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Kathy Zwiebel
Publications adviser/journalism teacher
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Lesson Plans

Everyday ethics as an editor




Everyday ethics as an editor

Kathy Zwiebel of Pottstown Area High School in Pottstown, Pa.

Kathy Zwiebel
Pottstown Area High School
Pottstown, Pa.

Title: Every day ethics as an editor

Subject: Ethical Decisionmaking for Newspaper Editors

Teacher Preparation
Using the "Media Ethics: Where do you draw the line?" curriculum published by the Newseum, copy and distribute the lesson on journalism’s do’s, don’ts and dilemmas.

Review and discuss the following:

  • In the do’s: accuracy, fairness, context, truth.
  • In the don’ts: plagiarism, sloppy reporting, bias, conflicts of interest, poor news judgment, deception.
  • In the dilemmas: anonymous sources, misrepresentation, lack of regard for privacy.
  • Explain the meaning of the following terms: Libel, obscenity, slander.

Background

  • Libel is injury to reputation. False words, pictures or cartoons that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule or induce an ill opinion of a person are libelous. If even a small group of people understand who the article is about, it qualifies as libel.
  • Injury deals with damage to the reputation of the libeled person. Again, injury does not mean that everyone understood or believed the libel. If even one person understood the libel, it constitutes damage.
  • Fault: writer, editor(s) who permitted piece to be published, adviser.
  • Obscenity: another form of unprotected speech. The Supreme Court defines obscenity as something that by community standards arouses sexual desire, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
  • The Hazelwood Supreme Court decision grants a school administration the right to censor vulgar language. The Fraser decision allows schools to set a standard for public conduct. Consequently, student journalists face serious consequences if they use questionable language or innuendoes in publications.
  • Slander: the utterance of a falsehood that damages another’s reputation, spoken defamation (differences between slander and libel vary by state)

The scholastic press is tackling this problem by making ethics education a priority.

  • A responsible journalist needs to study and apply ethics to his decisionmaking process. A publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review once wrote: "Trust is journalism’s most important product." This means the public needs to trust what journalists do. This applies to the scholastic press as well as the professional press.
  • Student journalists need to maintain truth, accuracy, honesty, and objectivity in their reporting.
  • Students need not only the tools to write, to develop photos, to design publications but they also need the process for ethical decisionmaking.

Process:

Ethical Decisionmaking: a process, with acceptable, easily understood and explained principles that guide behavior and help students when faced with the dilemma of a tough choice between two legal alternatives.

Six basic steps:

  1. Define the ethical issue or problem.
  2. Determine what facts are the most relevant to the ethical decision decision you must make.
  3. Determine who is involved and what is the publication’s and the your relationship and/or obligation to each of them. This would include everyone affected by the coverage decision.
  4. Develop and evaluate alternative courses of action.
  5. Consider ethical guidelines based on the action itself and the consequences, and then ask yourself whether they either support or undermine any of your alternatives.
  6. Make your decision.

Implementation

Have the students complete the following exercise:

Select from the following scenarios and based on the ethical decisionmaking process and explain, as a newspaper editor, whether or not you would cover the story. If you decide to cover it, show exactly how you would do the research and coverage. All the scenarios are based on events that occurred at high schools with student newspapers.

  1. A female teacher in your school has been placed on administrative leave. Rumor is that she had an affair with a senior boy who is 18. Will you cover this story? If yes, how?
  2. A local chapter of Planned Parenthood wants to advertise in your school newspaper. Will you accept the ad?
  3. On a language club field trip to a foreign country, two students are caught with alcohol. They, in turn, turn in the names of several others who also drank on the trip. The students involved include a few athletes, members of the band and two newspaper editors. After the school punishes those involved with a five-day suspension from school and a one-month suspension from extracurricular activities, several teens come forward to say that drinking has occurred on field trips in the past as well. They accuse the advisers/chaperons of negligence and question the severity of the suspensions. How are you going to cover this story?
  4. A newspaper columnist writes an opinion piece about the unfair member-Selection process of a high school club. She says it is based on popularity and personal connections rather than qualifications. The president of the club writes a letter to the editor saying that the columnist had tried out for the club two years earlier and been rejected, and that her column is just "sour grapes."
  5. A student and a teacher are each arrested for shoplifting in separate incidents. The teacher is accused of taking a lipstick without paying. The student is accused of stealing a leather jacket. Will you cover these incidents? How?
  6. A newspaper features editor wants to do a story using the grade card method to "grade" all the teachers in the school from A to F. You’re the editor-in-chief. How would you advise him to do the research for the story OR would you kill the story? Why?
  7. An in-depth double truck on cheating in the school is planned. Several teachers have complained to the administration that they have "heard" that their classes might be mentioned as cheating havens. Other faculty members say the spread will be a how-to-cheat guide for students. The principal calls in the editor and says that the article will make the school look bad in the eyes of the community. How should the topic be covered and what research is needed?


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