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news room: The place, sometimes called the city room, where reporters and editors work. News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

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Lesson Plans

Defining a code of ethics

Amanda Gentine of Learning Enterprise High School in Milwaukee, Wis.

Amanda Gentine
Learning Enterprise High School
Milwaukee, Wis.

Title: Defining a Code of Ethics

Note: This lesson is best conducted at the very beginning of the school year, because the code of ethics that emerges from the activity will be applied to the students’ work for every publication.


Students will be able to

  • brainstorm a list of values and discuss their choices
  • differentiate between values within their community and values for journalism
  • draft a code of ethics to be applied to the school newspaper

Materials needed

  • Chalkboard or flip chart
  • Transparencies-blank, one with “ethics” defined, and one with list of universal values
  • Handout of “Guiding Principles for Journalists” from Poynter (www.poynter.org)
  • Individual cases for group activity along with guiding questions for making ethical decisions

Procedures (Total Time needed: 90 minutes)

  • Introduction (15 min.)
    • Put definition of “ethics” on an overhead to be left up during the rest of anticipatory set. (Ethics=codes of behaviors that arise from the values of a particular community.)
    • Briefly ask students to volunteer their interpretation of the definition.
    • Next, ask students to brainstorm a list of values that are prominent today — both in their communities and in the broader social context — and put this list on the board or flip chart.
    • When a list has been made, we’ll discuss the social rules that evolve from those values. (i.e.-Loyalty: The social rule is that you don’t “rat” on your friends.)
  • Steps for instruction
    • (5 min.) Leaving the students’ list of values on the board or flip chart, use an overhead list to reveal the “Universal Values”-Love, Trust (honesty, loyalty), Kindness (charity, forgiveness), Respect, Fairness, Justice, Empathy (compassion), Freedom, and Responsibility (industriousness, work, achievement). As a class, discuss the (possible) differences in the two lists, and reasons why their list may differ slightly from the list of universal values. (To incorporate a more world-view perspective of the topic, you may also choose to discuss how specific cultures interpret some of the universal values differently.)
    • (10 min.) Hand out the “Guiding Principles for Journalists” and read aloud together. Ask students to highlight the key words in each of the three principles, and discuss how each principle corresponds to one or more of the values in their list and the list of universal values.
    • (10 min.) Break students into small groups (preferably no more than 4 per group), and give each group a different case study along with a set of guiding questions for making ethical decisions (See end of lesson plan.). Within their groups, they will read the case, discuss, and a note-taker should record answers to the guiding questions. Although groups might not answer all the questions, they should reach a conclusion about how to handle their particular case and the reasoning/justification for reaching that conclusion.
    • (20 min.) One at a time, a designated speaker from each group will read their case studies and explain the reasoning and conclusion they reached. After they’ve given their reasoning/justification, other students in the class may raise questions, objections, and further the dialogue.
    • (25 min.) Write a code of ethics for our school newspaper. As a group, ask students to review all three lists of ethics and guiding principles and narrow down the values as they see fit for application in the newspaper. (Nearly all the values will be important to them, but help them to see that not all are applicable to the school publication.) Ask students to play around with the wording of the code of ethics, and use a blank overhead to write down their ideas for the whole class to see. Conclude when they are satisfied with the results.
  • Closure
    • (5 min.) Ask students to recall or repeat the definition of ethics, and wrap up with a short discussion about why it’s important for our school publication to follow a code of ethics.
    • Create a poster or printout of the code of ethics as developed by the students, and hang it in a prominent location in the classroom.

Assessment of Learning

Students will be assessed on their level of participation in class discussion, brainstorming, and individual group work. If you choose, extra points could be awarded to the note-taker and speaker in each group. If this is done, however, students should be informed of the extra point incentive when the groups are formed.

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