Pages Navigation Menu

A class activity to learn
both law AND ethics


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)





Leave a Comment