Lights….camera….ethics!

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Before I begin posting the series of lessons about teaching law and ethics I discussed in my last post, I had to offer my reactions to the ninth annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop hosted in Franklin Hall last week. This year’s event focused on the intersection of entertainment media and journalism ethics.

The event website includes a video archive of all the sessions plus a set of lesson plans geared toward scholastic journalism teachers. While all of the content can be useful in a journalism classroom, the opening session was most illustrative of the problems and concerns journalists face when covering the seemingly non-stop antics of today’s celebrities and entertainers.

The session, moderated by Poynter faculty members Kelly McBride and Ellyn Angelotti, primarily focused on the ethical dilemmas present in recent coverage of Miley Cyrus “performing” at the VMAs and Nina Davuluri receiving the title Miss America. Some of the key takeaways include the following points:

  • The masses react via the Internet to celebrity behavior. Journalists often report about this melee of positive and negative reactions, assigning significance to people’s online outbursts (Ex. People are shocked by Miley’s behavior.).
  • However, journalism’s purpose in the digital age is to add value and context to the conversation that begins online. Journalists must find ways to take the story further. For instance, how are teens and young adults reacting to Miley’s performance? They grew up watching her as Hannah Montana.
  • Journalists act as “sense makers” among the noise. For instance, Miley’s actions were part of a PR stunt in conjunction with MTV to create hype for a new documentary about Cyrus’s life airing in October. Journalists can best serve the audience by digging deeper. This includes calling out “fake” information and vetting conflicting bits of information.
  • The ethical standards to which journalists and news organizations subscribe will guide the questions they ask as they navigate the seemingly endless stream of online gossip and chatter.

None of this is new. Journalists are always supposed to act in the public interest by seeking the truth in any situation—from nuclear policy crises to celebrity mishaps. They’re supposed to vet information, present it clearly and in context, and dig deeper to find connections and meanings that aren’t readily apparent.

Reminding students about the importance of these core values can’t be stressed enough, especially when dealing with topics that might seem trivial to the average consumer. A commitment to ethics is more necessary than ever in the world of entertainment journalism. That’s a key lesson for advisers to impart on their students, many of whom will become media leaders during their careers.

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What you don’t know can hurt you

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Despite the high volume of groans the topic often receives from students, teaching law and ethics is an essential component of any successful scholastic journalism operation.

During my own work with students during the past decade, I’ve always stressed the importance of understanding the basics of the law and the foundations of ethical decision-making skills. The goal isn’t to turn students into “mini attorneys” or “budding philosophers.” Rather, instruction primes them to recognize potential “red flags” and pitfalls throughout the reporting process. It’s about preventing problems before they make their way into print.

This emphasis on law and ethics stems from the class’s study of First Amendment principles. Coupled with one’s right to speak, publish, worship, petition and assemble is a body of rights guaranteed to all others in society affected by your expression. Thus, the right to speak doesn’t provide the speaker with the right to falsely defame or invade another’s privacy while doing so. As I always explain it, responsibility accompanies your rights. Learning about this balance is important for several reasons:

What you publish does affect other people. Words can build people up or tear them down. Words possess the power to instill a vast array of emotions upon listeners or readers. The words you publish about others can leave a lasting impact, either positive or negative. Students must recognize that their carelessness (even if it results from ignorance or shortsightedness) can cause others needless pain or embarrassment.

Students can get into trouble. Anyone who assumes the role of a publisher is legally responsible for whatever he/she chooses to publish. Students are no exception. They can be sued for libel, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, etc. Saying “I’m only 15” isn’t a documentable excuse.

Problems arise when you least expect them. Some advisers incorrectly assume that if their students avoid covering any “controversial” or touchy subjects, they’ll simultaneously avoid any potential legal or ethical pitfalls. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any story could contain legal or ethical problems. The conundrums arise when you least expect them. Being prepared and teaching students to make wise choices are the best defenses.

The Internet has complicated this picture. Information spreads ever so quickly online. Gathering information from the World Wide Web can be easy and convenient, especially when the information adds valuable context to the story. However, rumor, innuendo and half-truths travel just as quickly. Teaching students to sort through this maze is essential to the process.

But teaching law and ethics might seem daunting. In this series of upcoming posts during the next few weeks, I’ll discuss key points about legal and ethical issues as well as offer resources to demystify this most important of issues every scholastic journalism adviser must address.