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


By Megan Fromm
This weekend, I had the pleasure of joining some of the greatest thinkers and doers in scholastic journalism at Kent State University to revise and update Quill & Scroll’s Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism.

For two intense days, we sat roundtable and edited—line by line, word by word— the entire publication.

During the course of our work session, we often discussed the merits of certain ethical tenets, namely, “fair,” “balanced” and “objective.” Despite our collective and individual commitments to ethical and legal scholastic journalism, we could not reach a consensus about which tenets were more authentic, let alone how to interpret each of them.

Through a bit of lively, respectful debate, I learned that even those teachers, professors and journalism professionals whom I respect most have different beliefs about what makes ethical journalism.

I was adamant that the term “fair” gets a bad rap and covers a host of sins that “balanced” and “objective” often overlook. Others, preferring the latter terms to describe their ethical approach, thought the term “fair” was loaded because—after all—what could be fair to everyone?

After some reflection, I realized we were all talking about the same process, the same methodical and careful approach a journalist takes to ensure the very best, most accurate, inclusive and contextual content.

Ethics, then, 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.

As the spring semester unravels with full force and obligations such as state testing commence, it can be easy to compromise the ethical process for the sake of timeliness and self-preservation.

When it’s crunch time, it is easy to think you are satisfying the ethical tenets of your news organization (whatever they may be) without actually adhering to the process that makes ethical journalism flourish.

Instead of bearing lip service to those core beliefs, take some time this month to step back, discuss your publication’s ethical process and evaluate your work thus far. Where can your students do better? How can they be a little more careful? A little more accurate? A little more thorough?  Understanding how they make ethical decisions is the only way for students to value the end result, no matter what you call it.


  1. I look forward to seeing the revised version. When will it be published?

    • Hi Sheila,
      We hope sometime this summer or fall, although we still have some work to do on design and format. Lots of options are on the table, including a website and possible ebook, so we’ll keep you posted!

  2. This week, our student newspaper at Framingham State University in Framingham, MA dealt with an incident wherein a group of students removed around 400 copies of our paper and folded back the front page (in some instances carefully, in others less so, and around 100 were so badly damaged they had to be thrown out.) For context, the students had been upset about a front page that featured both survey results we’d compiled about students’ drinking, which found that one in four had driven drunk, and another about a memorial service for a student who had been killed in a car accident in December. Now, the student wasn’t driving a car – she was trying to cross a highway and was struck by a passing vehicle, and alcohol isn’t believed to have been a factor in her death. However, assuming we were trying to make some sort of connection between the two, students protested by trying to hide the front page, apparently so as to keep other students from jumping to conclusions.

    Naturally, we wrote a news article in the next week’s issue and also wrote an accompanying editorial about respecting freedom of the press, etc. In both, we referred to the act as “vandalism.”

    Here’s our coverage:

    And here’s the editorial:

    Here is where it gets tricky.

    Outrage at our word choice exploded in the days that followed. Letters to the editor and Facebook posts lambasting the paper have abounded. Students said the act did not constitute “vandalism,” but we at the newspaper disagree. And some said we shouldn’t have run a story about it at all out of respect for students who had only recently lost a friend, about which I adamantly disagree. News is news after all, and if we want to be treated like journalists, we have to act like them. But regardless, the question has emerged about whether we could have tempered the community’s backlash by choosing another word.

    Would it have been more or less “fair” to go with “altered” or “tampered with” throughout? Would it have been more or less “objective?”

    • Hi Spencer,
      Thanks for sharing this experience–it sounds like you guys have been quite busy with all this! Your editorial does a great job detailing exactly the expense, both personal and financial, that goes into creating a student newspaper. Even better are your suggestions for how students can respond to your paper without vandalism!

      We’d love to hear more about whatever followup conversations your staff had regarding the placement of the two stories that first started the incident. Would the staff make a different choice next time? How can you explain to your student body that not all news on the front page is related?

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

      • So, we ended up running a bunch of those letters to the editor in the paper, which, we hope, sent the message that we took the community’s criticism seriously. I also addressed the issue via a short letter from the editor ( )

        Our staff, as you can imagine, have been talking about this a lot over the last few weeks, and I’ve been able to have conversations with some of the students who were involved. Basically, the controversy seems to have blown over, but we’re now looking at how we can revamp our front page to avoid any future problems.

        First off, we have a “feature photo” we run every week on the front page, and we hear all the time that it isn’t clear whether the picture is related to that week’s front page stories (it usually isn’t). We’re going to try out giving those photos little hammer headlines and putting them in a shaded box to help distinguish them from the rest of our coverage.

        We’ve also instituted a “red flag” policy for especially sensitive stories – deaths, sexual assaults, etc. and will make our best effort to make sure any of our front page articles that week collide with one another in the way these ones did. Drawing out the front page on a whiteboard every week, rather than just picking our top 3 or 4 stories, helps us get a sense for what the issue will look like, and, additionally, what kinds of conclusions our audience might draw by mistake.

        If we could do things differently, we would have recognized that our long-term project needed to be held one week because it would clash with a sensitive, shorter-term piece. So for the future, we’ll be doing that, plus we’ll have a new front page layout to reduce the likelihood of any unfortunate layouts.

        If and when the paper gets stolen, vandalized, etc. again, I want it to be because our coverage was too GOOD (a real hard-hitting investigative piece exposing something controversial), not because our layout, planning and foresight weren’t where they should have been.

        Hope this is useful!

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