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Expanding upon the JEA curriculum to teach the SPJ Code of Ethics


by Kirsten Gilliland

This school year, I am teaching intro classes for the first time, including photo/digital journalism and Journalism 1-2. The past four years I’ve only taught production classes (broadcasting, newspaper, yearbook) and intro to photography/intermediate photography.

Like many journalism teachers, I turned to the curriculum section of the JEA website for guidance. After looking at my lesson options and sample curriculum maps, I created my own course layouts with ethics towards the beginning. 

For photo/digital journalism specifically, I taught the “Legal and ethical considerations in photojournalism” lesson. Students at my new school are at a lower level academically than they were at my last school.

‘So, instead of providing the recommended 10 minutes to read the SPJ code of ethics individually, I decided we’d do it in chunks as a class to make sure everyone received the content and understood—they could ask questions and I could summarize/provide examples.  

I soon realized that strategy wouldn’t work for my class. As the list dragged on, some students followed along, some zoned out and some started side conversations. We powered through that first block, but I knew going into my second I would have to do something different. 

That’s when I thought of a recent resource Kent State professor Ellen Austin shared with “Reporting, writing and editing for media” students: a video illustrating how reporters can cut news articles paragraph by paragraph into slips to rearrange in order of importance. 

Thus a new activity was born. I would make each individual ethics code its own slip of paper. Students group them under the four main principles: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent. 

Students in my classroom sit at one of four table groups, so that’s the number of copies I made. I shared with students the number of slips belonging to each principle and instructed them to call me over to check their work when finished. 

‘Some students got really into it. One particular group treated the activity as one big puzzle and seemed excited and determined each time I pointed out fewer and fewer errors.

To check their answers, I brought over a copy of the original handout, took a look at what students had for a particular principle and moved the incorrect slips to the side. Some students got really into it. One particular group treated the activity as one big puzzle and seemed excited and determined each time I pointed out fewer and fewer errors. 

If I were to do this activity again, I would have fewer students work together in a group—three or four max. This would help ensure students work as a team rather than sitting passively by as one classmate does all the work.

Another option for familiarizing students to the SPJ Code of Ethics has them copy a new code into their news journals at the start of each period/block.

That’s what I’ve been doing with my Journalism 1-2 students. They have a 15-minute bellringer that also requires them to read an article in a physical publication from their tables and answer specific questions about it.

After the 15 minutes, I ask for volunteers to share their article summaries then can jump into a quick SPJ ethics code explainer and provide examples. 

How do other journalism educators teach the SPJ Code of Ethics? What do you do differently that works?