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But That’s Not Fair: Exploring Journalistic Fairness

Margaret Hagemeister at Natick High School in Natick, Mass.

Margaret Hagemeister
Natick High School
Natick, Mass.

Title: "But That’s Not Fair!" Exploring Journalistic Fairness

Description of School and Students

This unit will be taught to 11th- and 12th-grade students in a college-preparatory level journalism class. The class is comprised of 28 students at Natick High School, a public high school in a middle class suburb 17 miles west of Boston.

Generative Topic

Journalistic Fairness

Generative Object

A printed copy of "The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics"

Understanding Goals

  1. Essential Questions
    1. What constitutes journalistic fairness?
    2. What differences are there between what is legal and what is ethical in news reporting?
  2. Critical Engagement Questions
    1. What, if any, standards, are there to ensure fairness in the media?
    2. Who decides and enforces standards of fairness?
    3. How can we ascertain if media coverage is fair or not?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale and Time Line

As part of a unit on journalistic ethics, students will explore the concept of fairness in journalism. During the unit, students will be exposed to hypothetical scenario in which they are asked to weigh the ethical considerations of what is "fair" to cover and to make decisions based on what they believe is fair. Students will also analyze samples from the media for their objectivity and subjectivity. The unit will take approximately two weeks of 50- minute class periods.

Activity 1

Each student will be given a list of short scenarios which pose ethical questions of fairness and asked to indicate what s/he would do if s/he were confronted with each decision as a reporter or editor. The scenario can be teacher-generated or Selected from a journalism text or workbook. After making individual judgments, class discussion will ensue revolving around the students’ individual decisions and, more importantly, what led them to make the decisions they did.

Activity 2

Students view the film, "Absence of Malice." As they are viewing, they are will keep viewing journals to comment on the ethical decisions that the main character, Megan Carter, makes during the course of the film, if they would have decided differently, and, if so, how their decision would have affected the outcome of the film’s plot.

Activity 3

In groups of four, students will role-play the type of decision-making process that goes on in newsrooms to decide what will be covered and how. Each student will play one of the following roles: reporter, editor, station manager, lawyer, and receive an information sheet created by the teacher of what is pertinent for that role, as well as the possible ramifications they need to concern themselves with in their decision-making. (Information may be purely hypothetical or drawn from a real news story.) For example, the lawyer will receive an overview of libel and right to privacy statutes; the journalist will receive the "facts" s/he has uncovered in the course of the story; the station manager will receive demographic, readership, and ownership information that might affect his/her decision on whether to discourage airing of the story; the editor will be receive the "Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics". The editor will also be the final arbiter on what does or does not get on the air and will present and explain the group’s decision to the rest of the class. Following the group presentations, each student writes an essay that will address the following questions: "How fair do you think your group’s decision was to all parties concerned with the issue? Did any one point-of-view or perspective have more weight in your group’s decision-making than the others? Why? What consideration did your group give to the impact of the story on those not represented in the decisionmaking process (i.e. the subjects of the story and their families and friends; the public and its right/need to know about the issues involved, etc.)?"

Activity 4

Each student will bring to class a news story that they found in the media (newspaper, magazine, television, internet, etc.) about a local, national, or international issue currently in the news. The issue will be assigned by the teacher and should be timely enough so that the students will have a variety of sources to analyze (i.e. G.W. Bush’s possible cocaine use; the Massachusetts state budget stalemate). To ensure diversity, the teacher may choose to assign a particular medium or news outlet to each student to search. In small groups (4-5) students will share their pieces and arrive at group consensus on the following questions for each piece brought to the group: 1) Is the piece objective or subjective? 2) What about the piece led you to your conclusion (i.e. specific words, phrases or images used, point of-view)?

Activity 5

Following the small-group discussions, the class as a whole will address the following questions in class discussion: Is an objective news story always fair? Is a subjective news story always unfair? Why or why not? How can a media outlet take a position on an issue in an editorial and/or column and still be fair in its coverage of that issue? What role does providing equal time and editorial responses have in helping to ensure journalistic fairness? Is it important that each publication present a fair and balanced view of every issue, or is fairness achieved by the diversity of media choices available to the individual consumer in our society?


  1. Students will be assessed on their written responses to the film in Activity 2.
  2. Students will write a five paragraph essay addressing the questions in Activity 3 to debrief their role playing experience, giving specific examples for explanation.
  3. Students will choose one of the pieces shared in Activity 3 and rewrite it to make it either more subjective or more objective.
  4. Students will choose an issue of importance to the school community and write an objective news article about the issue and also an opinion piece about the issue to demonstrate their understanding of objectivity and subjectivity.


  • Short scenario presenting ethical dilemmas. Samples are available in "The Journalism Today Workbook" (Donald L. Ferguson and Jim Patten, National Textbook Co., Lincolnwood, Ill., 1988) and "Getting Started in Journalism" (Jack Karkrider, National Textbook Co., Lincolnwood, Ill., 1989)
  • "Absence of Malice." Dir. Sydney Pollack. Columbia Pictures, 1981.
  • Teacher-created information sheets for each of the role in the group role-playing activity.
  • Student-Selected samples of coverage of teacher-chosen issue.

Margaret Hagemeister’s lesson plan, "’But That’s Not Fair’: Exploring Journalistic Fairness" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 181.

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