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Mark Waldeland
English and journalism teacher
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Lesson Plans

Editorials on Ethical Issues




Editorials on Ethical Issues

Mark Waldeland of Prior Lake High School in Prior Lake, Minn.

Mark Waldeland
Prior Lake High School
Prior Lake, Minn.

Title: Editorials on Ethical Issues

Overview and Rationale

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” –Elie Wiesel

“The World is too dangerous to live in – not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.” –Albert Einstein

I’ve found that when I assign an editorial to my journalism students, their choices of editorial subjects are often what I’d term –without trying to be at all condescending – “small-picture” topics: school lunch menus, open campus privileges, parking lot fees, and the like. When I ask students to give me candid reasons for their choices, those reasons run the gamut from indolence and solipsism to earnest concern and altruism:

  • Small-picture topics require less research and interviewing.
  • Small-picture topics require less time and cranial energy to satisfy the teacher’s request for an editorial topic.
  • Small-picture, strictly school-related topics may be the largest issues students have ever seriously pondered. They’re aware of broader ethical issues, but they often believe those issues are more properly “adult” concerns.
  • Small-picture topics may be students’ passionately felt, hot-button issues, issues about which many of their peers also feel quite strongly.

I’ve thought that our newspaper needs a modicum of small-picture editorials or letters, but it shouldn’t be surfeited with them. To achieve a better balance, I’ve decided to devise and try out an editorial assignment that addresses “big-picture” ethical concerns. The assignment will be partly a study of ethics and ethical concerns for journalists pursuing any kind of story or class activity; it will also be an ethics-related editorial assignment.

Disclaimer: The lesson that follows is pretty narrowly tailored for my students, my textbook, and my class: a one-trimester journalism elective whose twelve weeks don’t permit unlimited curricular additions, however good or ill-advised they may be. The lesson is designed to be a latter part of an editorial unit that would have previously covered chapter 8 (“Writing Editorials and Opinion Columns”) in "Scholastic Journalism."

Essential Question

  • What role do you as a student have in shaping – through advocacy and action – a society you deem to be an ethical society?

Critical Engagement Questions

  • In a 2002 Zogby Poll, 73 percent of college seniors said their professors taught that “what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity.” Twenty-five percent said they were taught that “there are clear and uniform standards of right and wrong by which everyone should be judged.” Should our society hold to either of these viewpoints? Can you personally make a case for one or the other?
  • Assuming you’d be happier and safer in an “ethical” society, what would such a society look like? (What is ethics? What is a code of ethics? What would comprise a code of ethics for our society?)
  • Of the myriad ethical concerns with which our society wrestles, which are important to you?

Resources/Materials

  • Scholastic Journalism (the textbook for my journalism class)
  • handouts
    • teacher-devised, student-completed brief note format for chapter 22: “Ethics for Student Journalists”
    • paired editorials, each taking a different viewpoint, on an ethical issue currently in the news.
    • lists of
      • larger ethical concerns (race, racism and ethnicity; abortion; gender and sexism; et al.)
      • specific ethics case studies (sources: teacher-generated list and examples from Ethics Updates (www.ethics.acusd.edu)
    • “Guiding Principles for the Journalist” (www.poynter.org)
    • “Ask These 10 Questions to Make Good Ethical Decisions” (www.poynter.org)
  • PowerPoint presentation: review of definitions; chapter 22 highlights, notably “Individual Journalists Need an Ethics Code” (pp. 366-7), “A Model Ethics Code for High School Journalists” (pp. 369-72), and “Ethics in Action: Writing and Editing” (pp. 368-9)

Overviews and Timeline

Activity 1: A Personal Ethical Framework (applicable to all story/advertising assignments) (45-minute class period)

  • (*Previously assigned/discussed)
    • "Scholastic Journalism" chapter 22 (including brief PowerPoint presentation covering pages 365-6)
    • 2 handouts from Poynter.org)
  • (15 min.) PowerPoint presentation
    • “Individual Journalists Need an Ethics Code”
    • “A Model Code for High School Journalists
  • (20 min.) Pair and Share assignment
    • Teams of students are each assigned one of the chapter 22 exercises on pages 372-3. (Example #6: “Planned Parenthood asks to buy ad space in your newspaper. Should you accept the ad?”)
    • The teams report their decisions to the class for a larger discussion
      based on
      • Critical Engagement Questions #1 and 2
      • Poynter.org handouts
      • PowerPoint presentation made earlier in the period.
  • (5 min.) Hand out paired editorials; ask students to evaluate them in three
    general areas:
    • the authors’ adherence to/violations of previously discussed ethical standards in writing about an ethics issue
    • the authors’ grasp and elucidation of the issue (logic, methods of argumentation)
    • the authors’ solutions: feasibility, fairness, handling of opponents’ strongest arguments
  • (5 min.) Ask students to consider Critical Engagement Question #3 as
    preparation for writing their own editorials. Hand out teacher-generated and Ethics Updates lists of general ethics areas and specific ethics case studies.

Activity 2: Laying the Groundwork for the Ethics Editorial (45-minute
class period)

  • (15 min.) Discuss paired editorials (assignment above).
  • (10 min.) Brainstorm new editorial ideas, and discuss the possibilities and potential pitfalls of student editorials on issues in yesterday’s handouts (assignment above).
  • (15 min.) PowerPoint presentation: “Ethics in Action: Writing and Editing”
  • (5 min.) Answer questions; have each student pick his or her editorial topic.

Assessment

  • Objective assessments:
    • notes on chapter 22
    • quiz on chapter 22
  • Subjective assessments:
    • participation in three days’ discussions
    • evaluation of student editorials using
      • criteria for good editorials previously covered in chapter 8
      • criteria listed in editorial evaluation above

References Recommended



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