Libel and Ethics

Debbie Service
Jefferson Davis Senior High School

Title: Libel and Ethics

Description of School and Students

The 2001-02 school year will be the first year Jefferson Davis High School in Houston will have a journalism program. This is being added to the curriculum due to the practical application of technology involved in desktop publishing and campus publication production. The mission of the campus is to create an environment where students, teachers, staff, parents, and community work together to attain and enhance academic, social, cultural, physical, and emotional development. Much of this mission is being accomplished through the infusion of technology into every aspect of learning. Within the past decade this campus has worked within its mission to evolve from a typical troubled inner-city school into a model of the positive impact technology, corporate incentives, and parental involvement can have on student achievement.

Tenneco Inc., through Project GRAD, has enabled Davis High School to maintain high attendance rates, low dropout rates, and high retention and graduation rates. Of the 1,700 students in grades 9 through 12, 90 percent are Hispanic, 70 percent are economically disadvantaged, over 50 percent take college admissions exams.

Most students enrolled in this course are advanced placement ninth-graders. Scheduling is in accelerated blocks. This unit will be taught in three 90-minute sessions.

Generative Topics

  • What are the consequences of falsifying sources or stories?
  • How is credibility of journalists affected in the eyes of readers when information is false?
  • What are the steps in determining libel?

Generative Objects

  • Newspaper articles giving details of dismissal of journalists for using false data.
  • “Dateline” and “60 Minutes” video reports on libel and fabricated news reports.
  • Radio broadcast hoax of deaths of pop singers.

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • How reliable is the newspaper?
    • How reliable should it be?
    • Can you believe everything you see on televised news broadcasts?
    • Should you believe everything you hear on the radio?
    • How do journalistic ethics apply to the Internet?
    • How effective are journalists in policing unethical activity among themselves? How effective are they compared to other professionals in medicine or law?
    • Should American journalists be imprisoned for false reportage?
    • Was the jury correct in finding Wayne Dolcefino of Channel 13 in Houston guilty of libel?
    • Was the higher court judge correct in overturning the original decision?
    • Do the Dallas radio announcers deserve to be sued for libel by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • When is it appropriate for a journalist to be less than truthful?
    • What effect does false reporting have on readers, viewers, listeners?
    • How can a student journalist safeguard the truth?
    • Is it ethical for student newspapers to publish gossip columns? Letters to the editor? Horoscopes?
    • What methods can students develop to avoid using questionable information from the Internet?

Performance of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

74§110.62(1)(A): Identify significant persons and events in the history of journalism in the United States.

74§110.62(1)(C): Define the responsibility of the media to the audience. TEKS Covered: 1B, 1C, 2F, 2G

This unit emphasizes the need to provide complete and truthful accounts of events in student publications. Examination of the consequences of providing false, incomplete, or misleading information will underscore the value of truth as a principle of journalism.

Activity 1

  • Students will read Chapters 2 and 3 in the textbook to provide a foundation for discussion of the Zenger case, ethics, and libel. (45 minutes)

Activity 2

  • Students will participate in a discussion about material presented in the text and corresponding handouts. (45 minutes)

Activity 3

  • To reinforce understanding of the need for truthful reporting students will review notes from reading and discussion prior to viewing a broadcast from 60 Minutes showing a German television reporter who had been imprisoned for fabricating reports and a “Dateline” broadcast showing details of Wayne Dolcefino’s libel trial. (90 minutes)

Activity 4

  • Students will read and discuss videos and articles about television, radio, and newspaper reporters who have lost their jobs for fabricating information. (45 minutes)


Using tabloid magazines, students will each Select one story that may contain libelous information and then write a brief explanation of its merits as a court case.

Resources Recommended

  • Ferguson, Donald L., Patten, Jim, and Wilson, Bradley, “Journalism Today 5th ed.”, (Chicago: National Textbook Company) 1998.
  • Fuller, Jack, “News Values,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1997.
  • Bauder, David, “Fired CNN producers defend story on nerve gas allegations,” Houston Chronicle, July 23, 1998, p. 24A.
  • Associated Press, “Columnist loses job over absent sources,” Houston Chronicle, Aug. 22, 1999, p. 6A
  • Ferdinand, Pamela and Kurtz, Howard, “Globe columnist forced out/Mike Barnicle quits after new charge of ethics violation,” Houston Chronicle, p. 3A.
  • Turner, Alan, “Turner-KTRK lawsuit ends without a winner/Ruling widens scope of states libel law,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 22, 2000, p. 1A.
  • “Dateline” and “60 Minutes” reports from Channel 1.

Recommended Web resources