Teaching ethics

Written by Karen Murray

Helping students make responsible and ethical coverage decisions is a year-long lesson.

It is paramount to teach the concepts of ethical journalism to middle school students, especially in these days of handy media devices that can record secretly.

I start the school year with ethics as the number one focus. I have my students research news stories on the internet, finding incidents where students violated the rights of others using school media. This exercise enables students to see their legal responsibility as part of the school media, and to be careful with images. I also give an essay assignment, allowing students to pick from two sticky, ethical situations, and ask them to respond as to how they would handle one of them.

The pull is very strong to align with peers in spite of right and wrong situations, and it is important for students to understand that with high standards and ethics comes a responsibility to also do the right thing, above peer relationship concerns. I teach them the motto, “Everyone is someone’s baby,” which translates to, “Would your parents like to pay for a yearbook, only to find a picture of you doing something wrong, smack dab on page 22?” I tell students that we will not publish pictures for the purpose of making fun, exposing a wrongdoing, or setting a child/teacher up for ridicule.

In the lesson I explain to them that they cannot exploit others because they are trying to build trust with the entire school. Not one of us can violate that trust, or else we will not be able to turn out an excellent yearbook. Without the trust of the teachers and students, we have no yearbook.

Ethics are a heady topic for teenagers, and sometimes it is not easy to plant the concept in one lesson. Continual reinforcement of concepts of right and wrong must be addressed in every class session. The teacher must assume, due to the age level, that decisions about correct actions are a tougher connection for some students to make. Teaching students to be objective, fair and balanced allows them to see the big picture and apply some sense of ethics when planning to submit a picture with copy. Being prepared to reteach the lesson from a myriad of viewpoints is key to getting the point across.

The students must, at some point, feel the awesome responsibility of being able to go into classrooms and capture the action for the school. They must ultimately understand that they must be above reproach, in order to protect the reputation of the school’s yearbook organization.

Karen Murray