Teaching Ethical Situations

Merle Dieleman
Pleasant Valley, Iowa

Below are several hypothetical situations for journalism students to ponder considering ethical situations. Ethical values to consider for each situation are as follows:

  1. The importance of getting more then one source. The importance of using only information that is “on the record.”
  2. The question of whether it is ethical to use the names of juveniles who are alleged to have committed a crime.
  3. The ethical question of when something is an invasion of privacy. The question of when a photographer should or should not take a photo, or whether that photo should be published.
  4. The question of whether to print unsigned letters to the editor. The importance of having a letter to the editor policy established. The responsibility of the publication for everything it prints.
  5. The issue of using anonymous sources.
  6. News publication staff member’s responsibilities.
  7. The issue of conflict of interest.
  8. The importance of getting both sides of an issue. The importance of “fair play.” The importance of having an editorial policy in place.

Ethical Situations — You Decide

  1. You are assigned to cover the school board meeting but the board decides to have a closed meeting to discuss the future of the high school principal. You sit in the hallway outside the closed meeting room during the meeting and you can hear the discussion. The board has decided to fire the high school principal. You ask several board members about it after the meeting but no one will confirm what you overheard. Deadline for the newspaper is the next day. Do you use the information?
  2. Two of your 14-year-old freshmen classmates allegedly are caught stealing music CDs from a local store. They were arrested by the police. Their names were not publicly released, but almost everyone knows who they are. Do you write a story for you school publication about it? Do you publish their names? May you legally publish their names?
  3. A house fire in your town kills one of your classmates and her 4-year-old brother. The photographer of the student news publication is at the scene and takes a picture of the distraught mother being restrained by a firefighter. The newspaper staff is divided about using the picture. Some think it is an invasion of privacy. Would you use the picture?
  4. Your publication accepts letters to the editor from its readers and publishes many of them. You receive one unsigned letter that is highly critical of the Selection process for the school’s boys basketball team and claims one team member was picked because he was a relative of the principal. You suspect the letter was written by an unsuccessful athlete for the basketball team. Do you publish the letter?
  5. You hear a rumor that the school board of your school is considering extending the school year. There will be school all year with only a break for Christmas-New Year holiday and only two weeks in the summer. A source tells you that, in fact, the school board has decided to extend the school year, but the announcement will not be made until next month. This source will not allow you to use his name. You tell your editor that you have the information confirmed, but that you cannot use the source’s name. Your editor refuses to use the story without the source’s name. You have nothing else to put on the front page of your news publication, and the deadline is in two days. Do you use the name of the source in your story?
  6. You are the editor of your school news publication. Your uncle decides to open a music store near the school. He wants you to write about the store in your publication. Should a story be written about the music store? Who should be assigned to write it?
  7. Your school news publication writes an article about the debate team which includes several quotations critical of the debate coach. The reporter does not interview the coach for the article. After the story is published, the debate coach says it includes several errors and libelous material. She demands that you print her 500-word response. Your editorial policy states that letters must be fewer than 300 words. What do you do?