Tough Calls: How Do Journalists Make Ethical Decisions?

  Social Studies , Civics, Journalism, Media Studies

We all want to be informed and have the right to make informed and reasoned decisions about issues that affect our lives. To do so, we need accurate, reliable, timely news. A free press provides us with the information we need to make personal and professional choices.

A free press is the glue that binds our nation. Without it, we lose our common vision of who we are and where we stand in the world. Our free-press tradition encourages us to look everywhere for news. We can read the news, watch it, listen to it, spread it, publish it and speak it.

Conflicts regarding the public’s right to know are increasingly common. Sometimes the conflict relates to individual rights, such as the right to privacy or the right to a fair trial. Other times, the conflict is with the government, which may want to restrict information for reasons of national security or simply to avoid public controversy.

Americans are of two minds when it comes to free and unrestricted media. We are glued to TV screens when important — or sensational — stories break. We download material straight from the Internet. We rush to newsstands for printed materials offering greater detail and analysis. We tune in — and call in — to talk shows on radio and TV or comment on websites. Newspaper circulation numbers and television ratings rise dramatically. Yet even as we empty newsstands of newspapers and news magazines, even as we overload our phone and cable lines with Internet chatter, we criticize the very media that bring the news to us.

In this lesson students analyze news coverage and learn about the difficult choices journalists must make in order to do their jobs. The lesson illustrates how the news media try — without always succeeding — to present fair and accurate news coverage.

Key concepts

  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes a press that is generally free of government interference, ensuring that citizens have access to a wide array of information. Consumers of news must find a way to judge whether the news and information they receive is accurate and reliable.
  • The credibility of a news organization is its most prized asset. Good journalism seeks to bring readers and viewers closer to the truth by providing the latest, most factual information possible. Every day, reporters, editors and news directors grapple with questions about accuracy, fairness and context in the stories they offer to the reading, viewing and listening public.
  • Ethical decision-making in journalism is a process, subject at times to individual judgments of reporters, editors and news directors and at other times to policies and principles of news organizations. 

First Principles
Go to this curriculum’s First Principles.  The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.

Activities in this lesson relate to all the First Principles, with special relevance to these points:

  • Free expression is the foundation — the cornerstone — of democracy.
  • The First Amendment tells the government to keep its “hands off” our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
  • Other people have rights, too.
  • The First Amendment helps us make choices.

First moments
Present the following case study to your class:

  • You are the editor of a large-circulation daily newspaper. A school shooting takes place on the other side of the country. This is the third such shooting this year; in this one, a 15-year-old boy opened fire in a school cafeteria, killing two students and wounding 22 others.
  • You know the story will be all over the TV networks for days. Yet it is not a local story; it didn’t happen in your community. You know some parents believe children in your city will be frightened if they see this story splashed on your front page.

Discuss: Does keeping frightening news away from young readers protect them? Should newspapers not run stories that may upset young readers? What would you do if you were a newspaper editor?

Students may be interested to know the real story: In May 1998, Nigel Wade, then editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, did not run on the newspaper’s front page the story of a school shooting in Springfield, Ore. He made the same decision again in April 1999, after the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. Instead, he put full coverage of the shootings on the newspaper’s inside pages, on the premise that front-page coverage might harm or frighten vulnerable children.

Explaining his decision on covering the first school shooting in The New York Times on May 23, 1998, Wade wrote, “I took the view that we had to balance our responsibility to report the news against our responsibility to society as a whole. If such a tragedy happened in Chicago — in one of our schools, involving our children — our readers would want to read about it on Page One. But I did not think it safe to go on treating every new schoolyard incident the same way.”

The Chicago Sun-Times was the only major newspaper to treat the school shootings in this fashion.

News judgment is an essential part of the daily decision-making of news organizations. Every day, many, many times a day, editors must balance their responsibility to give readers, viewers and listeners the full story with their responsibility not to offend by printing or showing images that are too graphic, too disturbing.

Some people, including many Chicago-area readers, applauded Nigel Wade’s decision to keep the stories of school shootings off the front page. But most journalists felt the story was too big, too real, to treat that way. These stories, those journalists say, have real implications about gun violence among children. Readers are entitled to decide for themselves what they will or will not show to their children.

Part A: How do journalists make decisions?

  1. Talk with students generally about the news media and their attitudes toward the news that’s all around them in print, on broadcast and cable television, on the radio, on the Internet. Do students think that people who work for the media generally do a responsible job?

    Tell students that there is nothing in the First Amendment that says a journalist must be responsible. On the other hand, journalists make tough decisions regarding whether or not to report something based on their own professional codes of responsibility. Their decisions have to do with knowing what readers and viewers want and will tolerate and with the possible consequences of reporting certain information. Reporters also are aware of their personal prejudices, working to remain objective and fair in their coverage. For the most part, we have interpreted the First Amendment to mean that if the media have information, they cannot be prevented from telling the story; however, this ruling does not mean media are required to tell the story.

    There’s no doubt about it: it is hard to be a good journalist, to present stories in a clear and consistent manner and to search for the truth. Despite the difficulties inherent in their jobs, most journalists try to develop stories honestly, hoping to gain the public’s trust by virtue of fair reporting.

  2. Print and distribute to students or direct them to Journalism’s do’s, don’ts and dilemmas. Once your students have considered these basic principles, you may want to ask them to collect and bring to class examples of newspaper, television and online news stories. Then analyze students’ examples, using these and other questions:
  • Do the reports seem to be accurate, fair and clear?
  • Did the news stories use named or anonymous sources?
  • Has someone’s privacy been invaded?
  • Is the reporting sensationalized?
  • Is the reporting newsworthy?
  • Was good news judgment used?

Part B: You be the journalist
Using case studies, you can help your students put themselves into the roles of journalists, to see if they can decide what is the right action in a particular situation. Case 1 is a hypothetical, offered to help your students begin thinking about the difficulties involved in deciding what to publish. Cases 2, 3 and 4 are based on actual news stories.

Following a short description of the ethical dilemma in each case, questions are posed to the students. Ask students to discuss the cases and, for Cases 2, 3 and 4, choose from among the options presented. Explain that in some of the cases, there may be no clear right or wrong answer; more than one option often has some merit. Students should think about the issues (e.g., news judgment, accuracy, sensationalism, privacy) that are relevant to each case.

Cases 2, 3 and 4 are followed by the real stories — descriptions of what actually happened. After discussion, share with students these accounts:

Students may be interested in reading and discussing the codes of ethics of different news organizations. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has collected many codes and guidelines online. These include the codes of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and the National Press Photographers Association.

It may also be interesting to students to research varying opinions held by journalists about codes of ethics. Many reporters, editors and news directors believe that codes of ethics are essential guideposts to good journalism. Others believe that codes of ethics are impossible to enforce and difficult to follow; thus, they ask, why bother having them? Some editors argue that each news story presents its separate ethical challenge. For more on the pros and cons of media ethics codes, your students may want to visit the Web sites of the above listed organizations or the Poynter Institute’s Media Ethics Resource File.

  • Invite a journalist to class to talk about how she/he makes decisions regarding what to cover or not to cover. If from a newspaper, the visitor could address how the editors and publishers influence what is written and what appears in the paper. If the visiting journalist is from a television station, he or she might talk about how decisions are made regarding what images to air.
  • Ask students to consider differences between information printed in a newspaper, aired on a network news broadcast and offered online. Do they view one source of information as more reliable than another? Tips for savvy news consumers stresses the importance of making critical judgments of material found in all media, including the Internet. Students may find these tips helpful in judging the accuracy of what they read, see and hear in print, on air and online.

On the Web

Databank of European Codes of Journalism Ethics

Asia Media Ethics
A compendium of media codes of ethics from Asia.

Media Ethics Resource File
Online articles from the Poynter Institute collection.

Ethics Seminars
Information on seminars sponsored by the Poynter Institute. Poynter seminars help journalists and educators sharpen their critical-thinking skills.

National Standards
Civics, Standard 19: Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media. 

Civics, Standard 29: Understands the importance of political leadership, public service and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy.

United States History, Standard 8: Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.