Calls: How Do Journalists Make Ethical Decisions?
Studies , Civics, Journalism, Media Studies
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
to this curriculum’s First Principles.
The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical,
everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.
in this lesson relate to all the First Principles, with special
relevance to these points:
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.
the following case study to your class:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Chicago Sun-Times was the only major newspaper to treat the
school shootings in this fashion.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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:
the reports seem to be accurate, fair and clear?
the news stories use named or anonymous sources?
someone’s privacy been invaded?
the reporting sensationalized?
the reporting newsworthy?
good news judgment used?
B: You be the journalist
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
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.
2, 3 and 4 are followed by the real stories — descriptions of what
actually happened. After discussion, share with students these accounts:
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
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.
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.
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?
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
On the Web
Databank of European Codes of Journalism
Asia Media Ethics
A compendium of media codes of ethics from
Ethics Resource File
Online articles from the Poynter Institute
on seminars sponsored by the Poynter Institute. Poynter seminars
help journalists and educators sharpen their critical-thinking
Standard 19: Understands what is meant by "the public agenda,"
how it is set and how it is influenced by public opinion and the
Standard 29: Understands the importance of political leadership,
public service and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional
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.
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