Joyce Bishop, NCTJ chief examiner for reporting, reveals how would-be reporters are handling the new ethical issues raised in the Diploma in Journalism reporting exam.
If ever a good example of the diversity of exam answers were needed, look no further than the ethics question on the NCTJ reporting paper.
From the insightful to the insensitive, the considered to the cautious, the verbatim to the vacuous, and every shade of grey in between, the answers are nothing if not varied.
While one student will gamely throw in every reference to the IPSO editors’ code that they can muster, including clause numbers, another will curtly advise that you are likely to be dragged through the courts for libel if you put a foot out of line.
A candidate whose answer covers two sides of A4 can often leave the marker nonplussed, while another can demonstrate the ethical nous of someone twice their age with half a dozen paragraphs of well-chosen words.
It is, of course, early days. The new version of the ethics question, originally introduced in 2013, was added only in October 2014. It is now worth 10 per cent of the total marks for the exam, because editors told the NCTJ they wanted more emphasis on students understanding how they should behave as working journalists.
Trainees are often making decisions about stories to be published online within weeks of starting work in a newsroom and they need to be prepared for the tricky judgment calls they will be facing.
The ethics question examines how a candidate might deal with a story that throws up a number of dilemmas. Questions are carefully formulated so that they present a scenario that could be encountered in the course of researching a story.
What they are not intended to do, though, is test legal knowledge, as students already sit a separate law paper as part of the Diploma.
The ethics question challenges candidates directly: “What would you do in this situation and why?” Alerting your editor to the problem can be part of the answer, but only part. The best responses are those that both identify the ethical issues that need consideration and discuss how they apply to the scenario given.
Generally the points that questions relate to come under the umbrella of the editors’ code of practice: privacy, intrusion into grief and shock, confidentiality of sources and so on. It is not necessary in the answer to regurgitate the relevant clause; this might demonstrate knowledge of the code, but if the candidate is unable to tailor the guidance in the code to the scenario on the exam paper the answer will be lacking.
If information is given off the record, for example, confidentiality of source is an issue. Depending on the scenario, publication might be possible without revealing the source. But what if it isn’t? Candidates need to show that they have at least given this possibility some thought.
The candidates who shine – and some candidates really do shine in this question – are those who manage to nail the relevant ethical points and then go on to put their thought processes down on paper – I could do this, but what about that … and how will this be construed by my readers?
In short, knowing the rules is not enough to produce a really good answer to the ethics question. Only those candidates who show that they can apply the rules are likely to achieve top grades.