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March 21, 2005

The unspoken words of media ethics: Do we know what they are? – Lesson Plan

By Lisa Greeves, English and journalism teacher


Social studies, civics, journalism, communications

Estimated Time

This lesson will take approximately two class periods.


With the recent plagiarism and fabrication problem at The New York Times involving former reporter Jayson Blair and the resignation of Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter Rick Bragg for failing to acknowledge that an intern wrote some of his bylined work, consumers of mass media may find themselves pondering the state of media ethics, and in particular, asking just exactly what media ethics are. Do the average media consumers always know the unspoken ethical rules that guide the newspaper, magazine, or TV news that they watch? Probably not. Most publications offer a “Code of Ethics” for consumer perusal, but many typical readers and viewers may not know that. Explore with your students some of these codes and unspoken rules that govern our media and, subsequently, the news we all see and hear.


Students will read codes of ethics from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors and role-play ethical dilemmas faced by reporters.



1. You may want to provide students with copies of Handouts #1-6 ahead of time and assign them to read all of them before class. If you prefer, you can assign a one-paragraph reaction to be turned in at the beginning of class to ensure that students read the articles, or you can give a quick content quiz.

2. At the beginning of class, review with students the definitions of the following words from Handout #9: attributing, conflict of interest, ethics, impartial, integrity, ombudsman, plagiarism, pseudonym.

3. Discuss with students at the beginning of class the story of disgraced reporter Jayson Blair. Make sure students understand the volume of his work, how Blair plagiarized in his writing, what his punishment has been, and how the situation has affected the top leadership at the NYT (the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor both resigned).

4. After reviewing the Jayson Blair story, ask students to write for five minutes in their notebooks about what surprised them from the four Codes that they read about in Handouts #3, #4, #5, and #6. What did they find in some of the codes that they did not anticipate? After writing for five minutes, have students share with the class some of their reactions to the Codes of Ethics handouts. Students can be broken up into groups with each group reporting back to the class on the code they read.

5. Ask the class which points would the average non-reporter not even think about being a part of a policy governing the news. Ask students to put themselves in the place of different types of readers (elderly, immigrants, well-educated, etc) and to speculate on which points from the different Codes of Ethics that most people would know about and wouldn’t know about.

6. Divide students into small groups and distribute copies of Handout #7. Assign each group to work through each media situation described in the handout. Have each group develop a written explanation for the ethical concern each situation would raise, what should the publication do in each situation and their reasons why.

7. Have each group share its findings with the class in a group discussion. Collect each group’s written discussions in order to give students credit.

8. Obtain a copy of your school newspaper’s editorial policy, code of ethics, or publishing guidelines and distribute copies of it to your classroom students. Then, assign students to respond individually to the five situations described in Handout #8 that tend to plague many high school publications. Assign students to write a paragraph in response to each situation, explaining what should be done about the problem based on your school’s ethical statement or guidelines and why. Then assign students to write an additional paragraph reflecting on whether or not they think that their school newspaper’s Code of Ethics is thorough enough. What should be added to it?

Have students share their findings from their homework in the next class period and collect their work for a grade.

9. If possible, invite your school newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor or the Editorial Staff in to your classroom to field a discussion of how they would handle situations like those listed in Handout #8.

Additional Discussion or Writing Ideas

What are some ways that national media can make their codes of ethics or integrity statements more understandable and recognizable to the public? Explore and discuss the role of ombudsman. See definition on Handout #9. Read some columns from local or national newspapers with ombudsmen. Are they helpful? Do you think most consumers of news read these columns? Why or why not? How might they be better used? How might high school newspapers make their editorial policies, codes of ethics, and publishing principles more understandable, recognizable, and usable to the ever-changing student body and school staff?

About the Author

Lisa Greeves has taught high school English and Journalism classes for two Virginia school systems: Fairfax County Public Schools and Rockbridge County Schools. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Communication from James Madison University and a Master’s Degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University. She recently had a chapter published in the 2002 NCTE publication Applying NCTE/IRA Standards in Classroom Journalism Projects. 

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