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Lesson Plans

The Question of Ethical Journalism

Joseph Catalfano of Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pa.

Joseph Catalfano
Central Bucks East High School
Doylestown, Pa.

Title: The Question of Ethical Journalism

Description of school and students

This unit will be taught to a mixture of 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students enrolled in the journalism elective. Class size for the journalism elective averages from 20 to 30 students. The high school is public, suburban, and not culturally diverse. Over 90 percent of the population is white; the remaining percentage mostly composed of African-Americans and Asians.

Generative topics

  • Ethics and Journalism

Generative objects

  • Copies of the code of ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists (see that code and others at this link)
  • Copies of Jim Lehrer’s “Guidelines for his Daily Practice of Journalism”
  • The 1998 movie "Winchell" or the 1994 movie "The Paper"

Understanding goals

  • Essential or Guiding Questions
    • What are ethics? Are ethics synonymous with morals?
    • Are ethics (or morals) objective? Is it possible to create an objective list of ethics (or morals)?
    • How does the First Amendment affect, if at all, journalists and their sense of ethics?
    • Can journalists abuse the First Amendment? How?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • Should all journalists be held to a standard set of ethical rules and regulations?
    • If so, who should write this code of ethics?
    • Should there be limitations on journalist’s use (or abuse) of the First Amendment? Why or why not?
    • What would be your “top five” ethical rules as a journalist?

Performances of understanding, rationale, and time line

Many critics of the media claim that journalism has become “ethically corrupt” in its trends toward sensationalism, insufficient sourcing, inherent bias, and unnecessary transformation of private into public life. After students brainstorm a list of ethics they believe journalists should observe, students will analyze/critique the coverage of a variety of hard and soft news stories. Students will discuss Jim Lehrer’s “Guidelines for his Daily Practice of Journalism,” amending as they see fit. Students will create and agree upon a set of rules to govern the class. Each student will observe these rules and he writes a total of three articles for the course. This unit should take no longer than two to three 90-minute class meetings.

Activity 1 (short introduction)

  • Pose students with the question: are you an ethical person? Ask a few students to justify their response with an explanation of what ethics govern their lives. As students respond, ask them if ethics is synonymous with morals. If not, what is the difference?

Activity 2

  • Obtain information on the three major court cases concerning censorship and ethics at the school level: Tinker vs. Des Moines, Bethel School District vs. Fraser, and Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier. Ask students to come to a conclusion on how the climate for students’ freedom of expression changed over the course of these cases. Possible questions for discussion include:
    • Should a school principal have the right to censor articles in a student newspaper? Why or why not?
    • Do these cases raise any ethical concern?
  • If resources are available, teachers may choose to have students research another court case that raised an ethical issue and have students present a brief oral report on the case and the effects on journalism.

Activity 3

  • Before students review and discuss the thorough journalism codes of ethics, have students create their own code of ethics together.
  • Have students complete the sentence “A journalist must be…” with a list of words or phrases.
  • Ask students to draw a star next to those words or phrases that concern or reflect ethics.
  • Ask students to share their lists with the student sitting next to them.
  • On the blackboard, randomly call on students to provide one ethical code that should govern the work of journalists. Ask students to copy the list from most to least important.
  • After this activity is complete, discuss the codes of ethics. Compare and contrast codes.

Activity 4

  • Watch an investigative news program such as "60 Minutes," "48 Hours," "20/20," or "Hard Copy." Have students discuss how ethical the investigation was. The following situation often becomes an issue and is worthy of discussion. Should a story wait if a reporter can only present one side of an issue? For example, if a spokesperson for the opposing side of a disagreement can not be reached, should a story on the disagreement be printed or aired? How long should a reporter wait to get balance without sacrificing another major characteristic of news, timeliness? Teachers could also use this as an assessment. Have students write a letter to the reporter or editor of the program critiquing the ethics reflected in the investigation. Students must refer to the codes of ethics produced and discussed in class.


  • After viewing the movie "Winchell" or "The Paper," have students write an analysis of the ethical decisions made by the main characters.
  • After students have written their first news story, have them write a reflection on how well they observed their own personal code of ethics. Students should be graded on the depth of their reflection (detail) as well as how well they observed their ethical codes.
  • Some critics believe that the reason why many journalists’ work is unethical is because of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press, which, some claim, makes the press regard itself as “untouchable”. Do you agree? Is the First Amendment fulfilling its job of keeping democracy in check more than opening doors that may better be left closed?


  • Tony Mauro, “Poll Finds Less Support for Freedom of the Press,” USA Today, July 2, 1999, p. 3A
  • Bok, Sissela, “The Decline and Fall of Journalistic Standards” in The Boston Globe, April 13, 1998.
  • Fallows, James, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy" (New York: Pantheon Books) 1996. Selections: chapter 1, pp. 10-46, chapter 6, pp. 235-270.
  • Barrett, J. “Congressman Joe Kennedy’s Withdrawal From Public Office: A Case Study in Media Ethics,” (January 1999) pp. 26-38, in Visual Literacy in an Information Age, Omnipress, 1999.
  • Kurtz, Howard, "Media Circus, The Trouble With America’s Newspapers," (New York: Times Books/Random House) 1993. Chapter 11 “The Seduction of Power” pp. 234-260.

Joseph Catalfano’s lesson plan, “The Question of Ethical Journalism” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2000, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 285.


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