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Get journalists engaged with their code of ethics


by Lindsay Coppens

The Harbinger adviser

Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, Mass.

Any time is a good time to visit, engage with and question a publication’s code of ethics. Whether near the start of an intro class or as a mid-year activity to re-center your staff, taking a close look at the paper’s code can foster excellent discussions and push ethical pondering to the forefront of scholastic journalists’ minds. 

Of course, the first step is to have a code of ethics. If your publication doesn’t have one, researching and discussing various codes are great places to start in adopting or forming your own. Much of The Harbinger’s code is based on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the National Scholastic Press Association’ s Model Code of Ethics.

Once you have a code, find reasons to read it and use it as a tool to guide thinking, not just when there is a problem or conundrum, but as a backbone for journalistic thinking. Yes, posting the code and including it in the staff handbook are essential, but structuring activities to promote inquiry are great ways to exercise ethical thinking.

Ethics questions frame problem solving base

One such activity, which can be completed in person or remotely, is a simple discussion post in response to the code using your school’s LMS, an online platform such as Padlet or even old fashioned posters and sticky notes. I recently used this activity with new journalism students to kick off our ethics unit, but I’ve done the same activity with more experienced staff members, too.

The Activity:

Provide a copy of the publication’s code of ethics, ask students to read it closely and, using a 3-2-1 framework, have students post the following:

3 parts of the code they think are most important and/or most frequently used

2 parts of the code they found surprising

1 question about the code

The posts and responses in my intro class led to rich discussions and provided me opportunities to focus my teaching in direct response to their curiosity. I responded to their questions in writing and had all students read the questions and answers before we had class discussions using their questions and ideas as a launching point for stories from the past and hypothetical debates.

Students were engaged and curious, with one question leading to another. When debating hypothetical situations, the students frequently referenced the code as part of their problem solving processes.

Here are some questions intro students asked, along with the answers I wrote:

Q: Under “be independent” it says that we should maintain dialogue with administrators to help them understand the value of free scholastic press. Does this mean that we should be communicating stories we release with them, or just to remind them that the Harbinger has the right of free scholastic press?

A:  It’s more about reminding them about the rights of a free scholastic press & maintaining, ideally, a good working relationship– not to work to “please” them, but in a way that is respectful, but strong. While we are independent of administrative oversight, we are also incredibly dependent on admin for interviews on important topics.

Q: What happens if you don’t take responsibility for your work and not honest about mistakes? 

A: If people aren’t honest about their mistakes or take responsibility for them, they will lose the trust of their fellow staff members and the reading public. The newspaper itself will also lose trust. Acknowledging mistakes and attempting to make them right is not only ethical & responsible, but it’s a key part of improving!

Q: When it says avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, would you still cover the story even if there may be a potential conflict or would someone with no conflict report on it?

A: Ideally someone with no conflict would report on it. If that were not possible, it would be important for the article to disclose the potential conflict of interest.

Q: Does “Report through a neutral mindset. Do not prejudge issues, events or people” apply to opinionated pieces? 

A: Opinion pieces are opinionated, so it wouldn’t be good for the writer to have a neutral mindset. However, to write opinion well, it’s essential to consider potential counterpoints, acknowledge and refute them. This aspect of the code applies mainly to reporting.

Q: One question I had was about the statement “Allow subjects of news coverage to comment and respond.” Do subjects respond after the article is published since they aren’t supposed to see it before it is published? 

A: For your question, the opportunity to comment and respond is part of the reporting process. If there were an article critical of the superintendent’s new policies, for example, it would be unethical to only interview those who are critical and not interview (or at least attempt to interview) the superintendent. It would also be important to see if there are people in support of the policies and interview at least one of them, too.

Q: What would be the best way to address a mistake and make it known that you made one without compromising the confidence of others in your writing ability? 

A: Good, intelligent, hardworking people do sometimes make mistakes. I think acknowledging them and attempting to amend for the error (by a correction, an apology and/or some other mode) is a sign of strength and humility and is an opportunity to build trust and grow as a person & publication. I’ll share an example of this in class.