Sticky Ethics Scenarios Journalists Face

Randy Swikle
Johnsburg High School
Johnsburg, Illinois

To enable students to recognize ethical issues involving media and to give students practical experience in ethical decision-making using news publications as a learning tool.

The American public has been highly critical of the press during the last several years, and part of that criticism has been based upon a public perception that journalists lack commitment and consistency and an effective ethical code.

Ethics is that branch of philosophy that helps journalists determine what is right to do in journalism. Ethics is personally determined and personally enforced. A code of ethics should provide the journalist with certain basic principles or standards by which he or she can judge actions to be right or wrong, good or bad, responsible or irresponsible.

It is important to get student journalists to think of their work in ethical terms. Every news assignment has its ethical dimensions, and it is vital that students recognize those dimensions and consider the ethical questions as they do their job of reporting and editing. A professional news publication can be a valuable textbook and tool to help students identify ethical issues and to help them form their own decisions to solve ethical problems.

The activities presented here are designed for a school journalism class. It is assumed that students have already had basic training in journalism and some previous work with the topic of ethics. The organization of this activity package is as follows:

In Part One, ethical issues are presented, and then activities involving news media use are suggested that are relevant to each issue.

In Part Two, actual case studies that the author has experienced are presented. A sampling of discussion questions follows each case.

One strategy is to divide the class into small groups to consider each case and chart a course of action. Returning to the large group, each small group reports its analysis and action, and the large group attempts to reach consensus. Another strategy is to form a panel that includes a school administrator, a parent, a professional editor, and a student journalist. The journalism teacher could moderate a discussion of each case study, and the audience could learn how the different panelists may have different perspectives regarding ethical issues.


    1. When is a news publication justified in censoring one of its columnists or cartoonists?
      • Find what you consider to be the most controversial column and/or cartoon in your news publication. Write three arguments that could be raised against printing the column/cartoon. Then write three reasons why the column/cartoon should be allowed in the news publication. Meet in groups of 3 or 4 to discuss your rationales and to try to reach consensus on what the editor should decide to do. What standards should be developed regarding the appropriateness of certain columns/cartoons in the news publication?
    2. Should cartoons with political messages be printed on opinion pages rather than in comic/entertainment section of the newspaper?
      • Go through the comic pages of your news publication. List all the cartoons that you consider purely entertaining; list those that regularly carry a political message; list those that are basically entertaining but occasionally carry a serious political message. Meet in small groups to share and compare lists and to discuss the following questions:
      1. Does the average reader consciously recognize those cartoons that carry sensitive and/or subtle political messages as opposed to those cartoons which are more “entertainment” in purpose?
      2. How subtly are “political” messages delivered in the comic section?
      3. What dangers, if any, are there in subliminally influencing reader attitudes via the comic pages?
      4. What kind of cartoons are found on the newspaper’s opinion pages, and how do those cartoons differ in nature from those on the comic pages?
    3. Should front page stories reflect what people “should read” or what people “want to read”?
      • Students are provided with a list of 10 headlines, representing stories from the morning news publications. Students are to select five headlines for front page placement and rate each of the five in priority for appearing on page one. Students meet in small groups to compare lists and strive for consensus on which five headlines should appear on page one. Have a spokesperson from each group present rationale for choices. Hold class discussion on the ethics of story placement. Sample questions:
      1. What responsibility does an editor have to emphasize “important” informational stories on front page?
      2. What responsibilities does the editor have to satisfy business interests of the paper by putting “sensational” stories on page one to help “sell” the paper?
      3. Is there a proper balance the editor can achieve between emphasizing what the reader “should read” and what the reader “wants to read”?

After the discussion, distribute the morning newspaper and let students compare their placement of headlines with placement that editors actually assigned. As a final follow-up, students could develop five rules of ethics regarding story placement.

  1. What constitutes a “conflict of interest” between a journalist and a story to which he or she is assigned?
    • Select any news story from the newspaper. Contrive a hypothetical situation in which a conflict of interest occurs involving a reporter and his or her story. Give the reporter’s hypothetical background and list two or three reasons a “conflict of interest” could exist and therefore compromise the reporter’s objectivity in covering the story. Meet in small groups and make a list of things that could effect a reporter’s objectivity. Discuss:
      1. How “objective” must a reporter be? How objective can the reporter be?
      2. Is it always necessary for a reporter to have an emotional detachment from the story?
      3. Should a reporter be allowed to hold elective office?
      4. How can a newspaper guard against those reporters who would use their position for selfish motives or unworthy purposes?
  2. When does interpretative reporting become editorializing?
    • In your newspaper, find an interpretative news story. Is the story labeled as “analysis” or “interpretative”? List the indisputable facts in the story. List the information that is based primarily on the reporter’s interpretation of the facts. Finally, list any information you feel is based upon the reporter’s personal opinion without any factual evidence to support the validity of the opinion. Meet in small groups to discuss such questions as:
    1. Is there truly a need for “interpretative” reporting?
    2. How does interpretative reporting differ from editorializing?
    3. Does interpretative reporting confuse the reader as to what is actually fact and what is opinion? Cite examples from your readings.
  3. Should “unidentified sources” be used in a newspaper?
    • In your newspaper, find a story in which an unidentified source is quoted. Protecting (and concealing) the identity of their informants is a real concern for journalists, and one on which their livelihood might well depend, but it also distinguishes the journalistic from the academic product. Without identifiable sources, the account cannot be reviewed or corroborated by others with specialized knowledge of the subject. Errors may thus remain uncorrected. Based on the story you find in the newspaper, discuss the following questions in a small group:
      1. How significant was the unidentified source to the content of the story?
      2. What was the nature of the quote or reference?
      3. Where was the quote referred to in the story? (Was it in the lead?)
      4. Would the story have been printed without the quote?
      5. Was the quote critical or complimentary?
      6. Is there a clear and compelling need to protect the identity of the source?
  4. Should letters to the editor be checked for factual accuracy before publication?
    • Turn in your paper to the letters to the editor section. Underline verifiable factual information as opposed to opinion.
      1. As editor of the news publication, would you feel ethically compelled to check the accuracy of the information, knowing that inaccurate information could be just as “influential” as accurate information?
      2. How much would it cost in time and money to verify?
      3. Would you contact the sender to confirm the source of the letter?
      4. Would or should a small newspaper with less resources than a large, metropolitan newspaper take similar precautions?

      Develop in a small group a list of ethical practices for printing letters to the editor.

  5. Should subliminal advertising be allowed in a newspaper?
    • Subliminal advertising is advertising that delivers an influential message but beneath the conscious level of a reader’s perception. Find in your newspaper possible examples of subliminal advertising. Discuss in small group work:
      1. Is there a danger to the consumer in subliminal advertising?
      2. Why do advertisers occasionally resort to this type of advertising?
      3. How widespread is it?
      4. How much time do you consciously devote to trying to understand why a particular ad may be appealing to you?
      5. Is subliminal advertising ethically fair, or is it something that causes a significant disadvantage to the consumer?
  1. Should pretrial publicity, including photographs, be printed in the newspaper?
    • Some countries, such as Great Britain, put significant limitations on the amount of pretrial publicity that is allowed. Check your newspaper. Identify all the stories about people being charged with a crime; identify all the stories about trials currently in session; and identify stories of trial results or follow-ups.
      1. How many stories have accompanying pictures?
      2. How does pretrial publicity affect jury selection?
      3. Is such bad publicity fair to a person who is later cleared or found innocent?
      4. What is the need for pretrial publicity?
  2. When does a person’s right to privacy outweigh the news value?
    • In your news publication find examples of photos that capture private persons in embarrassing, emotional, or otherwise “private” situations.
      1. Do reporters often violate the sanctity of what should be a private time?
      2. What positive effect does a photograph of a grieving mother serve to the readers of a newspaper?
      3. What examples from your newspaper do you feel indicate bad taste on the part of reporters?
      4. In which cases were the reporters justified in covering the story?
      5. In small groups, develop six or more ethical guidelines to help a reporter’s decision-making in such situations where privacy is an issue.


  1. A school secretary at the junior high is charged with embezzling $20,000 from the student activity fund, money used to sponsor class trips and club projects.
    • Should this story be covered in the school news publication?
    • The secretary’s son is a student at the high school. Should that influence the decision on whether or not to cover the story?
    • The secretary’s son is also under psychiatric care for depression. What if the staff decides to cover the story, but the principal threatens to censor it because of his concern for the psychological damage the embarrassment could cause the secretary’s son, who is totally innocent.
    • Is there any remedy to the dilemma short of censorship?

  2. The local Community Club is a hub of town activity, but in its 77-year history, it has never had a woman member. The club promotes community projects and social activities and also has political influence. Knowing that some women would like to join the club, a reporter for the student newspaper wants to interview club officers and find out why no women have ever been admitted as members. The superintendent of schools, a past president of the club, asks the editors to postpone covering the story until after the town votes on a school referendum two months away. He is afraid a controversial story about the club could cause some people to vote against the referendum in retribution.
    • Should the editors agree to delay coverage?
    • How can they justify their decision?
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of delaying coverage?
    • What risks do editors take if they go ahead with the story despite the superintendent’s request?
    • Should a school newspaper cover this kind of community issue?

  3. A columnist for the student newspaper said he witnessed the principal physically removing a student (for misconduct) from the stands at a football game. Although the student was obeying the principal’s request to get up and leave, the columnist said the principal grabbed the student by the arm, embarrassing him in front of his peers. The columnist writes an opinion piece on the incident, personally attacking the principal for his poor judgment in “manhandling” a student. The principal denies he used physical force.
    • As editor, do you allow the columnist editorial freedom to personally attack the principal for using poor judgment?
    • To the editor’s knowledge, the principal had never before been accused of being physical in administering discipline. Should that fact have any relevancy about how this story should be handled?
    • Should the editor require the columnist to “tone down” his article? What could be the advantages and disadvantages of editing the article in a way that would tone down the personal nature of the attacks on the principal?
    • Would other teachers and school staff members feel threatened that if they made a simple mistake, they would be criticized in the newspaper?
    • When is criticism of an administrator or teacher justified in the student newspaper? When is it not?
  4. Two months after being elected homecoming king, a student is expelled for stealing science equipment.
    • Should this story be covered in the student newspaper?
    • Since expulsion hearings are held in executive session of the board of education and students are not identified to the public by name, how could such a story be covered without the risk of libel?
    • When is the newspaper justified in printing the names of students involved in incidents of discipline or crime?
    • What should be the criteria for covering such stories?

  5. The wrestling coach learns that the student newspaper is planning to print an action picture of one of his wrestlers in a match that he lost. The wrestling coach summons the photographer and demands that the photo she took not be used The picture shows the two wrestlers in an upright position with neither at an advantage. However, the winning wrestler from the visiting school is a girl.
    • Should you ever run a photo of a home team wrestler losing to an opponent?
    • What if the photo doesn’t show the opponent having the advantage?
    • What if the match is for the state championship?
    • Should the fact that the victor is a girl have any relevancy?
    • Should the photographer or editor be at all concerned that the photo could be particularly embarrassing to the boy who was defeated by the girl?
    • Should the newspaper allow a coach to censor a photograph?
    • How should the newspaper respond to the coach’s attempt to censor the photograph?
    • What may be the consequences if the photo is run? If it is not run?

  6. The principal is arrested for operating a motorboat while under the influence. The story is covered in the community newspaper. Students are talking about the incident at school, but they don’t all have the correct facts. The principal is very popular with students and cooperates with the newspaper staff in a very supporting way.
    • Should this story be covered in the weekly student newspaper? If yes, how? Page one? Editorial? Letters to the editor?
    • Walter Cronkite once said, “Truth knows neither friend nor enemy, nor should those who pursue it.” How may that statement apply to the case at hand?
    • Is it worth covering this story if it will mean the wrath of the faculty?
    • What criteria should be used in determining whether a story embarrassing to the school should be run?
    • A judge dropped the charges against the principal a month later. How should the student newspaper cover that story?