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Teaching law and ethics so it MEANS something

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Your cartoonist decides to poke gentle (?!) fun at the football team, which has had a dismal season. His art shows a football player, talking to a cheerleader. She asks, “How do you expect to do in the game tonight?” He answers, “We beat St. Eds six weeks ago.” She then asks, “How did you do against East Aurora last week?” He repeats, “We beat St. Eds six weeks ago.” And so on, covering all the weeks of the season so far. The coach, who is trying to build up the team’s sagging morale, is livid and berates the newspaper staff in the Friday pep assembly. How do you respond to him?

by Candace Bowen, MJE

Teaching law and ethics isn’t easy. Most beginning teachers have discovered the hard way that some methods just don’t work. JEA members taking the MJE certification test often have spent far too much time wrestling with the question that asked for a three-week lesson plan on the topic and not having enough time to answer the rest of the questions.*

For instance, dividing their journalism class into groups and having each research a scholastic media court case is one that sounds good at first but often bombs. Sure, they can report on the armbands the Tinkers and Chris Eckhardt wore and end with the famous line: “Students (and teachers – they often forget that part) don’t shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate.”

But how does that case and others affect their actions as student journalists? Sometimes they completely overlook what COULD get them in trouble – disruption of the school process or invasion of the rights of others. Knowing about armbands isn’t enough.

Teaching ethics is even more challenging. Of course, one approach is to teach about great ethicists – Aristotle and his Golden Mean, Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative. But, like just learning the law cases, how does this help secondary school journalists apply ethics in their daily media activities?

However, by trial and error and looking at some research, it’s possible to find some things that DO work so law and ethics become part of student journalists’ daily thought processes. The following are good ideas – and resources with even more ideas – for teaching these tough but vital topics.

Hypotheticals are one approach that often works. In many I have used, I ask students to decide first what legal issues there may be and then sort through the ethical possibilities. Remember, ethics isn’t about right or wrong – it’s all the various shades of gray that COULD all be right, depending on the circumstances. Here’s an example:

Your cartoonist decides to poke gentle (?!) fun at the football team, which has had a dismal season. His art shows a football player, talking to a cheerleader. She asks, “How do you expect to do in the game tonight?” He answers, “We beat St. Eds six weeks ago.” She then asks, “How did you do against East Aurora last week?” He repeats, “We beat St. Eds six weeks ago.”

And so on, covering all the weeks of the season so far. The coach, who is trying to build up the team’s sagging morale, is livid and berates the newspaper staff in the Friday pep assembly. How do you respond to him? In particular, do you talk to him personally, do your students, do you all go to see him? Does your staff you react in print? Does whether the team wins or loses the game that night make a difference in what the staff does in the paper? In fact, what is YOUR students’ game plan for the next issue?

Students first work through the question about libel. Definitely, they think they have been defamed! Can you libel them? How big is the team? More important – the information is TRUE….so then the staff begins to talk about the “should we” aspects.

Some award-winning teaching ideas from the Law and Ethics Division of the collegiate group, AEJMC, would work well for high school students. Professor Peggy Watt, Western Washington University, wrote this in the intro to her entry: “Incorporating multimedia examples from pop culture helps illustrate legal principles in a way students often find more approachable.

A little laughter helps one grasp a difficult concept. And, in many cases, an example will help them better understand how these principles directly relate to their work as student journalists….” 

One of her examples that seems a particularly fun way to start a lesson about copyright – especially in today’s remote learning environment – is to begin with Weird Al Yankovic’s “Don’t download This Song.”  For other ideas, see her winning entry.

Some useful ethics case studies – some of them fairly current and of interest to students – are also on the Society of Professional Journalists site.

One of her examples that seems a particularly fun way to start a lesson about copyright – especially in today’s remote learning environment – is to begin with Weird Al Yankovic’s “Don’t download This Song.”  For other ideas, see her winning entry.

Another spot with good lesson plans is the master’s professional project Maggie Cogar, JEA’s Ohio state director, created several years ago. She’s been busy teaching at Ashland University and finishing up her doctoral dissertation, so I know this hasn’t been updated lately, but this section has lots of ideas, PowerPoints and useful lesson plans. 

The bottom line is this: Students may be able to tell the greatest stories on a range of platforms, make breathtaking visuals and capture an audience. But if they don’t know about law and ethics, they could finished as journalists before they even graduate from high school.

It’s our responsibility to help them use their voices in legal and ethical ways so they can make a difference. That’s not always easy, but it’s worth our efforts.

*That’s not giving away a test question. The Certification Committee has come up with something new and better.

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