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Ethical dilemmas in yearbook production


Recognizing and then knowing paths to solve ethical issues related to yearbook content is an important skill for students to develop. This lesson will help students to develop “ethical fitness” by reacting to real situations in producing yearbook content. 


  • Students will consider possible decisions in a yearbook content involving student quotes. 
  • Students will evaluate the alternatives available. 
  • Students will outline the possible decisions and assess the best course of action, providing evidence of their decision through analysis. 

 Common Core State Standards 



Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 


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. 


Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric. 


Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 


 50 minutes 


Blackboard or whiteboard 

Teacher laptop and digital projector 

Internet access and student computers if available 

Article: Student says she wants to ‘behead’ Trump in Brainerd H. S. yearbook 

Article: NSPA Student Code of Ethics 

Resource: Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics 

Rubric: Ethics in yearbook


Lesson step-by-step 

1. Warm up—5 minutes 

Ask students, what, if anything, is off-limits for publication in student media? Students in silent reflection will consider how they might respond to a yearbook situation that raises ethical issues about yearbook content. What would be a potential story that the students would want to cover for their yearbook that might require them to think about the ethical considerations involved? This is just an introductory brainstorm to see where they are at regarding understanding the potential for ethical dilemmas with yearbook production. 

2. Discussion —10 minutes

After their reflection and before students begin the reading, the teachers should discuss with the class these points as a review about ethics:  

  • Ethics is primarily a “right v. right” decision (meaning you’re trying to choose the best option among many that could be OK).  What were some of the ethical issues students came up with during their silent reflection? 
  • Legal questions are right v. wrong, where there are actually laws that help us understand what is legally acceptable. What might be some legal issues they could face producing the yearbook? 

3. Group discussion—20 minutes

The teacher will ask students to access and read the article at the following link: Student says she wants to ‘behead’ Trump in Brainerd H. S. yearbook. 

Then, group students in pairs or groups of three, and ask students to make several decisions in about the issues in this article. 

For example, students could discuss: 

  • Best practices in handling controversy 
  • Should a yearbook or other student media be handing controversial issues or events? If so, should controversial material have guidelines? Who determines those guidelines and what might they be? 
  • Should there be guidelines for quotes and comments? If so, who determines those guidelines and what does this mean ethically? 
  • Legally, does the comment fall under the true threat concept? 
  • What would the procedures look like if students decide to approve or disapprove quotes or comments?  
  • Are there potential legal issues? If so, what are they and how would they be handled? (Possibilities include: unprotected speech threat to the president, whether that threat would be credible. It is likely there is not a legal decision to be made here) 
  • Are there potential ethical issues? If so, what are they and how would they be handled? (Possibilities include: SPJ position of “do no harm.”)
  • Does the honesty of the statement outweigh any harm? Is using the statement a form of responsible journalism. Is there a question of censoring speech?
  • What about the question of initiating prior review because of poor choices? do the ends justify the means?  To whom or what should there be accountability? Would the school’s image suffer from certain decisions? Where is the greater good?
  • Does disrespectful content equate with justification for censorship? Is there fault? If the student is no longer at the school, should her comment be used? Other? 


Each group of students should come to a decision about whether the content should be printed (students can refer to the NSPA and SPJ links) and then join another group and compare responses.  

Student groups will compare the similarities and differences with another group and try to reach consensus in their combined group. 

4. Whole group—15 minutes

When students are finished in their combined groups, the  teacher will conduct class discussion on the situation and student decisions, primarily focusing on ethical questions.   

Encourage students to explore various sides of the ethical questions and to reach a decision on what they would do on this question:

Should the student editorial board publish this statement, and on what was their reasoning based? 

 Students should keep in mind this range of decisions:



Note the possibility of a wide range of intermediate decisions. There could be “yes, but” reactions and “no, unless possibilities.” There could also be a number of alternatives not obvious at first. It is also possible responses would be closely bunched. Ethics is often not a Yes or No response. 

 The process of explaining how and why the decisions were made is the most important part of ethical decision-making. 



The teacher will have the class vote on the journalistic response most effective. The teacher could also use the Ethics yearbook rubric to give each student feedback. 

Note: Teachers can use different situations to carry out similar lessons. Instead of written decisions, the teacher can vary the outcomes (role-playing, ethical guideline creation, etc) 


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