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Creating ethical models and staff manual procedures


Journalism students face ethical issues regularly. For most situations, having thought-out guidelines and processes can help students navigate through murky waters. Such an ethical package can save time and frustration. In this lesson, students will create ethical guidelines for potential ethical situations.



  • Students will brainstorm ethical situations they routinely encounter in reporting or decision-making.
  • Students will create drafts of ethical guidelines for their student media.
  • Students will critique and revise ethical guideline drafts for their student media.


Common Core State Standards




Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.


Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.


Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.


Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.



50 minutes



Blackboard or whiteboard

Teacher laptop and digital projector

Internet access and student computers if available

Links to resources:

Ethical guidelines template

Policy and ethics sitemap (For teacher background and possible choice of other models)

Unnamed sources

Recording interviews

No publication guidelines

Allowing sources to see content

Guidelines for breaking news



Teacher note

This lesson and others like it would come after the following lessons in the Law and Ethics curriculum: Red-light Green Light, TUFF Decision Making and When Journalists Err Ethically. Once the initial lessons have laid groundwork for ethical discussions, then ethical situations can take place at any time in the curriculum.


Lesson step-by-step

  1. Warm up—15 minutes


Ask students: In carrying out your media responsibilities, have you run into situations that concerned you or where you were afraid someone might be harmed? For example, what you would do if a source wanted to remain unnamed or read your content before the story is published? Let students discuss and respond to answers and ideas.


Then ask: Would a step-by-step outline of suggestions might have helped you handle the issue? What were the situations? How did you handle them? Was some of the decision-making common enough to be repeatable? Would a process help, especially with ethical situations?


Explain that today students will create ethical guidelines and procedures that could help reporters know how to handle situations.


Explain to students these key reasons for creating these procedures and write on the board:

  • Build trust in student decision-making
  • Create ethical consistency
  • Avoid unethical outcomes
  • Demonstrate a process that can help avoid prior review
  • Establish a tradition of professional standards to promote student free expression


The teacher should remind students to keep in mind this range of decisions:

NO ______________________________maybe_______________________________YES

Note the wide range for intermediate decisions. Seldom in ethics will students run into a clear yes (right) or no (wrong). The process of understanding how and why the decisions were made is the most important part of ethical decision-making.


  1. Small groups — 35 minutes


Break students into small groups of 3-5 people. Each group will brainstorm common ethical issues student media face, choosing at least 2 to explore by the end of this class. Some examples could include using unnamed sources, conflict of interest in coverage, word choice, reporter viewpoint in reporting, letting sources read copy before publication, use of incomplete information, interviewing friends and many more.


A student-appointed leader in each group will survey the team to come up with the ethical issues. Once two issues have been decided on, each group will use the Ethical guidelines template and develop a guideline and procedures for handling the situations.


Teacher note: If groups are struggling, point them to the following resources and model guidelines for inspiration. Don’t provide the links ahead of time so that students can adequately tackle the brainstorming part of this on their own first.

Unnamed sources

Recording interviews

No publication guidelines

Allowing sources to see content

Guidelines for breaking news


The teacher could supply links to the models or create handouts from them. The teacher would also go from group to group to give guidance and answer questions.


By the last 10 minutes of the class, student group leaders should share the completed ethical guidelines with other groups for comments and possible revision.



Each student will turn in to the teacher a brief statement of what they learned about ethical decision-making (50-75 words).


Notes: This class could be repeated as often as needed and/or for specific issues the group faces. Instead of brainstorming ethical situations, students could take issues from their staff manual, too.