On Thursday, Poynter reported on a potential partnership between Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the U.S. Soccer Federation. Poynter initially made calls on the story with questions about the ethics of the arrangement. What degree of independence would the students have? Would they mostly be doing public relations?
But the story didn’t focus on those questions. Instead, it centered on the possibility that the whole thing might not happen after excited students began contacting the U.S. Soccer Federation themselves and the federation put on the brakes.
But it did include this line: “Feeding the U.S. Soccer’s Twitter account and other media sites wouldn’t be a problem for students in the school’s public relations (Strategic Communication) track, but poses ethical issues for the student journalists.”
And that’s what Bill Reader, associate professor at Ohio University, took issue with. In a comment posted on the story, Reader wrote:
It is unfair and unethical itself to level an allegation that there is some “ethical” impropriety with such an educational opportunity. College students are just that — students — who are free to take courses outside of their major areas of study or to get involved in activities that aren’t within the “bubbles” of their chosen majors.
In the case of students interested in sports journalism, it would be foolish for them to not also take some courses about sports administration and marketing.
Kelly McBride, Poynter senior faculty, said Friday that a variety of opportunities exist for journalists now, and an opportunity like OU’s partnership prepares students for “a really confusing world of journalism.”
Some may go report for independent publications, McBride said, “and some people do journalism from a corporate point of view and that’s especially true in the world of sports journalism, where the MLB and the NFL all have their own journalism platforms.”
Students going to Brazil may not be able to write about FIFA leadership — U.S. Soccer is a member of the World Cup’s governing body — but other reporters there will do that kind of journalism, McBride said. Documenting fans and the team and the experience of the World Cup is also important journalism, she said.
Kevin Z. Smith, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Ethics Committee, also didn’t see any ethical problems with the internship.
“I think this is a great internship opportunity for Ohio University students, both studying public relations and journalism,” he wrote in an e-mail to Poynter. “I understand the school’s desire to allow those disciplines to meld for the purposes of internships and I am confident the faculty managing these students will emphasize the ethical aspects of their work. So long as lessons learned from this experience include the journalist’s commitment to truth and fairness and the need for independence, and how that differs from a strategic communication mission, I think this will be a worthwhile experience.”
Going to the World Cup in Brazil would be a huge advantage for students, McBride agreed, but instructors involved should also make sure to include discussions about how the experience fits in the overall landscape of journalism.
“That’s the world they’re going to step into.”