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Law-ethics manual


Mission, editorial policy, ethical guidelines and public forum
strengthen the classic media staff manual

Four concepts drive the creation of journalistic approaches: mission statement, editorial policy, ethical guidelines and staff manual process. Together, the four comprise a package of complementary principles we call the Foundation of Journalism, often known as a staff manual. Through our discussions, lessons and models, we hope to demonstrate the rationale for adding comprehensive strength into staff manuals.

These principles represent the key pillars of standards-based journalism and are the products of perhaps the most important journalistic decisions the student staff can make. Together, the concepts enhance the strengthen the process and product, the decision-making and critical thinking that can characterize student media.

This first section provides information and resources on how and why the four parts of  the manual, and is below. All five pieces, introduction, mission, editorial policy, ethical guidelines and staff manual, are designed to interact and show and why each develop and apply to your school’s student media.

Here’s where you find each section of the law-ethics manual (mouse over each headline go to resources):

• Introducing a staff manual package to build journalistic responsibility

The SPRC’s manual package contains information and resources that create a framework for a school’s journalism publication and learning program – Mission Statements, Editorial Policy, Ethical Guidelines and Staff Manual process. It also includes resources on forums for student expression.

• Mission sets the path for content, decisions

A mission statement is a concise, philosophical statement of purpose and goals for student media. It establishes the ethical and practical concepts by which the student media should be expected to operate and why students do what they do.

We strongly believe mission statements should be more than “to entertain and educate” as those points do not stress guiding the whys and whats of a mission.

• Editorial policy sets forum status, decision-making standard and more

Designed to provide legal framework for student media, editorial policies come in two forms, school-board level and media-level. In case of conflicts, a school-board policy usually will take precedence. Absent a policy, practice can help determine freedom of expression status. Typical content of an editorial policy can include:

  • Level of freedom of expression
  • Responsibility for student media content
  • Forum status
  • Prior review and restraint
  • References to guiding legal decisions and theories
  • Language about journalistic responsibility, civic engagement and future of democracy

• Choosing the right forum can be a make-or-break decision

Forums come in three types – closed, limited and public/open – and how they are interpreted can make the difference between being censored, reviewed and restrained or being a place of learning citizenship and free expression

• Ethical guidelines suggest best practices for your student media

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.

• Procedures outline mission, policy, ethics to build a forum to cement the package

A good staff manual provides pathways to help students to carry out their roles as journalists. Our model shares four suggested pathways for student media to study and adapt.

Mission statement, editorial policy, ethical guidelines and staff manual  complement each other in a way to show student participants and community members what they can expect.

Legal and ethical cores for staff manuals offer specific examples of points above

by Lori Keekley, MJE
Now advisers and advisers have legal and ethical background, remember, adapt these guidelines and samples to fit your locality and needs, and:

  • Give credit for ideas you adapt

  • Don’t just copy someone else’s policy, ethical guidelines or statements. Think about what the models say, what they mean to you and your communities

  • Clearly separate policy from ethical guidelines and procedures that carry out this process of building a foundation

  • Words can mean different ideas to different people. To King George III of England the colonials were terrorists; to Americans, the British army were oppressors and Washington was a hero. Clarify your mission, policy, ethical guidelines and procedures so they have common and precise meanings

  • Ask us questions about using the manual concept for all your media. Integrated, the mission, policy, ethical guidelines and procedures form the foundation of responsible journalism.

Sample mission statement:

_____________ (school name) student media provide complete and accurate coverage, journalistically responsible, ethically gathered, edited and reported. Student-determined expression promotes democratic citizenship through public engagement diverse in both ideas and representation.

Sample board policy statement (others are at link as well):

[NAME OF SCHOOL] student media are designated public forums in which students make all decisions of content without prior review by school officials.

Sample editorial policy:

 “[NAME OF STUDENT MEDIA] are designated public forums for student expression in which students make all final content decisions without prior review from school officials.”

Role of student media:

The NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION has been established as a designated public forum for student editors to empower, educate and advocate for their readers as well as for the discussion of issues of concern to their audience. It will not be reviewed or restrained by school officials prior to publication or distribution. Advisers may – and should – coach and discuss content during the writing process.

Because school officials do not engage in prior review, and the content  of the NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION is determined by and reflects only the views of the student staff and not school officials or the school itself, its student editorial board and responsible student staff members assume complete legal and financial liability for the content of the publication.

Electronic media (including online, broadcast and podcast media) produced by NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION students are entitled to the same protections – and subjected to the same freedoms and responsibilities – as media produced for print publication. As such they will not be subject to prior review or restraint. Student journalists use print and electronic media to report news and information, to communicate with other students and individuals, to ask questions of and consult with experts and to gather material to meet their newsgathering and research needs.

NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION and its staff are protected by and bound to the principles of the First Amendment and other protections and limitations afforded by the Constitution and the various laws and court decisions implementing those principles.

NAME OF PUBLICATIONPRODUCTION will not publish any material determined by student editors or the student editorial board to be unprotected, that is, material that is libelous, obscene, materially disruptive of the school process, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, a violation of copyright or a promotion of products or services unlawful (illegal) as to minors as defined by state or federal law. Definitions and examples for the above instances of unprotected speech can be found in Law of the Student Press published by the Student Press Law Center.

The staff of the NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION will strive to report all content in a legal, objective, accurate and ethical manner, according to the Canons of Professional Journalism developed by the Society for Professional Journalists. The Canons of Professional Journalism include a code of ethics concerning accuracy, responsibility, integrity, conflict of interest, impartiality, fair play, freedom of the press, independence, sensationalism, personal privacy, obstruction of justice, credibility and advertising.

The editorial board, which consists of the staff’s student editors, OR HOWEVER THE DECISION IS MADE will determine the content, including all unsigned editorials. The views stated in editorials represent that of a majority of the editorial board. Signed columns or reviews represent only the opinion of the author. NAME OF PUBLICATIONPRODUCTION may accept letters to the editor, guest columns and news releases from students, faculty, administrators, community residents and the general public.

Content decisions:

Final content decisions and journalistic responsibility shall remain with the student editorial board. NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION will not avoid publishing a story solely on the basis of possible dissent or controversy.

Role of the adviser:

The adviser will not act as a censor or determine the content of the paper. The adviser will offer advice and instruction, following the Code of Ethics for Advisers established by the Journalism Education Association as well as the Canons of Professional Journalism. School officials shall not fire or otherwise discipline advisers for content in student media that is determined and published by the student staff. The student editor and staff who want appropriate outside legal advice regarding proposed content – should seek attorneys knowledgeable in media law such as those of the Student Press Law Center.

Ethical guidelines

Letters to the editor (if accepted by staff):

We ask that letters to the editor, guest columns or other submissions be 300 words or less and contain the author’s name, address and signature. All submissions will be verified.

The NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION editorial board reserves the right to withhold a letter or column or other submission and return it for revision if it contains unprotected speech or grammatical errors that could hamper its meaning. Deadlines for letters and columns will be determined by each year’s student staff, allowing sufficient time for verification of authorship prior to publication.


Staff members will strive to correct errors prior to publication; however, if the editorial board determines a significant error is printed, the editorial board will determine the manner and timeliness of a correction.


The NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION editorial board reserves the right to accept or reject any ad in accordance with its advertising policy. Electronic manipulations changing the essential truth of the photo or illustration will be clearly labeled if used. The duly appointed editor or co-editors shall interpret and enforce this editorial policy.

Ownership of student work:

Absent a written agreement indicating otherwise, student journalists own the copyright to the works they create. Each media outlet should ensure it has clear policies in place for staff members and the publication that spell out ownership and the right of the publication to use student work.

Controversial coverage:

Final content decisions and responsibility shall remain with the student editorial board. NAME OF PUBLICATION/PRODUCTION will not avoid publishing a story solely on the basis of possible dissent or controversy.

Prior Review:

Sources do not have the right to review materials prior to publication. Allowing sources to preview content at any stage of production raises serious ethical and journalistic practice questions. Reporters, following media guidelines or editor directions, may read back quotes that are either difficult to understand, unclear or may need further explanation.

Take down demands:

SCHOOL NAME student media is a digital news source, but it is still part of the historical record. STUDENT NEWS MEDIA NAME’S primary purpose is to publish the truth, as best we can determine it, and be an accurate record of events and issues from students’ perspectives. Writers and editors use the 11 “Put Up” steps before publication to ensure the validity, newsworthiness and ethics of each article. For these reasons, the editorial board will not take down or edit past articles except in extraordinary circumstances.

If someone requests a takedown, the board may consider the following resource for questions and actions.

Regardless of the outcome, the Editor-in-Chief will respond in writing to the request explaining the board’s action(s) and rationale for the final decision.

Unnamed sources:

Journalism is based on truth and accuracy. Using unnamed sources risks both of those standards. For that reason, students should seek sources willing to speak on the record. Unnamed sources should be used sparingly and only after students evaluate how the need for the information balances with the problems such sources create.

Occasionally, a source’s physical or mental health may be jeopardized by information on the record. In this instance, journalists should take every precaution to minimize harm to the source.


In the event of the death of a student or staff member, a standard, obituary-type recognition will commemorate the deceased in the newspaper and online news site. A maximum one-fourth page feature, or similar length for each obituary, should be written by a student media staff member and placed on the website within 24 hours and in the newspaper at the bottom of page one.

For the yearbook, if the fatality happens prior to final deadline, the staff might include feature content as the editors deem appropriate. For those unofficially affiliated with the district, the editor(s)-in-chief should determine appropriate coverage, but should not include an official obituary.

For more information

Resources on other items you might want to include: