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Ethics in column writing


Students learn how the SPJ Code of Ethics applies to opinion writing and work in groups to discuss how they would deal with potentially difficult ethical situations in writing. After the teacher explains how the SPJ Code of Ethics applies to opinion writing, students get into small groups and receive an ethics scenario to discuss. After they have analyzed the issue, they take on roles of writers and editors to act out a discussion of that issue for the class.

The Law and Ethics section includes a complete version of the SPJ Ethics Code under Creating a code of ethics for your student media, as well as a lesson where students create an ethics code that fits their environment.


  • Students will understand of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics applies to writing columns.
  • Students will consider ethical situations from multiple points of view.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1b Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1c 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.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1d 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


Slideshow: Ethics in column writing

Handout: Scenarios

Lesson step-by-step

Day 1

1. Building background — 15 minutes

Warm-up question: Are there any topics a high school newspaper should not cover in a personal column? After students give their answers, discuss some answers – are the topics a problem, or the way people may cover them? (Students may give answers based on what they want to read rather than what they see as right or wrong.)

Explain how the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics applies to opinion writing, stressing that opinion writing still requires a lot of research.

2. Whole class ethics discussion — 10 minutes

Distribute the list of practice scenarios and choose one to discuss as a class. After reading it, ask the class to vote on whether they would run that story (a show of fingers is a good way — have students hold up one finger for “not at all” five for “definitely run it” and numbers in between for other answers). Walk through the questions as a class and how the story could be researched ethically and written (and how problems could emerge); then have them vote again.

3. Group ethics discussion — 20 minutes

Divide students into groups of 3-4 and give each group a scenario. Assign one or two group members to take the role of staffers wanting to write about the topic and two or three group members as editors who will make the final decision. Have one “editor” play devil’s advocate to focus on the problems they may encounter. Have each student answer questions about the issue individually as homework due next time.

4. Wrap up

Explain to students that the next class period will include fishbowl discussions on these issues and they will get a chance to be the editors.

Day 2

1. Getting started — 10 minutes

Warm-up question: What is one rule or suggestion that help class discussions go well?

Discuss answers, and establish a few ground rules for behavior during the discussion. Explain how the fishbowl discussions will go: one group will sit in front of the class and the students portraying columnists will present their column ideas to the editors. The editors will ask questions and raise concerns. There will be one empty chair next to the group that anyone may sit in and jump into the discussion for one minute.

2. Fishbowl discussions — 30 minutes

Give each group a time limit for discussion, at which point the editors must decide what to do. Poll the class at the end of each fishbowl to see if they agree with the editorial discussion.

3. Follow up — 10 minutes

As a class, ask students if they noticed any patterns in the decisions made (do a lot of research, talk to people with a stake in the issue, do not be afraid to tackle difficult topics, but tackle them carefully.) Create a sample list of guidelines the class can use when making decisions about opinion writing.

Fishbowl rubric

3 2 1
Participation The student participated throughout their group discussion and made at least one comment during another group discussion. The student spent half the discussion not participating, or did not make a comment on another group discussion. The student made only one or two comments during the group discussion OR participated less than half and did not ask questions or make comments on other discussions.
Respect The student was respectful of other group members during the discussion and during other discussions. The student needed one reminder to be respectful. The student needed more than one reminder to be a respectful participant.
Ethics (x2) The student mentioned at least two aspects of the ethics code. The student mentioned one aspect of the ethics code. The student did not bring up the ethics code.