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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Journalism Ethics 101: A Survival Guide for Student Journalists Navigating a Shifting World

Delaney Nothaft

Delaney Nothaft was a 2019-2020 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

A free press is essential to informing the public, speaking truth to power, and connecting people with their communities — including college campuses. Student journalism has grown in importance for college communities that are now often dispersed across the country and globe due to social distancing. At the same time, many student journalists and student editors struggle with uncertainties about how to report ethically, which often stem from their professional inexperience, competing interests, and a wish to fit in with their peers. The 10 ethical guidelines for student journalists are designed to help journalists of the future not only make it through their immediate deadline, but also safeguard democracy and foster social cohesion with their reporting.

First, let’s address a few preliminary questions you might have:

Why do college newspapers matter?

College newspapers are training grounds for journalists of the future — a future in which truth itself is under assault and democracy is more imperiled than ever. In order to preserve the press and freedom that empowers it to speak truth to power, we need to equip student journalists to confront the challenges faced by professional journalism. 

Are college newspapers any different from regular newspapers?

Yes. Student journalists are immersed in the communities they report on, and while that gives them access and insight, it also requires systems and procedures to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Furthermore, student journalists are often beholden to authority figures who control their budgets and may seek to influence coverage and limit criticism. Such power imbalances and conflicts of interest, combined with student journalists’ relative inexperience, are a recipe for a journalism environment riddled with ethical potholes. 

Why do student journalists need a particular set of ethical guidelines?

A college campus is a unique community with its own structure, policies, power dynamics and stakeholders. The role of the student press requires it to hold accountable the same powers that provide its funding — a scary position for any journalist to be in, never mind a college kid trying to fit in and make the grade. It’s a difficult environment in which to take a principled stand, or to even know what the principled stand is, and ethical resources can only help!

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As a Hackworth fellow in 2019-2020, I set out to research ethical issues in college newspapers. During fall quarter, I conducted ethnographic observation of SCU’s campus paper, The Santa Clara (TSC), as well as several interviews with the newsroom staff, and a thematic analysis of TSC content, along with outside research on student newspapers from around the country. Under the direction and guidance of Dr. Anita Varma (assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center), I developed 10 ethical guidelines for student journalism to prioritize. 

1. Treat people with dignity and respect

Journalists, and reporters in particular, are often the “butt” of late night talk show jokes, where they are portrayed as “pushy” or “sensationalizers.” These jokes are funny because there is a layer of truth to them – there are some journalists who are willing to go to extreme lengths to get the story. Don’t forget, though, that you can get the story while treating everyone with dignity and respect. A “good story” doesn’t justify causing harm to those in your path. This includes everyone you interact with: all the stakeholders in the story, your colleagues, and the community as a whole.

It’s important to note that you can still hold people accountable while still treating them with respect. In fact, holding people accountable is respecting them – you are respecting their autonomy as individuals making decisions. A tough question is not inherently disrespectful. Treating people with dignity and respect means being accurate in your portrayals, giving people an opportunity to respond, and being sensitive to sources’ vulnerabilities and needs.

For example, before labeling anyone, the newsroom should check to see if that label would cause significant psychological harm to a source or the source’s community. What is your news organization’s style when referring to students’ immigration status? If you’re unsure, consult with advisors and members of that stakeholder group. They are the best experts.

If you’re a student editor, be sure you respect student reporters’ dignity as well. It is good practice to consult the reporter when making edits that have to do with clarity of the content. Reporters are held accountable by the public, which is a good thing – but editors should also make sure that the content they are going to be held accountable for is what the reporter intended.

2. Identify and acknowledge all stakeholders

Striving for truth can be complicated. The implications of a particular event or issue are often difficult to comprehend or anticipate if you’re covering a story for the first time. A good starting point is to identify as many stakeholders as possible. Remember, your scope can always be trimmed later, but by starting broad you are less likely to miss things. However, it is important to note that you should not amplify a voice that will inflict psychological or physical harm on the community. Giving a voice to a White supremacist or a conspiracy theorist with unfounded arguments doesn’t do anything to serve the community or truth-telling.

Furthermore, not all voices should be given equal weight. There is often an assumption that journalists should be neutral. However, the truth is rarely neutral. For example, some may argue that when reporting on a racist event, it would “violate neutrality” to use the word “racist” — even when there is an empirically demonstrable pattern of racist behavior at hand. Similarly, it is unethical to prioritize neutrality in the face of basic human rights violations.

It is the role of journalists to inform the public about what is happening, not to couch reality in jargon or sugar-coat with euphemisms to avoid controversy which can be misleading or even deceptive. When, for example, acts of racism are empirically substantiated, don’t use softened phrases like “racially charged.”

3. Provide context

I offer an analogy for the importance of context:

A man eats an apple.

A man eats the first fully synthetic apple.

A soldier eats the first fully synthetic apple designed to increase strength and repair injuries, making him invincible.

Facts mean nothing without context. This is a goofy example, but the point is that journalists must make context decisions that can drastically change the meaning of the story. Take this more serious example:

A man was shot.

A man was shot by police officers.

A Black man was shot by police officers in Phoenix, a city that was still reeling after the death of another Black man shot by officers two weeks ago. Both victims were unarmed.

Ask questions like these until the context becomes clearer:

  • What is happening, and why is it happening?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • What is their history?
  • What is the history of events like this? Is it significant?
  • Is there statistically significant data?
  • Which stakeholders should I talk to for a better grasp on this?
  • Ask your sources, “How do you know that?”
4. Emphasize equity

One of the fundamental missions of a newspaper is to give voice to the voiceless. Knowledge is power, and by sharing stories you may be able to change hearts and minds. It’s important to choose these stories wisely. Whose voice should be elevated, and why? Here are some important questions to consider:

  • Are people suffering?
  • If so, why are they suffering?
  • Is someone inflicting the suffering?
  • Is their suffering visible?
  • Are fundamental human rights being violated?
  • Are the people who are suffering marginalized, meaning they are prevented from full civic participation?
  • Could this story advance an “us versus them” narrative that will further stoke division? How might you avoid this trope?
5. Practice courage and prudence

Journalists have a duty to report the truth so that the powerful are held accountable and the public can make informed decisions. Journalists should perform this duty with both courage and prudence. Courage is doing the right thing even if you’re afraid. Courage for a journalist can mean putting yourself in jeopardy of physical harm, but it also includes moral, intellectual, emotional, social and psychological bravery. It takes courage to face hostility or ridicule from readers and authorities. Prudence is being reasonable and not reckless. To practice prudence as a journalist means you are careful and use sound judgment.

An example of a virtuous journalist is Marty Baron, the current editor of The Washington Post and the former editor of The Boston Globe. He led the newspaper and the “Spotlight” team that investigated the Catholic church for covering up and protecting priests who were abusing children. He showed courage when he took on the Catholic church. And he was prudent – he required irrefutable data and source testimony because he didn’t want to leave the story open to accusations of rushing to judgment. 

6. Be rigorous editors 

Rigor makes people better at everything they do. The editing process is crucial for ensuring rigor in student newspapers since student reporters are still cultivating their skills. Here are a few suggestions for editing policies:

  • In a student setting, editors are often also reporters, and they are still learning themselves, so the more eyes on a story the better. Consider editing horizontally, in addition to vertically.
  • Make reporters aware of edits, even if they are not present on production night.
  • Consider requiring at least two drafts of a story.
  • Remember, the more eyes you have on a story, the higher the odds become that mistakes will be caught and corrected prior to publication.
7. Engage the community

The newspaper exists to make the community better, so input from the community is essential. It is vital to ask what is important to your audience to gain insight as to what is going on in the community and why it matters. Being open and accessible will build trust, which will lead to better relationships, which will lead to better leads and better stories. Remember to prioritize dignity and respect — don’t make enemies with the community. If you’re not trusted, your work means nothing. Be collaborative. Aspire to make a positive difference in the lives of all the people who comprise your college community.

8. Strive for accuracy

Journalistic credibility is derived from accuracy. Journalism has been described as presenting “the facts” and also “the truth about the facts.” A commitment to accuracy is essential and requires rigorous examination and enforcement. Here are some guideposts as a starting point:

  • Seek and prioritize first-hand sources.
  • Double-check facts and keep a record of how you have verified those facts.
  • Confirm claims with at least two sources.
  • Ensure facts are presented in context and are true to their intended meaning.
  • Don’t allow deadline pressures to compromise standards.
  • Don’t give credence to people you know aren’t being honest by including their quotes. University officials may make false claims – that doesn’t mean you have to amplify them uncritically.
  • Challenge your assumptions and have an open mind.
  • If you feel emotionally invested or emotionally divested in a story, acknowledge those feelings and seek feedback to ensure you’re including relevant perspectives.
  • Be transparent and show your work.
  • Don’t be fooled by increasingly sophisticated digital manipulation. Remain skeptical (even/especially if an image has gone viral on social media) and seek verifiable evidence.
  • Headlines, cutlines and display text must share accuracy standards.
  • Admit your mistakes and correct them. 
9. Actively diversify the newsroom 

In a close-knit college community, it can be tempting to suggest your friends join the school newspaper with you. Friends can bring out the best in us, but they can also cloud our judgement (you may look at them through “love eyes.”) Friends may be less afraid to call you out — or they might not call you out because they want to preserve the friendship. This is problematic for accountability, and can worsen blind spots in newsrooms. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be friends with your coworkers. Just be cognizant to encourage people of all different backgrounds and opinions to join the newspaper, even if your social circle is mostly homogenous. Diversity strengthens journalism. 

10. Demand & model a culture of organizational integrity  

Organizational integrity means creating a climate that aligns values, attitudes, language, and behaviors with ethical principles. In other words: talk the talk and walk the walk of ethical journalism. Being insensitive or indifferent to potentially harmful behaviors is indicative of a culture that lacks integrity. To bring this full circle – each member of the newspaper has a responsibility to cultivate a culture that values dignity and respect for community members and for each other.

Jun 12, 2020