it up: not to teach ethics at all, or to decide your ethical perspectives on-the-fly.  Teaching ethics is a process, and it must happen throughout the school year.

Here are some ideas for teaching ethics throughout the year:

  • Role-play your worst-case scenario. Afraid the principal might get arrested? Worried about how you might cover school violence? Walk through your “adviser’s worst-case scenario” with your editorial staff and discuss what the coverage might look like, challenges to getting the story right and strategies for keeping it relevant.
  • Make “ethics checks” part of the story/ post-production process. You check for correctly spelled names, and getting dates right is a priority.  But what happens once the paper is put to bed?  Even after a story has gone to print, journalists should reflect on the process and compare their approach with the staff code of ethics.  Source feedback is also a great way to make sure staff members are acting professionally—a short survey can tell you whether a source felt comfortable during an interview or whether her quotes were accurately used.
  • Fall back on staff policy.  We can’t emphasize it enough: Adopt a staff publications manual that includes a code of ethics and policy for covering difficult topics (crime, death, violence) BEFORE you’re in a difficult situation. Not sure where to start? Check out NSPA’s Wheel for sample policies.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Ethical case studies should be a staple in every newsroom.  Spend time once a week discussing how your staff might respond to an event or scenario, and don’t forget to include scenarios unique to visual journalism (Photoshopping, etc).  The Newseum has a set of case studies based off real events that are great for any classroom.

As your students learn to navigate the ethical decisions that come with being a journalist, emphasize the process.  Sometimes, there are many justifiable responses to any given situation. What’s more important is that your staff members demonstrate an ethical approach that is consistent and based on sound policy.

Have a favorite ethics lesson to share? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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