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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Ward on PBS Mediashift: Teaching Ethics in a Digital age

CJE Director Stephen Ward will be publishing regularly on PBS Mediashift.

Our global media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace. Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users around the world. The digital revolution poses a practical challenge to journalists: How can they use the new media tools responsibly?

There is, also, a second challenge for all of us who teach journalism ethics across this country and beyond: What to teach?

Journalism history class UC Berkeley, 2009

Photo by hfordsa/Creative Commons

Teaching is difficult because a once-dominant traditional ethics, constructed for professional journalism a century ago, are being questioned. Journalism ethics is a field where old and new values clash.

On one side are traditional values such as those found in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. These include: a commitment to professionalism, separation of news and opinion, methods to verify reports, a concern for accuracy, and the ideals of objectivity and minimizing harm.

On the other side are values of the “always on” universe of interactive media: immediacy, transparency, edgy opinion and partisan journalism, anonymity, and sharing. The speed of new media tempts many users to ignore the restricting methods of accuracy and verification.


Amid this din of differing views and controversy, we teach journalism ethics. We no longer teach from a framework of generally accepted ideas.

A decade or so ago, teaching journalism ethics was simpler. Few people wondered who was a journalist. In classrooms, instructors introduced principles from authoritative codes of ethics and textbooks, and showed how the principles applied to situations.

Today, we not only teach without a consensus, we lack an ethics that provides adequate guidance for the many new forms of mixed media.

No new canons of journalism have been written on how journalists should use social media on breaking stories, whether newsrooms should publish reports trending on Twitter, or whether mainstream sites should grant anonymity to commentators.

Mixed media ethics is a work in progress.


How does one teach students about a topic in flux? Here are five features of a good journalism ethics course that every professor should implement:

1. Start from the students’ media world.

Be experiential. Begin by discussing how they experience and use media; explore the tumult of opinion about journalism. If you downplay the debate and try to lay down the “laws” of journalism ethics ex cathedra, you will lose credibility in the eyes of your students.

2. Assist students with reflective engagement.

Once you’ve reviewed the context of journalism ethics, tell the students that — while you can’t provide all the answers — you can help them think their way through the issues. You can help them engage reflectively on principles and you can provide methods for analyzing ethical situations. Also, give them perspective. Go back and look at what journalism has been down the centuries, and examine previous revolutions in journalism.

3. Insist on critical thinking, not what is fashionable.

Work against a tendency to dismiss principles simply because they are traditional and not trendy. For example, new media enthusiasts may rush to reject news objectivity as an ideal. They may use specious reasoning. In such situations, instructors need to ask for better reasons; to indicate areas where objectivity might be needed; and to introduce nuanced versions of objectivity that avoid the obvious objections.

4. Be transitional.

Teach the course so students can follow the transition from a traditional professional framework to current thinking.

Start with a fair assessment of professional journalism ethics. How did it arise and what are its essential features? Then compare this framework with the values that underlie mixed media today. The guiding question is: To what extent do traditional principles apply today? What editorial guidelines are needed to address new situations, new quandaries? Much of the teaching of journalism ethics should involve discussions on how journalism ethics might re-invent itself so it can guide journalists across multiple media platforms.

Show that the invention of new guidelines is possible. Examine how news organizations are constructing new guidelines on a range of problems — from verifying citizen content to dealing with rumors on social media. Challenge them to write their own ethics policy on online anonymity or other burning issues.

5. Be global in your teaching.

The global impact of journalism requires students to think about their responsibility to inform a public that crosses borders. In a media-linked world, students should ponder whether journalists need to adopt a more globally minded view of themselves. They need to consider a global journalism ethics. Moreover, we should teach the plurality of approaches to journalism ethics from Scandinavia and Europe to Asia.


Journalism ethics instruction, therefore, must revolutionize itself.

  • Teaching should be dialectical — helping students to move back and forth between alternate conceptions.
  • Teaching should be holistic — helping students to bring many kinds of facts and ideas to the discussion.
  • Teaching should be Socratic. Through questioning and discussion, students formulate their own ethical framework.

Finally, the teaching should challenge, not discourage. Instructors should persuade students that ethics is worth studying even if there are no universal “answers.” Students should see the turmoil in journalism as an exciting intellectual and practical challenge to develop a more adequate ethics for a new global mixed media.

Only if we teach in this manner will we prepare journalists for the future and the changing technologies it promises.

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