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Lesson Plans

Laurie Erdmann
Journalism teacher
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Lesson Plans

To Do or Not to Do…the News?

To Do or Not to Do…the News?

Laurie Erdmann of Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Ill.

Laurie Erdmann
Kaneland High School
MaplePark, Ill.

Title: To Do or Not to Do…the News?

“They had not broken the law….But they had sailed around it and exposed others to danger. They had chosen expediency over principle, and, caught in the act, their role had been covered up. They had dodged, misrepresented, suggested and intimidated, even if they had not lied outright.”

— All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Description of School and Students

This unit will be taught in a second-year journalism class called Advanced Journalistic Studies, which follows two semester-length electives, Introduction to Newswriting I and Introduction to Newswriting II. AJS provides a deeper focus on specific topics generally addressed in INW I and II: for example, community reporting, depth/investigative reporting, press law and journalistic non-fiction. At the same time, the underlying purpose of the course is to study and put into practice editorial decision-making and staff coordination. The course is offered to 10-12th graders who have completed a year of journalism and are not only interested in further study, but also want to serve as page editors of the student newspaper. Typically, AJS is taught during the same block as AP Language and Composition, the third-year journalism course, which uses intensive journalistic writing to prepare students for the AP Language and Composition test; during class time, students in both groups also have newspaper responsibilities. AJS averages 8-10 students, almost all of whom are juniors. The majority of students at the school are Caucasian and the setting is rural/suburban in the Midwest near Chicago. The school’s enrollment is 815 and growing rapidly.

Illinois State Standards

  • State Goal 1: Read with understanding and fluency
  • State Goal 2: Read and understand literature representative of various societies, eras and ideas
  • State Goal 3: Write to communicate for a variety of purposes
  • State Goal 4: Listen and speak effectively in a variety of situations
  • State Goal 5: Use the language arts to acquire, assess and communicate information

Generative Topic
The question of expediency over journalistic principle

Generative Object

  • Transparency of prize-winning photos of two girls falling from a collapsed fire escape (Fedler, p. 474)
  • “Model Code of Ethics for Student Journalists” in "Law of the Student Press" text
  • Quote from "All the President’s Men," as shown above
  • Various ethics codes on Web siteslisted below

Understanding Goals

  • Essential questions
    • What practical, philosophical, and ethical principles should journalists follow?
    • What reporting priorities should journalists have?
    • Under what conditions is a reporter a journalist first and when is the reporter a citizen first?
    • How much does the public have a right to know? How much is necessary for the public to know?
    • How newsworthy are visuals?
    • Is the press above the law? Does the First Amendment give the press unlimited freedom in pursuing the truth?
    • Does the end justify the means?
    • Who should establish the moral constraints followed by the press?
    • What strategy might be used in addressing ethical dilemmas?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • When has the press gone too far in its coverage? How? What criteria constitute “crossing the line”?
    • What codes do professional journalists have? How have codes changed over time? What common characteristics do they have?
    • What codes should student journalists have? Which principles are most important to students today for their own publications?
    • What real-life ethical dilemmas have professional and student journalists faced?
    • What do’s and don’ts should young reporters observe?
    • How might the Potter Box model be used in resolving ethical problems?
    • To what extent did the Watergate reporters choose expediency over principle? Were they justified in their actions? Why or why not?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale and Timeline

Every year when this class reads Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book, "All the President’s Men," students question some of the reporting practices of the two reporters in getting the story — badgering contacts, misrepresenting themselves, not identifying themselves as reporters, etc. As young reporters, students immediately raise the ethical implications and undoubtedly consider whether they themselves would “cross the line” if getting the story warranted it. This mini-unit, then, bridges a press law unit that examines libel, obscenity, invasion of privacy and disruption as these apply to the student and the professional press and a journalistic non-fiction unit on the daily life of investigative reporters as depicted in "All the President’s Men." This unit encourages students to consider some issues that have and continue to be thorny for journalists as they strive to do their jobs and be moral individuals and responsible citizens. As students prepare to read about two reporters who faced major obstacles in getting the story that led to the resignation of the president, these activities will help acquaint them with real-life dilemmas reporters regularly face and think critically about principles they themselves value. Each of these activities is designed to help them contemplate challenges that professionals, as well as student journalists, face in carrying out their jobs. Moreover, as each student is a member of the school newspaper’s editorial board, these activities should help them weigh their decisions more thoughtfully each month as they consider editorial content and campaigns. The activities will take approximately six days leading up to reading "All the President’s Men" and will include an essay follow-up to the journalistic non-fiction unit. Lessons are taught in an 82-minute block, during which students also have publications lab/newspaper responsibilities.


Activity 1

  • On Day 1, the instructor will display on the overhead a Pulitzer prize-winning photo by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald that shows two girls falling from a collapsed fire escape during a fire rescue attempt. Following elaboration of the news event (one of the girls died on impact), the class will brainstorm other instances when the public has wondered whether the press has gone too far with photographs, video, interviews or story coverage. (Examples may include the Zapruder film, Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting, the Viet Cong officer’s execution, victims falling from the World Trade Center, Daniel Pearl’s murder, the Starr Report and the Lewsinsky affair, the Bin Laden tape, Katie Couric’s interview with two teenage rape victims, etc.).
  • In pairs, students will be assigned to one or two of these items and will, on a note card, make a plus and a minus column. They will then list at least three reasons to publish/broadcast and three reasons not to publish/broadcast. In a round-robin fashion, teams will then share their reasons, which the instructor will list on the board.
  • Next, the class will look for the most common rationales for and against questionable material and discuss these. For homework, they will read the “Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics” in their text, Law of the Student Press, and take notes.

Activity 2

  • On Day 2, students will go to the publications lab with the notes from last night’s reading and examine the updated SPJ code of ethics under “Resources” on the www.spj.org site. With a partner, students will then make two columns on a 5 x 8 note card and jot three important elements of each code (1987 and 1996). As a group, the class will discuss differences noted between the old and the newer code.
  • Students will then individually visit the www.asne.org Web site for links to other codes of ethics (under the Archives section). Next each student will then individually look up an assigned code (from choices that include the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Press Photographers Association, The Associated Press, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post). Again working with computer partners, students will flip over their note cards, divide them into two columns once more and each will list typical traits or topics of the codes examined. The instructor will then compile traits on the overhead as students call them out, and a student volunteer will highlight with a colored overhead marker the most common elements.
  • For homework, students will read the “Model Code of Ethics for Student Journalists” in their text, Law of the Students Press, and take notes.

Activity 3

  • On Day 3, with “the most common elements” transparency on the overhead as class begins, students will take their homework notes with them and, in teams of four, with each assigned to examine eight of the principles in the student code, discuss and vote on three principles they consider most applicable to this year’s student newspaper’s decision-making.
  • Each group will make a poster of its top three with an 8-10 word rationale printed beneath each element. They’ll then post their top three, explain why these were chosen and defend them to the class.
  • As a group, the class will then vote on the top 10 principles to include in the newspaper staff manual update that will be completed at year’s end. A student will list these on a piece of paper to turn into the executive editors.

Activity 4

  • On Day 4, students will go back to the publications lab and acquaint themselves with other Web site services for consideration of ethical questions. At www.freedomforum.org, under “The First Amendment,” they will go to “First Amendment Publications” and then to “Lesson Plan 3: Tough Calls: How Do Journalists Make Ethical Decisions.” Here students will go to the link titled “Journalism’s Do’s, Don’ts and Dilemmas.” They will each Select one item per category that they think has been problematic for the school newspaper staff this year and on a note card, jot down the item and the specific problem. The instructor will collect the note cards and choose several at random for a group discussion.
  • Then, for homework, each student will choose a case study to examine, briefly summarize and reflect upon in one-page typed essay. Case studies will be Selected from the archives under “Talk About Ethics” under “Doing Journalism” at the www.poynter.org site or from “Journalism Ethics Cases Online” at the Indiana University journalism Web site, www.journalism.indiana.edu/Ethics/; each student will pick one case that interests that student and lock it in with the instructor so that all class members are addressing different cases.

Activity 5

  • On Day 5, students will share their typed reflections with partners, who will ask questions about and discuss the case with the reflection writers; then students submit their reflections and jot on a Post-It one ethical decision they think is especially challenging for journalists.
  • Next, back in the lab, students will revisit the Freedom Forum site, Lesson Plan 3, and, in teams of 4, read the case study assigned to that particular team (Case 1: How much information should you report?; Case 2: Detachment or involvement?; Case 3: To what lengths should you go to get a story?; or Case 4: Censorship of a high school newspaper). Each group is to print out and study the lesson plan and adapt its elements to a five-minute presentation that includes interactive quizzing, polling and/or class discussion. The team must decide how it would have handled the case, and share that with the class as a closer.
  • Groups will present their cases to the class.

Activity 6

  • On Day 6, the instructor will draw on the board and briefly explain the “Potter Box “ approach to ethical decision-making, elaborating on the criteria for each quadrant.
  • In the classroom, yesterday’s groups will revisit their case studies and use the strategy to verify or change the decision they announced at the end of their presentations. A recorder per group will draw the case study’s box and quadrants on a mega-Post-It, specifying the situation, values identified, relevant principles and loyalty choices.
  • A representative from each group with then briefly share the group’s decision making with the class.

Activity 7

  • Following a four-week reading and discussion of "All the President’s Men," as well as a test and a viewing of the 1976 movie, students will consider and individually respond in a 2-3 page typed essay to the excerpt at the top of this lesson plan. This passage appears at the end of a chapter in which the reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, narrowly escape public exposure and prosecution for what they feared might be considered by others to be jury tampering. This section of the book represents one of the rare times when the journalists candidly fret about reporter ethics.
  • Now that students have a broader sense of what ethical considerations are important to professionals and to students, what do students thinks of Woodward and Bernstein’s dilemma? Are their stories so important to cover that principles may have to be compromised? Overall, has the end justified the means in this case?
  • The typed essay will follow English Department manuscript style and must include citations from the text and/or any of the readings encountered in class work in this mini-unit.


During these activities, students will have the opportunity to be informally and formally assessed. During all classroom and lab activities, the instructor will “Monitor By Walking Around,” especially when students are working in teams. Note cards will be assessed on a check/plus/minus basis, as will oral presentations and group posters. Notes will be checked for completion points. The formal essay will be evaluated with the “6 + 1 Traits” writing assessment used by the English Department.

Resources Recommended

  • Transparency, overhead, note cards, overhead markers, poster board, markers, whiteboard, mega-Post-It.
  • "All the President’s Men." Directed by Alan J. Pakula. 1976. 135 min. Rated PG.
  • Bernstein, Carl and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. (New York: Warner Books, 1974).
  • Fedler, Fred. Reporting for the Print Media. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993).
  • Seib, Philip and Fitzpatrick, Kathy. Journalism Ethics. (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997).
    • Chapter 1, “Ethics and Journalism,” p. 1-22.
    • Chapter 5, “Tricks of the Trade,” pp. 87-116.
  • Law of the Student Press. Arlington, VA: Student Press Law Center, 1994
  • Web sites:

This lesson plan was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2002, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

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