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The decision to report: Because you can, does that mean you should?

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Part of  JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission’s Constitution Day lessons and activity package. The whole package can be seen here: http://jeasprc.org/constitution-day-2013-teaching-materials-and-lessons/

by Jeff Kocur
Objective: For students to explore ethical situations using the TUFF formula as described in the lesson. This unit focuses possible discussion points for inclusion in editorial policies.

Primary Common Core: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1

Secondary Common Core: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1bCCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1d

Introduction: Start the class with the following hypothetical situation: “A student on staff has overheard his father (a police officer in a neighboring town) talking about pulling over your high school principal for suspicion of drunk driving. The staff member heard his father report that the principal was barely over the legal limit. And then would ask the following questions:

  1. How do you verify the accuracy of this? Is the father a reliable source? Where else could you get the info you needed?
  2. Does the community deserve to know if one of their leaders engages in this behavior?
  3. How much does the school board know about this?
  4. Does the fact that the infraction was just over the legal limit influence your decision?
  5. Whose interest should prevail in this instance?
  6. How do you negotiate what is fair here?

In groups:
Students would be presented one of the following scenarios in groups, and be asked to determine whether or not they would run the story based on the community’s right to know versus the consequences for the subject based on the TUFF formula (see below), specifically answering the question is this fair?

#1. A student was cited for alcohol consumption at a football game. You have a photo of him being driven away by his mother. In the photo, his mom is obviously irritated, and he is holding up his citation.

#2. A teacher’s assistant for one of the physical education teachers walked into the wrestling room to get something for another teacher, and found one of the married physical education teachers having sex with another married woman.

#3. The quarterback of your team has not played the last three games. You have found out and verified through several reliable sources, including some of his friends, that he was benched for stealing from teammates athletic lockers.

#4 One of your friends has tried to connect with administrators in your building after school, and has discovered each of them leave within the first 15 minutes after the bell rings.

#5 Two 15 year-old boys in your school were cited during winter break for blowing up mailboxes. You are shocked to find out they are being charged with a felony, which will have implications for them beyond high school. You want to run a story about the charges and interview the boys, while withholding their names. One of the mothers calls and threatens to withdraw her students from the District if anything runs at all in the paper. How do you decide what is fair, while balancing your right to print.

#6 The coach of the football team (a teacher in your building) has just named his son (a junior) as the quarterback over last year’s back up, who is this year a senior. Several parents have voiced frustration and several students have quit the team as a result. How do you enter into the discussion?

Assessment: Each student would come to class the next day with a statement asserting their journalistic freedom to run a story, but also stating up to three qualifiers which would cause them to withhold publishing a story or parts of a story. This should ultimately be something that gets decided and inserted in the editorial policy.

Resources:
Merrill, John Calhoun. Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. 174-80. Print. This section discusses the TUFF formula, and the battle between truth or consequences that reporters must navigate.

Also referenced here: http://www.uiowa.edu/~c019168/168s6online14.html

Teacher talking points for each scenario:

#1. A student was cited for alcohol consumption at a football game, and you have a photo of him being driven away by his mother. In the photo, his mom is obviously irritated, and he is holding up his citation.

TP: A lot of this is going to depend on context. If you are running a story about a continuing alcohol problem at your school, this would be more pertinent, and perhaps you could work to make sure no one in the photo is identifiable. If you are simply reporting about a single student who was cited, you would have to heavily consider the impact on this student and the student’s family and your role in publicizing a mistake he or she made.

#2. A teacher assistant for one of the physical education teachers walked into the wrestling room to get something for another teacher, and he found one of the married physical education teachers having sex with another married woman.

TP: What real value does this have to your school community? This would be good gossip, but you would expose yourself to a lot of risk by running this story.

#3. The quarterback of your team has not played the last three games. You have found out and verified through several reliable sources, including some of his friends, that he was benched for stealing from other teammates athletic lockers.

TP: The quarterback is a higher profile person in your community, and therefore, running this story may have significant news value. However, simply relying on his friends as sources would be insufficient. The school is not going to give you any information because of data privacy laws. Can you get a police report? Can you get the quarterback to talk to you? Can you trust him to be a reliable source?

#4 One of your friends has been trying to connect with administrators in your building after school, and has discovered that each of them leave within the first 15 minutes after the bell rings.

TP: Your principal is a high profile person in your community and is accountable to them, so the story has some news value, but this would require your staff to do some research, such as checking in the office everyday for an extended period of time (one month?), requesting the admins calendar for the last month, personally trying to schedule meetings with him or her, checking the admin contract to find out what the language says about hours. You may have to present your data to the superintendent and ask for her comment. Your staff will have to consider how they approach the principal for a comment on the story.

#5 Two 15 year-old boys in your school were cited during winter break for blowing up mailboxes. You are shocked to find out they are being charged with a felony, which will have implications for them beyond high school. You want to run a story about the charges and interview the boys, while withholding their names. One of the mother calls and threatens to withdraw her students from the District if anything runs at all in the paper. How do you decide what is fair, while balancing your right to print.

TP: This is a difficult one as you have been presented with an ultimatum. Running a story on the charges may be socially responsible in that it could prevent other students from making the same mistake. However it may be nearly impossible to run the story without other students piecing together the names of the students. Will you have access to a police report? Since this happened outside of the school day and off school grounds, does that diminish its newsworthiness for your student body?

#6 The coach of the football team (a teacher in your building) has just named his son (a junior) as the quarterback over last year’s back up, who is this year a senior. Several parents have voiced frustration and several students have quit the team as a result. How do you enter into the discussion?

TP: This could be done more responsibly as a part of a larger story on coaches who have children on their teams, but the implicit meaning is that the student is undeserving of his position. How can you prove this?  Who will your sources be? How can you avoid sour grapes reporting?

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