Ethical Decision Making


Kerby00If you CAN do it, SHOULD you do it?

High school journalists are going to face tough calls—they CAN do something, but SHOULD they do it? Teaching students to make these decisions by following the professional model is one of the best things that teachers can do to raise the level of journalism practiced by their students.

Making good decisions in tough situations is a critical skill for students who are going to exercise their own First Amendment rights or act as producers or news directors over a staff of less-experienced students.

Student journalists can benefit greatly from an introduction to Codes of Ethics that professional journalists have established for themselves. But simply saying, “Here is it, read it, and there’s a test on it tomorrow,” is not enough. Making good decisions comes from practice. Students are learning HOW to make decisions. It is the teacher’s responsibility to provide structured opportunities for students to practice decision-making. The ultimate goal of this structured practice is that the student will eventually become an independent leader who can be counted on to make good legal and ethical decisions.

One of the best ways to provide this practice is in scenario-based discussion. Toss out a short scenario that would be typical of your specific setting. Here’s a sample scenario:

A student is producing a package about shopping/buying habits of teens. He has shot outside a mall (because the mall will not allow cameras inside). The reporter shows you his footage of his stand-up which ends with “let’s interview some of the teens who are headed to the mall today to do some shopping.” Just then, the reporter’s best friend walks into the frame and the reporter does what is meant to look like a chance interview with a typical teenage shopper who just happened to pass by at that time. However, it’s obvious that this interview was probably planned in advance and staged for the camera.

How would one of your student producers handle this situation? Would the reporter be allowed to use the interview? Would a professional journalist do this? I presented that same scenario to the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee and received this answer:

The SPJ Code says: Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.

The story cannot be aired. It’s misleading. Or, to put it in plain language, it’s a lie. Staged interviews are not ethical…period. Go get some real interviews or kill the story. In the real world, fire the reporter.

Scenario-based discussion based on professional Codes of Ethics such as those in the following list can give them a base on which to make future decisions.

•Radio and Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics
•Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
•National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics

The Student Television Network is a national organization for students engaged in scholastic broadcasting, creative video and filmmaking, and media convergence. They have developed the STN Code of Ethics and students will see that it is based on the same principles as those of the professionals.

Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are making their mark as journalists use them to disseminate as well as gather information and create followings. RTDNA has just recently established their own guidelines for online journalism including social media. Discussions of these with your students can help them understand not only how the professionals recognize both the power and risk, but also make them aware of decisions to be made about their own personal use of these media.

If you as a teacher are feeling unsure of yourself in discussing these “tough calls” with your students, I encourage you to join the teacher listserv on HSBJ.ORG. It’s free. Read when others ask for help with their tough calls and the advice that is given. Post your own and get immediate response. Draw from the expertise and the moral support of the hundreds of veteran teachers who monitor the list daily. The Student Television Network also has a member listserv.

Teaching your students to make good ethical decisions--that’s one thing you CAN do, and, yes, you SHOULD do it.



Kerby00Janet Kerby is a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education specializing in broadcast journalism. Janet’s extensive teaching experience and award-winning program at Roane County High School in West Virginia provide the background for her current work in teacher training. Janet has developed an online graduate course Teaching Broadcast Journalism and is currently teaching that course as part of Kent State University’s Master of Arts Degree–Journalism Educator Specialization. Additional information about her work is available at http://www.video-educator-training.com