Case studies in journalistic ethics No. 2

Jennifer Seavey
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Alexandria, Virginia

The course syllabus was modeled on “Media Ethics: Where do you draw the line?” case studies coupled with pertinent related chapters in the “Law of the Student Press” and various Web sites that promote better understanding of media ethics issues. My overall objective is to present real world examples of media law issues in short, palatable chunks.

Standards met
Each of my lesson plans addresses the following Fairfax County Public Schools Program of Studies objectives for high school journalism:

  • Objective 1: Develop an understanding of the importance of journalism in a democratic society.
  • Objective 3: Understand what news is and learn the importance of accuracy in reporting.
  • Objective 8: Develop an understanding of ethics of journalism and the regulations governing the student press.


Suggested Time Allowance: 170 minutes


Students will:

  • Consider the ethics behind the use of hidden cameras to tape alleged wrongdoing.
  • Consider the Food Lion case from its inception through its aftermath in the courts.
  • Compare the facts of the case against the Code of Ethics.
  • Consider the “newsworthiness” defense.
  • Consider the definition of libel and its legal consequences.
  • Consider the divide between print and electronic journalism as regards fact compilation.


  • As a class, we will discuss “To what lengths should you go to get a story?” and vote on the choices A, B and C.
  • Students will examine the Food Lion case using a transcript from the court of appeals session. Two tables will be assigned plaintiff responsibility; two as defense.
  • Students will be given one hour to prepare their case before the class with each side choosing two classmates to present.
  • The chosen counsels will present their arguments.
  • The class will as a whole debate the arguments for and against after the presentations and revote on the “Media Ethics” choices.
  • Each table will then be assigned an article from a U.S. newspaper detailing the case from a journalist’s point of view. Each table will be asked to compare the reporting of the facts against what we know to be true from the court transcript.
  • Students will discuss how the press “spun” the story and whether it appeared fair and balanced.
  • Students will read “The Real Story” and then as a class discuss the questions provided.
  • Students will watch an excerpt from “All the President’s Men” that shows Woodward and Bernstein attempting to obtain information without misrepresenting their role as Post reporters.
  • Time permitting, students will research one case in a newspaper database that reflects investigative reporting gone haywire.


  • Read “Lying for the story…” and consider how the reporters in the Food Lion story do or do not violate the Code of Ethics. Discussion tomorrow.



  • Cieply, Michael. “ABC Sued Over Use of Hidden Cameras; Casting workshop operators,
    actors say 20/20 violated state privacy standards.” Los Angeles Times: March 13, 2000: C1.
  • “Food Lion suit says ABC sent undercover reporter.” The Sun, Baltimore: Sept. 19, 1992:
  • Kurtz, Howard. “Does Finding Truth Justify Lies by Reports? “False Identities, Hidden
    Cameras Raise Questions.” Seattle Times: Dec. 13, 1992: A5.
  • McCarthy, Colman. “Getting the Truth Untruthfully.” The Washington Post: Dec. 22, 1992: D21.
  • Pisik, Betsey. “Food Lion Sanitation Faulted by ABC-TV.” The Washington Times: Nov. 7, 1992: p. 5.

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