LEARNING TO DO THE RIGHT THING:
ASSESSING KNOWLEDGE OF MEDIA ETHICS
OF LEADING HIGH SCHOOL JOURNALISM STUDENTS
By Joseph A. Mirando, Ph.D.
Southeastern Louisiana University
Hammond, LA 70402
E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to be considered for presentation at the annual national
convention of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Scholastic
Division, Baltimore, Md., August 1998.
LEARNING TO DO THE RIGHT THING:
ASSESSING KNOWLEDGE OF MEDIA ETHICS
OF LEADING HIGH SCHOOL JOURNALISM STUDENTS
Paper submitted to be considered for presentation at the annual national
convention of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Scholastic
Division, Baltimore, Md., August 1998.
LEARNING TO DO THE RIGHT THING:
ASSESSING KNOWLEDGE OF MEDIA ETHICS
OF LEADING HIGH SCHOOL JOURNALISM STUDENTS
Attention to questions of ethics has become a very important part of the field
journalism and mass communication today. For most of this century working
had codes of ethics which they themselves created and revised through their
organizations, but today working journalists often find that the company or
employs them is very likely to have its own in-house code of ethics (Christians,
1986/87) and a
track record of disciplining employees who have violated the in-house code of
( Newsroom Ethics, 1986). A body of literature on media ethics is growing
rapidly with a
range of trade magazines, scholarly journals, and general journalism textbooks
containing sections on ethics discussions, a scholarly journal published since
1986 that is
dedicated exclusively to questions of media morality, the Journal of Mass Media
since the 1970s, the appearance of dozens of textbooks devoted entirely to
courses in media ethics have mushroomed (Christians, 1978, 1985; Lambeth,
Christians & Cole,
1994), and the leading organization for professors, the Association for
Education in Journalism
and Mass Communication, has had interest groups devoted to ethics in the 1980s
which have discussed seeking status as a full-fledged division.
However, on the high school level, media ethics often takes a back seat. When
journalism becomes the focus of discussion at a convention or in a professional
attention is most likely to be devoted to matters of censorship, prior
restraint, student publication
funding, technology, writing skills, and curricular offerings. When the AEJMC s
Scholastic Journalism Division surveyed the research interests of its members in
1995-96, only four of 48
respondents indicated that they were, are now, or will be engaged in studying
pertaining to student journalists (AEJMC Scholastic Journalism, 1996).
The purpose of this research is to study media ethics as practiced on the high
and thus to expand media ethics growing body of literature to include
scholastic journalism. As
argued by one of the few researchers on the topic, Tom Eveslage of Temple
issues have become so important in scholastic journalism that teachers can no
longer afford not
to teach ethics (1994).
Journalism is a prominent activity regularly engaged in at America s high
According to a study by Dvorak (1992), students at almost 95% of all secondary
schools in the
United States participate in at least one media-related activity sponsored by
their schools, and
at nearly 79% of the schools this media-related activity is a newspaper. In
addition, almost 75%
of the schools offer at least one journalism class, and more than a half million
students nationwide are studying journalism or serving on student media staffs.
This study is composed of an assessment of journalism students knowledge of
ethics. Utilizing a test administered to Louisiana students, the study is
limited to generalizations
on Louisiana s high school journalism programs. The research problem this study
will address is
How strong is Louisiana high school journalism students knowledge of media
The intent of the assessment is to help Louisiana educators understand the
weaknesses of their teachings and assist them in setting up their own codes of
ethics for their
school publication staffs as well as assessing the qualifications of journalism
for jobs in the state.
Scholastic Journalism in America
For about the past quarter of a century, school press associations, media
college journalism educators, and concerned working journalists have mounted a
campaign to alert the nation to what has been perceived as the generally poor
state of high
school journalism in America (Hernandez, 1994, p. 14). Backed by research
problems ranging from inadequate knowledge of communication to outright
censorship, a series
of study groups and commissions has consistently recommended that the nation s
schools must devote more attention to creating and maintaining student
newspapers and classes
The roots of the current period of alarm at the direction scholastic journalism
has taken are usually traced to the Commission of Inquiry into High School
as the Kennedy Commission. In 1973-74 the commission conducted high-profile
produced a report, Captive Voices, which was extremely critical of high school
Kennedy Commission found that censorship was rampant in America s high schools,
minorities had little access to the high school press, that little respect
existed for journalism
education, and that the U.S. news media did not consider the matter to be
1974). To rectify the situation, the Kennedy Commission issued a set of 47
American high schools to mandate First Amendment education, to promote
education, and to encourage extensive involvement by minorities, the news media,
and a variety
of community, regional, and national agencies.
The Kennedy Commission s findings were controversial and continue to be debated
this day. Critics point out that the findings may not have been representative
of all scholastic
publications and journalism courses. The findings graphically illustrated a
problem, but the
emphasis was placed on legal concerns because the current wave of interest in
media ethics was
just getting started, the old legal doctrine of in loco parentis was coming
under criticism, and
the Supreme Court s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines had just become the leading
precedent on questions involving student expression (Tinker, 1969).
In the 1980s high school journalism came under attack again, but this time the
originated from outside the field of journalism. In 1983 the president s
National Commission on
Excellence in Education issued its report, A Nation at Risk, that called for
standards. The report supported a general back to basics movement in
education, and school
districts were hard-pressed to justify extensive attention to a subject like
journalism, much less
to curriculum units on media ethics, when the movement called for devoting more
traditional areas like reading and mathematics.
The very existence of high school journalism was now threatened, and another
high-profile report attracting national interest like the Kennedy Commission s
needed. The Journalism Education Association reached this conclusion at its
and worked with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Association
in Journalism and Mass Communication s Secondary Education Division to form the
Commission on the Role of Journalism in Secondary Education. Like the Kennedy
Commission, the JEA Commission conducted hearings over a two-year period.
JEA avoided the controversy associated with the Kennedy Commission by working
American College Testing Program to collect scientific data on the benefits of
journalism and not addressing politically-loaded issues such as censorship and
The JEA Commission s report, High School Journalism Confronts Critical
arrived at some of the same conclusions contained in Captive Voices, especially
in regard to
journalism s lack of support. But, in clear contrast to the Kennedy Commission,
Commission placed more emphasis on systematic evidence showing that journalism
student newspapers did prove to be excellent all-around learning experiences and
of the high schools that featured superior journalism programs (Vahl, 1987).
Among JEA s
recommendations was clear support for journalism to be considered an essential
part of the
school curriculum and for the teaching of media ethics to be a primary
publications advisers, to be an obligation school boards must insist on, and to
be a certification
standard for journalism teachers.
The idea that offering journalism was strong pedagogical thinking was already
favor before the JEA Commission report (Hines & Nunamaker, 1985). Later
studies by Dvorak
(1988, 1989, 1995, 1998), who supervised the ACT s study for the JEA Commission,
data that showed that students who served on high school publications staffs
Advanced Placement English students on the Advanced Placement English Language
Composition Examination and had a better chance of achieving success in college
students. Journalism is not merely a vocational area any more, and it hasn t
been for decades,
Dvorak wrote with Larry Lain and Tom Dickson (1994, p. 11). Journalism is an
academic discipline that enhances the ability of students to do well throughout
Concern over censorship in high school journalism later rose to prominence
because of another major court decision and another high-profile report. In
1988 the Supreme
Court ruled that school officials could exercise control over any student
expression if they had
legitimate pedagogical concerns (Hazelwood, 1988) The event marked the first
time that a
student newspaper was at the heart of a First Amendment issue in a Supreme Court
years later the Freedom Forum issued its report, Death By Cheeseburger, which
drew many of
the same conclusions that the Kennedy Commission had reached on the prevalence
censorship. However, the report also included twelve recommendations that
generally call for
school districts, communities, and the news media to provide more support for
the teaching of
journalism and the publishing of high school newspapers. Every high school,
according to the
Freedom Forum, must publish a student newspaper and provide adequate funding,
facilities, and qualified journalism teachers and advisers; in turn, the high
schools must be
supported by administrators, parents, and local news media dedicated to the idea
offers strong educational value (Freedom Forum, 1994).
While the Kennedy, JEA and Freedom Forum commissions worked to upgrade high
school journalism, interest in the development of principles of media ethics
scholars and working journalists flourished. Strong attention to ethics issues
first gained a
foothold in the 1920s and 1930s when the American Society of Newspaper Editors
of Journalism and the Society of Professional Journalists SDX Code of Ethics
known standards. But starting during the Great Depression, interest in further
waned (Christians, 1977). After a 40-year period of little interest, the 1970s
witnessed the start
of a new era for the study of media ethics with the development of such trade
American Journalism Review and the Columbia Journalism Review and the
professors including John Merrill, Cliff Christians, Jay Black, Ralph Barney,
and Ed Lambeth,
who produced textbooks for college classes in media ethics, appeared at seminars
conferences and served on ethics committees for proferssional associations.
Though no end is in
sight for this current period, Black and Barney (1992/1993) warn that further
be wasted if media industry executives do not show a greater commitment to
nurturing journalism students with strong ethics backgrounds.
Lessons on media ethics for high school journalism classes have developed in a
similar to the direction journalism ethics literature has taken. Before the
1970s a high school
teacher would have been hard-pressed to find substantial material in any
journalism textbooks for class discussions on media ethics. Such leading
textbooks of 1963, for
example, were Journalism and the School Paper by DeWitt Reddick (5th ed.) and
Press Time by
Julian Adams and Kenneth Stratton; both contain barely half of a single page on
(Reddick, p.7; Adams & Stratton, p. 11). However, during this current
flourishing of media
ethics, it is commonplace for high school journalism textbooks to contain
of ethics topics. For the ninth edition of their leading textbook, Scholastic
English, Clarence Hach, and Tom Rolnicki (1996) revised the chapter they had on
the previous edition (1990) and expanded it into a major division of the book.
Teachers who belong to the national Journalism Education Association are
model lesson plans for classes in journalism that contain a portion of a unit on
the press (JEA, n.d.) and a supplement jointly produced by the Journalism
of North California (1993) and the Southern California Journalism Education
features part of a component on ethics.
Louisiana High School Journalism and the High School Rally
In Louisiana, curriculum planners have a unique opportunity to conduct research
student assessment by analyzing the results of an academic competition held each
year in the
state known as the high school rally.
The Louisiana High School Rally Association has been in operation since 1909,
more than a quarter of a million Louisiana high school students have
participated in the annual
event (Louisiana High School Rally Association, 1996). Each year all of the
approximately 500 junior and senior high schools are invited to select their
best students to
compete in 77 academic events that represent a broad range of subjects in the
school curriculum. Using curriculum guides approved by the state department of
college faculty members from all over Louisiana create the 77 competitions in
the form of tests,
examinations, and performances set up to evaluate students knowledge.
Schools can enter up to two students in each event, and no student is allowed
in more than one category. After determining which students are the best in
event, the schools enter the students in the district rally competition, which
is usually held in
March of each year. Ten colleges within the state serve as the host sites for
competitions, and each college assigns a faculty or staff member to each event
to conduct the
competition, evaluate the results, and rank the competing students. Rankings of
broken down by school enrollment, with separate rankings tabulated for students
schools in Division I, which have an enrollment of 1,000 or more; Division II,
for enrollments of
400-999 ; Division III, 200-399; and Division IV, below 200 (Southeast Louisiana
One of the 77 rally events is for students of journalism. To compete in this
entitled Journalism I, students must be currently enrolled in a journalism
course offered by
their high school or must have been enrolled in their school s journalism course
in the prior fall
semester if journalism is offered as a half-unit course. Each student entered
in the district
competition is required to complete a one-hour exam that consists of 100
and two essay questions. The rally tests are designed to cover lessons that
are mandated in the
state s curriculum guides for public schools.
The curriculum guides are required to be followed in public schools offering
called Journalism or Publications. (State of Louisiana 1989, 1987). These
consist of a variety of scholastic journalism topics, such as news writing,
concepts, and the role of journalism in society. Included in the guides are
that require an understanding of ethical principles (1989, pp. 1, 10) and
for how ethical and legal responsibilities are to be taught (1989, pp. 25-41).
The State of Louisiana requires all journalism courses offered in public
schools to be
taught by teachers certified in journalism. Fifteen credit hours of
undergraduate work in any
college journalism courses earned as part of any major curriculum in education
requirement for teachers in Louisiana to receive certification in journalism.
temporary certification in journalism can be awarded to teachers who have
certification in other
areas and have completed at least six credit hours of any college journalism
are also allowed to proceed with journalism instruction without teachers
certified in journalism
if their courses are clearly labeled Publications or if the instruction is
offered on a non-credit
basis or extracurricular activity.
The rally exam is open to all high school journalism students in the state, and
students taking the exam are the ones designated by their schools as having the
of winning the competition; thus, the answers the students provide amount to a
base of data on
the top-rated high school journalism students in Louisiana. Analyzing the
results of the Journalism I test would provide an assessment Louisiana educators
could use to evaluate their
curricular needs in journalism and to guide the implementation of
commissions have made over the past quarter century.
The author received a copy of the Journalism I exam used in the district rally
competition on March 8, 1997, which was the day the exam was given to all
in the district rally. Ten college campuses in Louisiana served as the sites for
the district rally
Louisiana College Northwestern State U.
Louisiana State University at Eunice Southeastern Louisiana
Louisiana Tech University Southern University
McNeese State University University of New Orleans
Nicholls State University University of
To ensure the security of the questions and answers, the district rally exam
not made available before March 8. (Note: A copy of the rally exam was not
included with this
paper to discourage wide dissemination of questions that would harm the
integrity of the test.
Interested parties wishing to view a copy of the exam should contact Archie L.
Executive Secretary of the Louisiana High School Rally Association, P.O. Box
State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70893.)
During the week of March 9-15, 1997 the author contacted the Louisiana High
Rally Association s chief representative at each site by telephone to ask for a
copy of the
answer sheet for each student who was entered in the Journalism I district
competition. In this
way every journalism student who competed in the 1997 district rally had an
equal chance to be
included in the study. Each district representative was asked to make a copy of
the answer sheet
that every Journalism I student completed at the district site and to mail the
copies to the author.
By April 30, 1997, the author received answer sheets from 7 of the 10 sites for
return rate. Followup phone calls to other sites that had not submitted answer
sheets did not
produce any more returns.
A total of 116 students took the Journalism I exam at the seven sites for which
sheets were received. Five of the sites identified the students schools on the
and two schools used answer sheets coded by number to keep the identity of
schools a secret. Because of this factor, it was impossible to determine the
exact number of
schools that were involved because each school could enter one or two students
in the contest.
The best estimate possible is that 74-104 schools or about 90 schools overall
entered students in
the competition at the five sites. (Note: This estimate was arrived at by
counting all schools that
were identified at the five sites that named schools and then counting the
number of answer
sheets submitted at the other two sites; 74 is the lowest possible number of
schools and 104 is
the highest possible.)
The analysis was confined to students responses to 12 of the total 102
implied or explicitly referred to a concern which would require students to
level of reasoning directly or indirectly related to ethics. To protect
individual privacy, no
attempt was made to identify individual students and the schools involved.
The first 50 questions on the test were composed of a variety of statements
students were to respond to by marking true or false. Most of the questions
dealt with strict
writing and editing rules and technical terminology, but Questions 5, 12, 28,
29, and 39
contained information implying at least some clear ethical considerations. The
questions and the
5. Facts are just as important in sports stories as they are in news stories.
Responses: True=113 (97%) False=3 (3%) Total=116 (100%)
The colorful writing and critical commentary that dominate most modern-day
pages can often serve to blur the distinction between news and entertainment,
commentators frequently blur the distinction even more when they call themselves
interview players and coaches even though they are employed by the teams.
writers often find themselves in a similar ethical dilemma when they have to
taking a role as an unbiased reporter or as a cheerleader for the school s team.
The correct response to the question was true, and the students as a group
understanding of the need to report information truthfully and take their work
regardless of whether the topic is not as serious as straight news.
12. One of the handicaps of mass communication is that there is no opportunity
for feedback (response).
Responses: True=41 (35%) False=75 (65%) Total=116
The answer key lists the correct response as true, but the question is poorly
modern news media have reader forums, letters to the editor, and audience
surveys, and the
Internet has provided fast and convenient opportunities to react and discuss
issues with news
gatekeepers. A more effective question would have probably replaced the no
feedback phrase with few opportunities for immediate feedback. However, the
an appropriate one from an ethical standpoint because journalists must keep this
mind when reporting information of a negative character about individuals in a
The best answer under the circumstances of the test was probably false because
it is not
true that there are absolutely no opportunities for feedback. A majority of the
28. Reporters must strive for accuracy in news stories, but advertisements may
exaggerate ( puff ) the value of a product.
Responses: True=97 (84%) False=19 (16%) Total=116
This question also could have benefited from rewording that could have asked
specifically if a standard of truth was required in advertising. According to
Heritage Dictionary (1992), to exaggerate can be interpreted to mean a
represent as greater than is actually the case; . . . . To enlarge or increase
to abnormal degree (p.
637). However, the term puff helps to clarify that at least truth can be an
to The Language of Journalism (Kent, 1970) the term puff means praising an
organization, etc., usually of little or no news value (n.p.).
Like No. 12, the best possible answer accounting for all possibilities would
true, in agreement with the answer key. A strong majority marked this
29. A reporter must get permission from a person before that person s name can
published in the newspaper.
Responses: True=49 (42%) False=67 (58%) Total=116
Only a small majority of students marked this answer correctly, which was
Publishing the names of sources becomes an ethical concern when the sources
clear that they do not want to be identified in a story or want anonymity in
information. In this dilemma reporters must weigh such matters as the
importance of the story,
the credibility of the source, and the credibility of the story if the source is
However, in this situation in which no special conditions are attached, no
special ethical problem
is apparent, and the students who marked true here might need to be taught to
they are allowing their sources to manipulate them.
39. A person must have a college degree majoring in Journalism in order to
become a reporter for a newspaper.
Responses: True=38 (33%) False=78 (67%) Total=116
The implied ethical question here concerns the need for a diversity of views.
legal standpoint the answer comes down to simply whether or not journalists must
have a license
to practice a profession, like a physician. But from a business or a fraternal
point of view, a
person answering true to this question could be using the reasoning that it
would be more
advantageous to allow only journalism majors to work as reporters. And marking
false on this
question implies that the student understands that journalism training they may
go on to receive
in college may not necessarily secure for them employment when competing for a
a non-journalism major.
More than two-thirds of the students demonstrated this knowledge by correctly
The final 50 questions on the test involved multiple-choice answers. Like the
first part of
the test most of the questions required technical knowledge, but questions 64
and 70 did imply
limited ethical challenges, and questions 86, 99, and 100 posed explicit
concerns most likely to
have been directly based on an ethics lesson from a scholastic journalism
questions and the students responses:
64. When using a tape recorder in a feature or news interview, it is best to:
the recorder turned off, (2) let the interviewee hold the
microphone, (3) take
notes anyway, (4) hide the recorder so it won t bother the
interviewee, (5) none
of the above.
Responses: 1=0 (0%), 2=3 (3%), 3=73 (63%), 4=13
(11%), 5=27 (23%)
The answer key lists the correct response as No. 3 probably based on routine
practice and traditional mistrust of gadgetry. Response No. 2 is out of date
interview is taking place at a radio station. No. 4 is also a routine reporting
practice that could
be an attempt to help a source feel at ease, but it can create an ethical
dilemma involving the
manipulation of a source into feeling too much at ease and not realizing the
interview is being
recorded. A small minority chose this response.
70. The right of privacy protects an individual against which of the following
injuries: (1) Taking his name or image for use in an
advertisement [e.g. using
his picture in a testimonial], (2) Publishing personal facts
he wishes to remain
private [e.g. his health condition], (3) Portraying him in a
false light [e.g.
misrepresenting his relationship with another person], (4)
intruding on his
right to be left alone [e.g. opening his locker], (5) All of
Responses: 1=6 (5.2%), 2=9 (7.8%), 3=3 (2.6%), 4=6
(5.2%), 5=90 (77.6%)
Four of the categories of invasion of privacy are identified in the responses
to No. 70,
and the correct answer based on a legal interpretation would be all of the
above, No. 5. All four
responses also involve unethical behavior. A strong majority marked the correct
86. An editor usually associated with Yellow Journalism was: (1) William
Randolph Hearst, (b) Horace Greeley, (c) William Allen
White, (d) Philip
Freneau (e) Abe Rosenthal.
Responses: 1=53 (45.7%), 2=32 (27.6%), 3=19 (16.4%), 4=7
(6%), 5=5 (4.3%)
Sensationalism has long been considered unethical behavior, and question no. 86
required students to be familiar with a well-known term associated with it as
well as a historical
personality. The correct answer, William Randolph Hearst, No. 1, did receive
number of responses, but the students with the correct responses were still a
The result is somewhat surprising considering that students would have come
during a state-mandated lesson on journalism history as well as on ethics.
99. What is the term used to describe an ethical problem in which a person or
institution never has negative news printed about it. [sic]
(2) junket, (3) sacred cow, (4) hoax, (5) none of the above.
Responses: 1=5 (4.3%), 2=15 (12.9%), 3=51 (44%),
4=17(14.7%), 5=28 (24.1%)
Like the yellow journalism question, the correct answer, sacred cow, No. 3,
highest number of responses but was still in the minority overall. A term such
as this could
come up in a classroom context only during an ethics lesson, but in practical
newspapers are often confronted with the ethical challenge posed by sacred cows
constant pressure to demonstrate school pride. Little evidence of a firm
understanding of this
term could imply little understanding of the deep ethical problems sacred cows
can cause for
the students newspapers.
100. What is the term used to describe an ethical problem when a reporter
accepts an expenses-paid trip from a news source? (1)
freebie, (2) junket,
(3) sacred cow, (4) hoax, (5) none of the above.
Responses: 1=62 (53.4%), 2=21 (18.1%), 3=7 (6%), 4=9
(7.8%), 5=17 (14.7%)
This term recognition question was also connected to a specific classroom
and students showed very little familiarity with it. Junkets and the conflicts
of interest they can
create also stack up as a frequent challenge facing student journalists.
Limited budgets, close
friendships with classmates, and teachers trying to make the best use of
available resources may
cause ethical problems when student sports writers are invited to ride on team
buses and editors
go to events using official school transportation when others in the student
body are not provided
with the same opportunity.
The final page of the exam consisted of two tie-breaker questions that asked
write their answers in essay form in the space provided below the questions.
Both questions ask students to make judgments requiring legal knowledge, but
scenarios the questions are based on involve serious ethical problems as well.
Both consist of
student newspapers publishing editorials that urge students to engage in
unlawful activity and
the school principal reacts by temporarily suspending students First Amendment
Students responding in strict legal terms would find their strongest answers in
the Tinker and
Hazelwood court decisions and in constitutional law. But the students actions
were not just
unsound legally, they were clearly irresponsible because they encouraged
behavior, and the principal would probably have to present this information to
the school board.
It is also conceivable that students involved could argue that their actions
amounted to a prank,
a sort of April Fool s joke not to be taken seriously; in this case ethics
lessons would become
even more important.
The first tie-breaker essay question and a summary of responses to it:
St. Mary s Catholic High School (a private school) and Lincoln High School (a
public school) are crosstown rivals in basketball. St. Mary s and
slated to play for the district title tomorrow night. In today s St. Mary s
(the school newspaper), an editorial urges students to play a prank on
namely, to toss a smoke bomb into a hallway during classes. The deed is done
the Principal suspends publication of the Saint for six weeks.
1. Has the Principal infringed upon the students constitutional right of free
Of the 116 students taking the test, 53 wrote answers for tie-breaker No. 1.
the answer key, no infringement took place because St. Mary s is a private
school and the
students agree to adhere to the school s policies as a part of choosing to
attend the school.
Thirteen of the students responding confined their answers to legal reasoning.
these students used the private school argument. Six students referred
generally to the
Constitution, one argued that the scenario involved a disruption at the school
the Tinker decision, three cited the Hazelwood decision by name, and three based
an answer on
the Hazelwood legal standard requiring a valid educational reason for
The remaining 40 responses may have contained yes or no answers to the main
but in the course of discussing the scenario the students provided judgments not
on what was a
legal right, but instead on what they felt was right or wrong personal or
On this basis, 24, or 60%, of the 40 responses argued that the newspaper s
inappropriate or that the principal s action was justified, and 16, or 40%,
found fault with the
principal s action or argued that the newspaper had done nothing wrong.
Seven students criticized the students action by citing principles and terms
ethics lesson plans and journalism textbooks. A sampling of these:
. . . They violated the Code of Ethics . . . .
. . . Student went beyond . . . a right to know.
Responsible journalism at that age level should never promote . . . destructive
Most of the 24 students critical of the newspaper s action tended to focus on
the harm the
newspaper was encouraging. A sampling of these:
No publication should ever encourage breaking a law.
At no time should the paper be used to influence the people to do ill deeds.
That prank could have done damage to someones(sic) lungs.
It is not the job of the newspaper to tell students to, in a way, vandalize
. . . Principal s responsibility to protect the safety(sic) of his students
. . . He (the principal) tried to keep harm from being done . . . .
. . . (must) not allow material to be printed that would encourage violence.
. . . It puts the safety and well-being of any innocent party . . . in
The 16 other respondents who disagreed with these assessments tended to
the newspaper was suggesting a prank or it was not clear that harm was done. A
. . . they were simply give(sic) or stateing(sic) and(sic) idea.
The newspaper never stated that they should(sic) they just urged them to.
. . . Each child should have the right to stand up for themselves.(sic)
. . . Students should have the right to say what they feel.
It might have been said to do that, but it gives someone no reasons to go and
do it . . . .
. . . It is an editorial . . . .
The second tie-breaker question and a summary of responses to it:
Following that smoke bomb incident, the Lincoln Emancipator (the school
newspaper), publishes an editorial urging students to retaliate by breaking
St. Mary s High School chemistry lab and exposing the asafetida (an extremely
foul-smelling plant resin). The deed is done and the Principal suspends the
writer for three days.
2. Has the Principal infringed the writer s constitutional right of free
Of the 116 students taking the test, 49 provided essay answers to tie-breaker
According to the answer key, the principal has not infringed upon the writer s
rights because the situation involves a public school and the writer s action
disruption of the educational process. The implied legal logic is based on the
standard in Tinker and the educational value standard in Hazelwood.
However, examining the ethical character of the responses becomes very
considering that the disruption did not take place at the school where the
student writer was
suspended. In this case the principal would probably be required to have a
statement from the
persons who exposed the asafetida that the editorial was the reason why they
took this action and
that the suspension was a disciplinary action not related to First Amendment
Nine students restricted their answers to legal explanations. One used
reasoning, and all others argued on general constitutional terms.
Of the remaining 40 students, 28, or 70%, indicated that the actions of the
were wrong, but none cited codes of ethics or made explicit statements about
integrity based on class lessons or curriculum guides. Like the first
tie-breaker answers, nearly
all of the respondents displayed a simple concern that harm or illegal behavior
encouraged. A sampling of these:
. . . should not encourage students to perform illegal acts.
. . . This is a consequence for(sic) disobeying the rules of the school. . . .
. . . An editorial should . . . not(sic) an urging to vandalize.
. . . It is not right to influence someone into(sic) doing something wrong.
. . . Writer could have been endangering someone.
. . . It doesn t matter . . . because breaking & entering is against the law.
. . . They sank down to the means of revenge to make a point.
. . . Editorialist s article qualifies as harmful.
. . . Student journalist(sic) cannot use school materials to publish anything
harm the reputation of the school.
. . . The writer should not have written an editorial urging other students to
wrongdoing(sic) against someone else.
Twelve (30%) of the 40 students not using legal arguments disagreed with the
or defended the editorial. Like the first tie-breaker, most respondents tended
to argue that the
editorial writer could not be clearly blamed for the disruption at the other
school. A sampling:
. . . Just because he wrote it in the newspaper does not mean that he did it.
. . . He is defending his school.
. . . We really don t know if the break-in had anything to do with the story.
. . . He/she didn t commit the crime(sic) they just urged it.
. . . Lincoln should have . . . gotten even . . . .
. . . In an editorial one can say anything he or she wishes . . . .
That editorial was just something to write about. The students took it upon
to do the deed.
In general, the most appropriate conclusion that can be reached about
Louisiana s best
high school journalism students based on the results of this study is a mixed
one. The evidence
shows that the students have neither a firm understanding of ethical lessons nor
background in media ethics.
When the students were asked questions requiring familiarity with ethical
stated explicitly in textbooks and curriculum guides, the students fared poorly.
Only a minority
of students could correctly identify answers associated with basic topics in
ethics such as
sensationalism, sacred cows, and junkets. These questions were posed in such a
way that did not
require rigorous critical thinking skills, and their poor performance thus casts
doubt on whether
they are familiar with the grave conflicts of interest these can entail for
On the other hand, the highest level of understanding of the principles of
ethics is the
ability to demonstrate responsible judgment when the conditions of a dilemma
call for it. In this
respect the students responded well. A very clear majority recognized the
importance of facts
regardless of their placement in a newspaper, the importance of source
of permission, and the importance of ability regardless of academic
In fairness to the students taking the rally test, three of the other questions
worded, regardless of what type of lesson they were intended to measure, and
three of the
questions stressed lessons on media law to such an extent that a student could
a need to choose between what was right legally and what was right ethically.
two of the law-emphasized questions, which were the two tie-breaker essays,
evidence of a difference between students ability to demonstrate knowledge of
lessons and students ability to apply moral judgment. In both cases when
students chose to base
their responses on non-legal standards, they exhibited little media ethics
training, but a
majority of responses contained endorsement of a responsible course of action
that placed value
on personal safety and non-violent behavior.
Based on this evidence, Louisiana s scholastic journalism educators do have
reason to be
concerned about the effectiveness of their lessons on media ethics.
As advisers of school newspapers, journalism teachers in the state can be
their students overall performance because it did exhibit a deep regard for
facts and opposition
to violence. However, such results did not reflect a level of understanding of
called for by the JEA Commission as well as in scholastic journalism lesson
plans. A reliance on
facts could merely be the result of strong reporting technique that is
constantly taught almost as
a matter of tradition. Finding non-violent solutions to problems is a part of
as well as the leadership training the best students receive as they take on
responsibility as editors of student publications.
But ethics training requires a level of sensitivity that goes beyond reporting
functions. Lessons on ethics teach students that morality is a good starting
point a system for
conducting our lives that is often associated with personal behavior. Ethics,
on the other hand,
involves a logical process which demands using principles and established
priorities when two
or more moral obligations are in conflict. This is why it is essential that a
Scholastic Journalism, for example, will not just make it clear that facts are
important, but that
when a news story does contain any fictional information, some device is needed
to make sure
the reader can understand that the information is fictional (p. 336). And it is
why the State of
Louisiana Board of Education s curriculum guide stresses that before student
editorial decisions, they should be able to rely on their journalism
teacher/adviser to challenge
their way of thinking and to help them consider their options no matter what is
(1989, p. 27).
A firm knowledge of ethical principles is highly important to all high school
who are studying journalism, regardless of whether they intend to pursue a major
in college or to become a journalist. Their understanding of the
responsibilities of journalists
will continue to be important in their lives as American citizens. Press
freedom and legal
considerations are, of course, very important, too. But very often, judgments
of what is good
journalism and good journalistic performance boils down to adherence to sound
principles, especially in the absence of legal restraints and especially in the
presence of profit
motives and public pressure.
Last year in high school journalism classes all over America the media s
during the tragic death of England s Princess Diana no doubt became the subject
of hot debate.
Those teachers who used this occasion as an opportunity to examine media ethics
gave their students interesting, worthwhile lessons they could take with them
after they graduate
and use regardless of their career plans. At the same time plenty of schools
probably had to deal
with tough calls closer to home with classmates dying after incidents of drunk
abuse, or gang violence. In these situations there may have been a fight over
the freedom to
report on such events, but just how ethical students performance would be in
the reporting of
such events was every bit as important.
School administrators and curriculum planners in school districts in Louisiana
well to carefully study the results of the state high school district rally
exam. Their scholastic
journalism students must perform better. The same standard of ethical knowledge
properly expected of any scholastic journalism student in America.
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