Note:This sample syllabus was designed to be drawn upon and used freely by all educators, students and classrooms. Please reuse or adapt this resource in whatever way would best serve your work; it is a public domain, Creative Commons document.
The American news media has seldom been held in lower esteem by the public. This partly comes from a sense that professional standards have dropped. The digital age, where publishing and broadcasting information have proliferated far beyond daily newspapers and radio and television stations, only complicates these dynamics of mistrust. Corrupted information and half-truths seem to be everywhere, many citizens sense, and news media outlets — like almost all large institutions in today’s society — face increasing skepticism.
A crucial question, then, looms for those studying journalism and training to become reporters and editors: What distinguishes the professional journalist’s approach to information amid vast other digital streams of videos, photos, data and text? In large part, the answer must be the highest of ethical standards and a commitment to the uncorrupted pursuit of truth based on verifiable facts and knowledge.
We stand at a moment when the journalistic ethical codes that American society has known for decades are now under tremendous pressure, as the underlying business model continues to erode, news and information are increasingly consumed in personalized ways on commercial platforms, and every journalistic story must compete for attention amid an overwhelming sea of what is generically being called “content.” Meanwhile, the number of U.S. editorial workers has been nearly cut in half over the past few decades; there are now about four public relations persons for every journalist. Preserving an ethical core, and seeking to improve upon the checkered past of reporting, is no sure or easy thing for a profession that has never required a license to practice.
This syllabus presents ideas, materials, case studies and readings that speak to this moment of change.
Learn the core ethical principles that have defined the very best journalism.
Know the chief ethical challenges and salient failures journalism has seen in the past.
Develop a sharp awareness of how digital technology and increased two-way engagement with audiences are changing the nature of journalistic ethical decision-making and challenging it in new ways.
Create a language for ethical reasoning and the capacity to apply important principles to concrete reporting situations of all kinds, both old and new.
Learn the newsgathering rights afforded to journalists as well as the laws that both protect and constrain journalistic practice.
This course will acquaint students with important ethical principles and professional norms that they can employ in the practice of reporting. Students will develop their knowledge of theories and frameworks, gain knowledge of important journalistic failures and mistakes, as well as emerging areas of professional challenge, and learn how to apply this knowledge during reporting, publication and audience engagement processes. The course is designed to build toward a final project in which students demonstrate a thorough grasp of ethics issues in journalism.
Suggested class materials include general texts that supply a theoretical framework, book chapters, and print or online readings that apply to class topics, and films. Instructors can guide students to relevant articles or ask students to do their own research. Readings can be selected from those suggested based on the emphasis of the course designed. Separately, several books are proposed for the instructor’s use and selected chapters may lend themselves to student use as well.
Suggested chapters from many of the following books are listed with the relevant class.
Kelly McBride, Tom Rosenstiel, The New Ethics of Journalism, 2014.
Gene Foreman, The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age, Second Edition, 2015.
Thomas E. Patterson, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism, 2013.
Sue Ellen Christian, Overcoming Bias: A Journalist’s Guide to Culture and Context, 2011.
Alex S. Jones, Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, 2009.
Patrick Lee Plaisance, Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice, 2009.
Dale Jacquette, Journalistic Ethics: Moral Responsibility in the Media, 2007.
David Craig, The Ethics of the Story: Using Narrative Techniques Responsibly in Journalism, 2006.
Seth Mnookin, Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and their Meaning for American Media, 2004.
Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990.
The search for truth and ethics are inextricably bound up in journalism; indeed, the fair, unbiased, uncorrupted and dogged pursuit of accurate information is the essence of ethical reporting. All professional journalism, whether analog or digital, has at its core an aspiration toward accuracy, precision in communication and fairness. This week takes a big-picture look at the pursuit of truth and facts, and reviews some cases where journalists came up short and the consequences in terms of doing a disservice to the public.
Class 1: Fidelity to truth and the public
Roy Peter Clark, “Kicking the Stone: The Search for Reliable Evidence in Journalism,” Chapter 2, The New Ethics of Journalism.
Dale Jacquette, “Truth Telling in the Public Interest,” Chapter 1, Journalistic Ethics.
Thomas E. Patterson, “The Information Problem,” Chapter 1, Informing the News.
Students should familiarize themselves with the recent troubling ethical case of journalists entering an apartment – with the apparent help of a willing landlord – still under investigation in its connection to the 2015 San Bernadino, Calif., mass shooting. (See “Landlord Lets Reporters into San Bernadino Suspects’ Home,”New York Times, Dec. 2015.) Write a blog post of 750 words discussing how this case puts the pursuit of truth and professional ethics directly in tension, and make a case for how journalists should conduct themselves in such a situation.
Week 2: The language and structure of ethical reasoning
This week asks students to step back and to look at the wider world of ethical reasoning and its basis in philosophy, giving students a sophisticated language with which to approach problems in practice. From utilitarianism and a rights-based approach to the common good and virtue approaches, ethics is a field that has some well-established frameworks for application, interpretation and choices of action.
Break the class into teams and ask them to review some of the ethics codes from various media organizations and groups. (Choose from a list of many different codes provided by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics.) What are chief points of similarity and contrast, both substantively and in terms of emphasis? Teams should present their findings and provide an argument for the key points of any ethical code in journalism.
This week familiarizes students with some of the most high-profile scandals and controversial stories involving unethical or questionable journalistic practice, including the cases of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Dan Rather and Mike Daisey.
Using the free software application TimelineJS, teams of students should construct a chronological sequence of instances of ethical lapses in American journalism over the past decade. While high-profile cases might be surfaced, students should also look for less-publicized cases at smaller news outlets; they should also look to create a theme around an issue such as fabrication, plagiarism, faulty sourcing, etc.
This week looks at the need for the journalist to report the truth as fully as possible; to be fair to subjects; and to both hold power accountable and to give voice to those without power. Issues such as the overreliance on single, partisan sources, as well as the distorting lens of racial bias, are introduced.
Class 1: The challenges of truth
Alex S. Jones, “The Iron Core,” “Objectivity’s Last Stand” and “Media Ethics: The Painful Balance,” Chapters 1,4-5, Losing the News.
Students should choose a news story that they believe does not reflect the whole truth. Write a blog post dissecting the structure of the reporting, the sources and data cited (or not cited), and exploring the ways in which the story might be improved. Alternatively, students might be assigned to the same story and could exchange comments beneath one another’s blog posts as part of an online dialogue about the story in question.
This week takes a closer look at how journalists must “show their work” in a digital age and demonstrate intellectual honesty to the public. Above all, any conflicts of interest, and the appearance of conflicts of interest, must be avoided.
Class 1: Being clear about methods
“Part Two: Transparency,” pp. 89-165, Chapters 6-10, The New Ethics of Journalism.
Students should analyze a media organization and the company that owns it. They should focus on whether there is a stated ethics and conflict of interest policy on the website, and do further research on the background of executives, managers and principals, and perform public records searches, to the extent possible. For publicly traded companies, review the Journalist’s Resource tip sheet on reading financial statements. Students might also pull the 990 IRS disclosure forms of several non-profit journalism outlets (databases can be found in several places listed here at Journalist’s Resource.) They should analyze those disclosure forms and compare them with funding disclosures listed at the news outlets’ websites. In particular, students should look at Section VII, where board members, directors and trustees are listed, and do research to figure out the affiliations of persons listed. Write a blog post about the quality of disclosure and the ways any conflicts of interest may be problematic as it relates to reporting on certain issues.
Week 6: Engaging community; minimizing harm and respecting privacy
This week’s class focuses on the journalist’s relationship with an increasingly wired public. It explores the dual imperatives to facilitate the capacity of the community to communicate and engage on issues, and to minimize the harm to community members when journalism must tell tough and revealing stories in an online environment. Readings also touch on communicating controversial or sensitive issues.
Class 1: Engagement and discretion
“Part Three: Community,” pp. 165-216, Chapters 11-14, The New Ethics of Journalism.
Review the Dallas Morning News series “Yolanda’s Crossing” and review the related presentation by Tom Huang for the Poynter Institute, “Credibility and Journalism in the Digital Age.” Write a blog post of 750-1,000 words addressing a few key questions: Why should this story be told? What are some challenges to journalistic independence in reporting a project like this? Who could be harmed by the reporting?
This week will take up some concrete cases that highlight two perils inherent in the nature of the news business: The twin desires to grab attention and to be first with the story. We will look at issues of proportionality and discretion, and focus on the careful balance between informing the public and sensationalizing an issue for the purposes of web traffic, ratings or other motives. The dynamics of breaking news, especially when fueled by social media, will be explored.
Students should use news archives and social media archive tools to review breaking news coverage around national or international events such as the Boston Marathon Bombing or the San Bernadino, Calif., mass shooting. Write a blog post of 750-1,000 words with observations about how storylines develop, errors are made and news outlets iterate and evolve in their coverage. To limit the scope of analysis, students might choose to focus on just one or two sources.
This week will focus on core American case law relating to the press and new laws and norms relating to the use of digital technology to record, document and tell news stories. The focus of inquiry will range from landmark legal cases to new norms relating to the digital world.
Class 1: The core of the law
Majority and dissenting opinions in landmark First Amendment Supreme Court cases: Near v. Minnesota (1931); Times v. Sullivan (1964); Branzburg v. Hayes (1971); New York Times v. United States (1971).
Students should review the “Legal Threat” Database at Harvard’s Digital Media Law Project. Choose a case or set of cases that highlight certain live legal issues that journalists may confront. Write a blog post of 750-1,000 words on the implications for journalists and what they should know about the law in this area.
Week 9: Newsgathering and the rights (and responsibilities) of journalists
What does “on background” really mean? Should you friend someone on Facebook in order to get information about them as a source? Should you fly a drone over his or her home? This week will drill down on such questions, and on specific “field” practices and tools relating to news gathering. The class will explore ethical dilemmas relating to how information can be obtained, verified and published with discretion and professionalism.
Class 1: Rights of reporters
Dale Jacquette, “Journalistic Rights and Responsibilities,” Chapter 2, Journalistic Ethics.
Students should seek to understand the rules and regulations that govern press access and rights on their college campus. Review “Examining a journalist’s right of access to college and university campuses,” (Jonathan Peters, Columbia Journalism Review, Dec. 2015) for an introduction to the topic. Interview relevant stakeholders (public relations persons, town or city reporters, campus news reporters) and write a blog post on the “state of the free press” on campus.
Week 10: Journalists and social media
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This week will examine evolving norms and rules for how journalists should conduct themselves in “public” digital spaces and how best to engage communities and maintain credibility.
Students should review the American Press Institute’s collection of news articles on community engagement strategies. Write a blog post synthesizing best practices based on a group of related articles, and send out multiple tweets or social media posts based on the blog post. Classmates should respond to one another on social media platforms as part of the exercise.
Week 11: Native advertising, institutional firewalls and fluid norms
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This week’s materials and discussion will focus on how the evolving business model in journalism is challenging the profession’s ethical core in important ways, some of which are not always obvious.
Students should work in teams to devise a 3-4 page ideal ethics policy relating to advertising and funders, both as it relates to a given news institution, its structure and individual news teams and reporters. They should post these online and comment on strength and weakness of one another’s proposed policies.
This week will focus on the two key areas of growth within media as news becomes digital-first – data graphics and video – and explores how these specific mediums can misinform if not deployed carefully and thoughtfully.
Students should review the data journalism case detailed in “Times Was Right to Change Insensitive Graphic” (Margaret Sullivan, New York Times, Sept. 2015.) They should then locate other graphics published by news organizations that conceivably could offend or upset communities of various kinds. Write a blog post of 750-1,000 dissecting several questionable instances and propose solutions for each case that balance the pursuit of truth with data and a sense of discretion and fairness.
Week 13: Truth in an era of big leaks, globalization and polarization