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Training Matters: What do we mean by ‘ethics?’

John Cary, head of accreditation at the NCTJ, found much common ground between newsroom and training room as he listened to the debates at the NCTJ’s approaches to journalism ethics seminar.

Apart from anything else, the word itself has always been a bit troublesome.

Ethics. It’s not the ideal label for the thorough grounding in how to behave that we all want student journalists to have while on a course. Strange that a trade that is all about finding the right word should have struggled to come up with something better than “ethics”.

The problem, as articulated during the NCTJ’s approaches to journalism ethics event, is that students and trainees don’t always recognise the lectures and discussions and exercises they are getting as being “ethics training”.

They rightly see it as learning how to do the job and where the boundaries of good conduct are, or simply arguing – as reporters always have – over whether their colleagues and rivals have got it right in their treatment of a particular story on any given day.

All of which presents a challenge for panels of editors conducting regular accreditation panel visits to courses following the introduction last autumn of the NCTJ’s mandatory programme of study in practical journalism ethics for all students taking the Diploma in Journalism.

It’s important that the panel is sure that the message is getting through to students, but experience has shown that asking directly where “ethics” occurs during the course produces little useful information.

But ask what conversations they are having about newspapers and broadcast news, and panels will quickly learn that young journalists are being schooled in right and wrong – and the many occasions where a problem emerges uneasily between the two.

The seminar allowed editors and educators to exchange experiences. Editors such as Neil White of the Derby Telegraph and Kevin Ward of the South Wales Argus stressed the importance of journalists being in tune with their readers and the value of taking care in delivering hard-hitting journalism that takes into account the feelings and views of those at the heart of the story.

It was clear that delivering the ethics message takes many forms, as you’d expect from accredited courses which range from a fast-track delivered over a few months to the three years of many undergraduate programmes.

Several course leaders were keen to increase further the importance of ethical considerations in the NCTJ Diploma reporting exam, giving students more credit for demonstrating their personal understanding of the issues.

As professor Richard Tait, from Cardiff University, said: “We are not trying to turn out automatons. We are trying to turn out thoughtful young journalists.”

Maybe one of them will come up with a better word for it one day…