Pages Navigation Menu

Ethical guidelines suggest
best practices for your student media


Ethical guidelines

What is it/definition: Ethical guidelines in journalism help guide students to make good decisions and the think critically. Because there is no right or wrong, students become ethically fit by making decisions without review, by examining possible decisions and projecting effects of their decisions. Being ethically fit also means preparing ethical decision making that relies more on “green light” rather than ”red light” process and guidelines.


Important items of note

The “green light” principles encourages students to go after their story with approaches thought out and dangers identified. A “red light” approach would argue the risk outweighs the value and possible avoidance of the story. Products of this decision making are codes of ethics and long-term ethical guidelines and staff manual procedures presented in this section.


Guideline: Develop  ethical guidelines and staff procedures rooted in ethical thinking and acting that carry  out student media’s journalistic mission, policy and the journalistic, social and civic responsibilities they create.


Procedure: Develop a working code of ethics to help student staffers and media audiences better understand and practice ethical decision-making that contribute to the highest standards of journalism.


Quick Tip:

A strong and effective staff manual describes the procedures of the staff in accordance with best policies and specific ethical guidelines. Because a staff manual should be a collaborative creation between students and advisers, it also becomes a living document, changing as necessary to reflect the culture and practices of the staff.


Each year staff members should have the opportunity — and obligation — to update items to ensure the product serves their needs and those of their audiences.


A good staff manual creates an atmosphere consistent with board- and media-level policies’ sound legal principles and uses ethical guidelines to shape procedure. Such a roadmap can help students justify content to administrators or introduce new staffers to common newsroom policies.

Quick Tips index   A list of nearly 70 journalism processes showing the interaction between every day journalistic processes and actions and ethical principles.


JEA Curriculum

Introducing Students to Takedown Requests

When the requests come – and they will come – for your student staff to take down materials already published either in print or online, what criteria will they use to make the decision – and why? Students will learn what takedown demands are, examine criteria needed to craft responses and develop guidelines for when a request occurs.


Making Informed Takedown Decisions

This is the second of three lessons related to takedown requests, and students will practice making informed decisions regarding takedown requests using case studies. This lesson should be used only after the lesson “Introducing Students to Takedown Requests.”


Crafting the Argument Against Prior Review and Censorship

Building the case against prior review and restraint: talking points to help start a discussion between advisers and administrators

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

Another Way to Examine Ethics: Red Light, Green Light

Making TUFF Decisions

When Journalists Must Navigate Ethical Situations

Exploring the Issues with Anonymous Sources

With Freedom of the Press Comes Great Responsibility

The Importance of Dissenting Voices

When Journalists Err Ethically



Press Rights Minute: A  series of 60 second audio clips that introduce journalistic topics of importance, many of which deal with ethics.


SPRC blogs

Responsibility in scholastic media starts with accuracy, complete storyAdministrators may want student media that depicts the school in a positive light, that promotes good news and overlooks the negative.

Is this responsible journalism?

Advisers may want student media that reflects students’ technical proficiency such as mechanics, grammar and style. Little else matters.

Is this responsible journalism?


JEA Adviser Code of Ethics   Like students, advisers and teachers can have a journalism Code of Ethics.


The foundations of journalism: policies, ethics and staff manuals   This is the core, 4-part set of principles, legal statements, guidelines and procedures used to set the tone, the standards and path to success of your student media, Mouse across the black area below “spectrum expression.” Double click on the numbers for information, rationale and models. You will link to the sitemapof numerous files.


Model for ethical guidelines, process   This model shows how to outline the process and procedures implementing the action. It would then become an essential part of student media’s staff manual. An example would be Adviser responsibilities.


A class activity to learn both law and ethicsAsk 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.


Fake news is like a social disease; we need to treat more than its wounds   The spread of fake news is like a socially transmitted disease for which we now only treat the wounds, Kelly McBride, Vice President, The Poynter Institute, told those attending the Fake or Fact? at Kent State University. Simply defining fake news, McBride said, will not help the problem. Reaching students and young people through awareness and education will do more.


Fake News: Tools of Truth landing page   Given the importance of knowing how to deal with fake, deceptive and misleading information, we developed this set of lessons.


CJE test-takers need not fear law and ethics questions  Both the Certification and Scholastic Press Rights Committees agree — without a solid foundation in law and ethics, advisers can have the most well-written stories, appealing designs, innovation multimedia, but if a reporter plagiarizes or a photographer just downloads and publishes someone else’s copyrighted image, you’re going to have problems.


Crossing the line: student challenges public media ethicsWhen a television reporter crossed the line to get a story about a local high school’s security system that led to a school lockdown, a student journalist challenged the media’s ethics.


The rules of the journalistic road start with law and ethics   While students are infatuated and seemingly obsessed with online and social media, the essential fundamentals of journalism — including laws and ethics — need to, as “boring” as they may be, need to a dominant part of any education curriculum.


Help with crafting policies and ethical guidelines for student mediaOur interest in developing the project began when we found several instances when a school administrator in a potential censorship situation wanted to enforce — even punish — students for not following ethics statements because policy, ethics and staff manual points were all intermixed in a common document that the school administrator presumed he had the authority to enforce based on his interpretation.


Evaluating journalistic content: an ethics lesson  Using Vox-style coverage, students will compare and evaluate their content approaches with others and frame ways to improve their coverage approaches.


Online comments: Allow anyone to post, or monitor and approve first. An ethics lessonYour students are online and just published their first real controversial reporting. Comments, positive and negative, begin to pile up. How do students handle them?


How much information is enough for a story? An ethics lesson  What makes for good reporting? In print? Online?  Is the practice of “All you need to know about X” bad for journalism? In working on those questions, students will also work on formulating corrections for weak practices. They will also work toward forming defenses of stronger processes and policies. One way or another, students will decide the kind of policy they would develop to create an effective and credible news practice. This could involve guidelines or policy for the staff manual.


Taking your student media online:  Will students follow online news media?

An ethics lesson    What should you consider before taking your student media online? This lesson will examine areas students should explore prior to transitioning to online.


Is print dead? An ethics lesson   Can students read the Constitution in its original form (cursive)? What could this mean for paper consumption?


When law and ethics and good journalism combine  Editors of the Shakerite have class at 8 a.m., and they had a lot to discuss Sept. 11. Editor Shane McKeon and campus and city editor John Vodrey had the police report showing that what the principal, in his letter to parents, said was an assault had really been classified by the police as a rape.

Now what?

Not only did the staff have to decide how to cover the story but had to do so quickly. The deadline was now, not two weeks away. 

Part 3 of a three part series.   Part 2              Part 1


Ethics codes are invaluable in student journalism, but not as a guide for punishment   Members of the student media and their advisers study and often adopt Codes of Ethics developed by professional media societies. But a distressing trend is emerging in our schools:  Administrators who demand that student journalists or media advisers be punished for perceived breaches of these codes.

My question is this: How can an ethics code logically be used as a tool for punishment when it is not possible to enforce such a code?


Ethics by any other name: Why process is more important than verbiage

Ethics is not as much a moving target as today’s media pundits might have us believe. Quite simply, ethics is a conscious effort, above all other motives, to do the right thing for our readers, subjects and the public’s right to know.  


Ethics workshops offers videos, lesson plans   When Kent State University and The Poynter Institute team up for their annual ethics workshop, they don’t forget high school journalism teachers and students. Keynoter — and the subject of one set of plans — was Jose Antonio Vargas, the opening speaker at the National High School Journalism convention in Los Angeles in the spring. Archived videos of his very personal and passionate talk about being an undocumented immigrant plus videos of all the other panels of the day are now available online.


Develop, follow code of ethics   No matter which media platform you use, ethics will play a daily role in your decision making. Rushworth Kidder in “How Good People Make Tough Choices” says ethics is a “right versus right” process.


‘Whad’ya know?’ New teachers should answer, ‘Law and ethics’   As Wisconsin Public Radio’s Michael Feldman asks each week, “Whad’ya  know?” Sadly, even some secondary school journalism teachers with proper credentials can answer, like Feldman’s audience, “Not much!”

At least that appears to be true when it comes to law and ethics.

And some teachers don’t know much because no one required them to learn much to get their jobs


Ethics in the eye of the storm  When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States early last week, citizens turned to Twitter for a constant stream of information. The hashtag #Sandy provided hundreds of live perspectives each minute, including photos of the impending storm and subsequent devastation.

For those covering the story live, the storm spawned an entirely new lexicon of descriptors (“Frankenstorm” among the most widely-used) and created an ethical dilemma all-too-common in today’s instant media environment: How to sort the fact from the fiction?


Common Core has room for law and ethics   Like so many things, it’s good news and bad news. The Common Core State Standardsactually may help us show how journalism has skillseveryone should know, but in the process could we be losing support to teach the very framework necessary to use our voices in democracy?

In other words, where does teaching law and ethics fit with the new standards?

Nowhere that’s obvious, that’s for sure, but maybe we can find niches that aren’t so apparent.


Visual guidelines join online, yearbook ethics   Because student media designers, photographers and illustrators also face ongoing ethical decisions, we are releasing a third set of ethical guidelines to aid your students as they play critical roles in the decision making process for your media.


Teaching ethics: Making it personal   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.


The importance of context: A lesson on ethics and editing  In 2012, NBC officials bore the brunt of an outraged public when the Today Show played a poorly edited 9-1-1 tape from the Trayvon Martin shooting investigation.  The tape, some argued, unfairly portrayed Zimmerman as racist.  This lesson explores the ethics of proper editing as well as the journalistic mandate that context never be sacrificed for brevity.


OP/Ed writing with an ethics twist: An in-class lesson  This lesson was inspired by the recent Twitterfest regarding Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan’s tweet about the governor during a trip to the capital. The lesson will take 30+ minutes, and students will need their own paper and pencil. Here are some links for background information on the incident, which will come in handy toward the end of the lesson.


Yearbook ethics guidelines   The publication yearbooks create will serve as a record/history book, memory book, business venture, classroom laboratory and public relations tool for the district. Because the functions of the publication are so far reaching, and the publication itself is an historical document, the ethical questions facing the yearbook staff are challenging and unique.


Online ethics guidelines for student media   As student media staffs explore digital media to gather information, tell stories, promote their work and handle comments, they will encounter ethical questions both familiar and unique.


5 activities to consider before next fall   Looking for end-of-year activities to rebuild or revisit how your student media operate, the range and effectiveness of content, no matter the platform?

Consider the following, either now at the end of the year or during summer staff retreats, to help students strengthen your program’s foundation.


Pursuit of accurate information clearly part of scholastic journalism’smission   When a student journalist pursues a story and, as H.L. Hall would say, “digs” for information, most journalism educators would be pleased.

And so too, you think, would administrators.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s becoming more common for school czars to be rankled by a student’s dogged pursuit of information.


Celebration and grief: Parkland students embody importance of student      voices du ring Scholastic Journalism Week    Normally, Scholastic Journalism Week is about celebrating the hard work of student journalists around the country. JEA spotlights great student coverage, publications staffs wear journalism t-shirts and sweatshirts and show off their mastery of the First Amendment. We make videos to share the inner workings of student newsrooms and get our communities engaged and excited about that work.

But this Scholastic Journalism Week, as our nation reeled from yet another horrific school shooting, the last thing on the minds of student journalists at Stoneman Douglas High School was celebration.


Second day concerns   It’s not the first day of school that has me worried. It’s the second.

St. Louis Park’s first day involves some get-to-know-you activity, but we start content on the second. And this is why I’m worried.With the summer of fake news and recent news of the events of Charlottesville, Virginia, I want my students to understand why what they do is so important.

So, on the second day, we will revisit our mission statement.

No   license, no car   Why is it important to start with the fundamental press law and ethics? Equate it to driver’s education – you don’t get the keys to the car and go on the road until you know the rules of the road. While Tinker and Hazelwood are not the foundation of press law, when it comes to scholastic journalism, they are an essential part of the foundation. All journalists should know the basics of media ethics and law before they go on an interview, take a picture or start recording video.


They need the freedom to make mistakes, too    Scholastic press freedom is a big responsibility, and true freedom comes when young journalists aren’t just free to do great journalism but also are free to make journalistic mistakes and learn from them. As teachers and advisers, we work hard to teach our student journalists the principles, skills and ethics they need while fostering their abilities to problem solve and communicate.


JEA is proud to sign statement in support of freedom of the press   As organizations committed to the First Amendment right of freedom of speech and the press, we are alarmed by the efforts of the President and his administration to demonize and marginalize the media and to undermine their ability to inform the public about official actions and policies.


Enemy of the American people   Never before in American history, or the history of American journalism, has the media and the First Amendment come under such ridicule and hatred by a sitting president. Instead of being dubbed “watchdogs” who protect the public’s right to know, mainstream journalists have been labeled “the enemy of the American People.”


Our tasks for the future: Building a Tool Kit of trust, integrity   Trust. Trust in sources, information, journalists. Trust in audiences. Trust in education. Ways to help student journalistsand their audience fight fake news and bad journalism begin in middle and high school, and especially in journalism programs.


Just this once: FSW 2   The American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee released “The Speaker … A Film About Freedom” in 1977. The film, in its original form, comes with a discussion guide. Today, the websitefor it has the discussion guide and links to coverage about the film and other pertinent articles. Controversial in 1977, the film today hits at many current issues surrounding free speech. Note the date, 1977. Clothing and style reflect that timeframe. It might take students a while to get beyond that and into the First Amendment issues.


 Publishing satire   Satire can make for entertaining writing, however two major points should be considered when discussing the inclusion of satire: 1: Will readers get “it?” and 2: Even if readers do get “it,” are you walking a fine line with the type of content expected of your publication and that which isn’t necessarily journalistic?


Satire: Easy to confuse when used without context   Listening with a skeptical ear: A lesson on how to check out source accuracy and credibility.   Aw, satire. So fun and entertaining when done well. How many times have I been taken aback for a second by an Onion headline? More than I care to share! Satire can be very powerful when done with purpose, but satire for the sake of satire often falls flat


Listening with a skeptical ear: A lesson on how to check out source accuracy and credibility   Student journalists must able to separate valid from questionable information and know how to determine if sources and their messages are credible.


Limits to taking a stance in front page design?   Was it OK for student newspaper to Rainbow Filter its Twitter profile pic? Student journalists have always been taught standards of objectivity. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage led at least one publication, The Daily Evergreen of University of Washington, to make a statement in its nameplate.


Should news media neglect events or people?   During the last presidential election, the Huffington Post announced it would only report Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination for president on the entertainment pages.Historically, many would argue this decision runs counter to the journalistic concept of objectivity. Others argue journalism’s changing roles and thinking of what is news preclude “events” simply designed for attention, without substance. Although it later changed its mind, the paper brought up a new issue: the right to be unknown and media’s right to ignore.


User-generated content   Journalists should treat user-generated content the same as any content they create in terms of accuracy, verification, credibility, reliability and usability.


Letters to the editor and online comments   Student media should accept letters to the editor or online comments from outside the staff to solidify their status as a designated public forum where students make all final decisions of content. This allows their audience to use their voices as well.


Linking to sources   To increase a publications’ transparency, students should clearly show links to sources used in reporting in a consistent process. Providing links to sources creates a sense of credibility and thoroughness in the reporting process.


Social media use   Journalists should hold to the same ethical standards and guidelines for their use of social media as they do for print or broadcast. The goal is consistent, responsible creation and distribution of student-created journalism.


Use of profanity   Profanity in student media should only be used after careful consideration. While profanity is not illegal, journalists should ask whether the use of profanity is absolutely essential to the content and context of the story. Will readers understand the story if the profanity is not used? Some people will not read or listen past any profanity. Students should consider other ways to indicate whether a profanity is intended without actually spelling it out (e.g. using asterisks or other symbols).


The role of student media  Journalists often are considered mirrors on society. As such, journalism should reflect the community in which it is produced. In order to also maintain their watchdog function, journalists must also be able to act as candles that illuminate and challenge a community’s values and preconceptions.


Balance and objectivity   Journalists should prioritize balance and objectivity as a staff philosophy and content standard. Staff members can help achieve this by increasing staff diversity and seeking multiple perspectives.


Staff conduct   Students participating in scholastic media should hold themselves to high standards to earn and preserve trust and respect from the audiences they serve. Lapses in judgment affect the staff as well as the credibility of the media they produce. Students should realize that discipline problems or poor choices extend beyond individual consequences.


Academic dishonesty   Students should be honest in all stages of their work. Dishonesty is a serious offense and should not be tolerated. Dishonesty compromises the integrity and credibility of the student publication. The editorial board and/or adviser should address any instance of academic misconduct immediately.


News judgment and news values   Student media should consistently and purposefully brainstorm what story ideas might be relevant and valuable to their audience. Students should not ignore those story ideas that might be sensitive or cause offense but instead should consider how to cover these issues in meaningful, sensitive ways.


Treatment of minors   All sources deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, but there are special legal and ethical situations that apply to minors. In general, minors are anyone under the state’s legal age of adulthood, usually 18.



SPLC resources:


Other resources:


Related Content: Foundation/ Staff Guidelines | Mission|  Policy | Staff Manual | Prior Review | Restraint | Censorship


Leave a Comment