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Training Matters: Teaching practical journalism ethics

It is essential that trainee reporters know about ethics and have the ability to apply ethical principles to their own work. But how do you teach ethics? This week, Journalism tutors on NCTJ-accredited courses at Brighton Journalist Works and Bournemouth University discuss how they teach the practical journalism ethics module of the Diploma in Journalism and the methods they use to prepare their students for the demands of the newsroom.

Richard Lindfield, Tutor at Brighton Journalist Works

At Brighton Journalist Works we don’t believe ethics should be taught in isolation as some sort of quasi-academic subject. Questions of how we deal with people and how sensitive we should be about what we publish are central to our teaching.

We try to open the students’ eyes to the sort of practical dilemmas they are likely to face as journalists in their everyday working lives. One really helpful way of achieving this is to draw on decisions they have been forced into making as they chase their own stories.

Two students recently covered an inquest about a woman with special needs who choked to death on a tea-bag. They came face-to-face with the double dilemma of the grieving family who begged them not to print anything and a coroner who was very anti-press. We could then expand this debate by referring them to the HoldtheFrontPage article about the Derby Telegraph’s inquest apology – not just the article but also the comments.

As working journalists, we tutors can also quote ethical questions we come across between lectures. I was able to share my own mini Sir Cliff dilemma over a prominent local councillor who had been arrested on suspicion of attempting to murder his wife but not charged. There was also the issue of whether or not to lift quotes from Twitter and Facebook when a teenager died in a car crash in the area.

No ‘ologies’ or ‘isms’, ethics, as far as young journalists starting out on their careers are concerned, should be rooted in real life.

Karen Fowler-Watt, Associate dean of journalism and communication at Bournemouth University

At Bournemouth, we have always delivered ethics across all modules of the NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalism programme, encouraging students to reflect on the ethical implications of their practical journalism. In 2007 we introduced a stand-alone Journalism Ethics module, which combines the teaching of some rudimentary moral philosophy with applied ethics, involving case studies (e.g. the killing of drummer Lee Rigby, phone hacking, news coverage of ISIS).

Following the publication of the Leveson Report, we appointed a Practitioner in Residence in Journalism Ethics, who teaches this module and delivers master classes to students on ethical issues. In the third year, students reflect on their own approach to ethical issues in a personal development module, where they work with a current industry practitioner to devise their own ethical code as a group and consider the responsibilities attached to the journalist’s craft.

Throughout their studies, the students reflect on the ethical implications of their journalism: In all practical journalism units, issues are debated and the ethical challenges raised by stories are reflected upon in a newsroom environment and in the field – through editorial meetings and debriefs. Students also focus on the ethical issues associated with interviewing in a broadcast assignment and they submit a justification for their final project (a substantial multimedia project, published on an externally-facing website), which engages in the application of ethical codes, editorial and regulatory guidelines.

Student feedback indicates that they enjoy the stand – alone ethics unit and find that thinking about ethical issues becomes second nature as a result and when combined with reflecting on ethical questions in practical journalism modules.


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  • December 16, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Once, young reporters learned ethics from experienced editors.
    Now hundreds of papers do not have proper editors and if they do they are mostly too inexperienced to help. So now training outside office is vital. Sadly the biggest lesson they will learn is that once on the nationals ethics can fly out of the window if the story is big enough.
    Phone tapping was an extreme example.

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  • December 17, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Just finished reading ‘Hack’ by Graham Johnson. Should be on the reading list of every student journalist pondering ethical dilemmas!

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