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Journalistic ethics when tragedy hits

Jennifer Seavey
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Alexandria, Va.

Title: Journalistic ethics when tragedy hits


The course syllabus was modeled on “Media Ethics: Where do you draw the line?” case studies coupled with pertinent related chapters in the “Law of the Student Press” and various Web sites that promote better understanding of media ethics issues. My overall objective is to present real world examples of media law issues in short, palatable chunks.

Standards met

Each of my lesson plans addresses the following Fairfax County Public Schools Program of Studies objectives for high school journalism:

  • Objective 1: Develop an understanding of the importance of journalism in a democratic society.
  • Objective 3: Understand what news is and learn the importance of accuracy in reporting.
  • Objective 8: Develop an understanding of ethics of journalism and the regulations governing the student press.


Suggested Time Allowance: 170 minutes


Students will:

  • Reflect on their homework assignment through discussion.
  • Consider the decision-making process a reporter must address when reporting on a tragedy or otherwise sensitive situation.
  • Weigh ethical concerns with newsworthiness.
  • Consider how reporting can affect privacy.
  • Consider current cases of alleged privacy violations.


  • Students will work in table groups to compare the four newspaper accounts of the initial coverage of the Jonesboro shooting (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Seattle Times, USA Today and The Washington Post).
  • Students will discuss as a class how the accounts differ and how do the reporters communicate the pathos of the moment? Why do the reports differ?
  • Students will speculate on how the reporter obtained the information reported and what ethical concerns did he/she need to confront in reporting that information.
  • Students will conduct the role-playing activity outlines in “Media Ethics” after the suggested discussion.
  • Students will read and discuss three Christian Science Monitor articles on media treatment of the shootings and the subsequent gun legislation.
  • Students will discuss the guilty verdict and the concept of “let the punishment fit the crime” for minors.
  • Students will weigh the different points cited in the Code of Ethics against their perceptions of the media’s performance in reporting the Jonesboro shootings.


Read “Intruding on grief: Does the public really have a “need to know?” for discussion tomorrow.


Articles to be used

  • “Arkansas School Shooting Officials search for answers: ‘We may never…understand’
    Five killed, 11 wounded in attach.” The Atlanta Journal, March 25, 1998: p. A01.
  • Katel, Peter. “Five killed at Ark. School 4 students, teacher die in ambush; 2 classmates
    Held.” USA Today, March 25, 1998: p. A01.
  • Kubey, Robert W. “Teen Shootings and Media Hype.” Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1998: p. 19.
  • Manuel, Marlon. “ ’It looked about like a battlefield’ Arkansas school shootings
    confronted with nightmarish choices.” The Atlanta Constitution, March 25, 1998:
    p. A10.
  • Marks, Alexandra. “Media Violence: a Target of Jonesboro Critics decry fare on big and
    small screens, suggesting an indirect tole in tragic shooting.” Christian Science
    Monitor, March 27, 1998: p. 4.
  • Schwartz, John. “Boys’ Ambush at Ark. School Leaves 5 Dead; Suspects Are 11 and 13;
    11 Wounded in Rampage.” The Washington Post, March 25, 1998: p. A1.
  • Simon, Stephanie. “Kids, Guns and Parental Responsibility; Crime: Three years after a
    school massacre by two boys, a lawsuit reveals people in Jonesboro, Ark.,
    grapple with accountability.” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2001: p. A1.
  • “Three shot dead, 12 injured at Ark. school – boys, 11 and 13, held; they reportedly
    ambushed crowd during false fire alarm.” The Seattle Times, March 24, 1998: p. A1.
  • “Two boys found guilty in five Arkansas school deaths – boys to face charges in
    Arkansas deaths.” The Seattle Times, Aug. 11, 1998: p. A3.
  • Tyson, Ann Scott. “How to Keep Firearms out of children’s hands; Jonesboro, Ark.,
    Shootings have heightened debate on laws that punish adults who don’t store
    Guns properly.” Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1998: p. 3.

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