November 17, 2021

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Does your student publication have a written guide to handling ethical issues? Has it been updated in the past year or so? Can the public read these guidelines when they have questions about your coverage?

If the answer to all of these questions isn’t yes, it’s time to think about creating a transparent, public-facing ethics handbook for your student newsroom.

This isn’t the same as a list of newsroom rules or policies (how are editors selected? how do readers send in corrections?), although those are essential, too. Ethical guidelines are more complex than policies because the situations they cover are more nuanced, without a simple right or wrong answer. They’re especially important for student newsrooms, where institutional knowledge slips away easily as staff turns over when students graduate.

The graduate class I’m taking at Kent State University this fall has relied heavily on the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, which has a useful website covering all manner of ethical issues. It’s a great starting point for the types of issues you might want to cover in your handbook.

If your publication doesn’t have an ethics handbook, editors can start by identifying the top five ethical issues that have come up in the past. Ethical issues often arise as questions you’re not sure about the answer to, like:

  • How do you respond to requests to take down articles?
  • Should a member of a fraternity or sorority be allowed to cover Greek life?
  • Should a female staff member be allowed to participate in a women’s rights rally?

Work as a team to draft a short section for each one and seek feedback from other staffers.

This all might sound overwhelming, but each section can look pretty simple:

  • Brief overview of the issue
  • Questions students should consider when the ethical issue comes up
  • Best practices related to this issue
  • Resources and links to refer to

Here’s what this could look like in practice:

How should we report on suicide? These guidelines cover how to responsibly approach coverage if a student or teacher at your school takes his or her own life.

Adapted from the NSPA Code of Ethics’ and SPJ Code of Ethics’ “Minimize Harm” sections, as well as the Suicide Reporting Toolkit, ask these questions while reporting on suicide:

  • Am I showing sensitivity and respect in reaching out to sources in writing this story, without causing unnecessary stress or harm?
  • Have I reported truthfully, but avoided explicit details?
  • Am I using language responsibly without stigmatizing or sensationalizing?
  • Am I providing mental health resources for students who are personally affected by this coverage?

Best practices:

  • Consider adding a content warning to the top of all stories that mention suicide.
  • Do not include detail of the method used. Saying “John Doe died by suicide” or “took his/her own life” is sufficient.
  • Do not publish the contents of suicide notes or social media posts that serve this purpose.
  • Always include a sidebar of resources for readers, including but not limited to a suicide hotline/crisis line, and other relevant local resources, like school grief counseling services.

Resources:

If you already have a handbook, check when it was last updated. There might be sections that need refreshing or areas that should be added, particularly pertaining to digital journalism and social media.

Finally, figure out where your ethics handbook will live. It doesn’t do any good if staffers don’t know where to access it and how to use it; ensure that it’s included in orientations for all new staffers and especially new editors.

Publishing some or all of your ethical guidelines online also adds a level of transparency to your publication. In stories that deal with sensitive issues like sexual assault or student deaths, it’s helpful to have published guidelines to point to and explain your coverage choices.

If your student publication has published ethical guidelines, email me at thelead@poynter.org. I’d love to show examples of ethical guidelines in a future newsletter issue so we can all learn from each other.

The changing ethics of student journalism

This newsletter issue is part of an ongoing series from The Lead about ethics in student journalism. Other recent issues:

Exploring student newspapers’ ethics through history

Sophie Culpepper, a recent graduate from Brown University, emailed me about her senior thesis that delves into issues The Lead readers should consider. She writes:

“When I was applying to join the editorial board of my campus daily two years ago, my existential crisis about the relationship between journalism, activism and objectivity found a bizarre outlet in a history project. I wondered how previous generations of student journalists had approached their challenges and ethical responsibilities, especially in periods of intense campus upheaval, which led me to write a senior thesis about my newspaper’s institutional identity, priorities and values in the ’60s.

I found that some of the questions and conflicts I harbor today could be just as messy 50 years ago. I also found that researching your student newspaper’s history can contribute to an understudied subject and strengthen the institutional memory of your publication. My project hardly has conclusive answers, but it’s publicly posted and includes a short abstract if you want the SparkNotes and are interested in researching your own outlet’s history.”

One story worth reading

Many student publications have fraught relationships with college officials, and that doesn’t help either party accomplish its goals. It also undermines the higher education mission of providing students with experience that prepares them for the workforce.

“Many institutional leaders seem to forget that their responsibility to educate includes working student journalists who are engaged in the practical application of what they’re learning in the classroom,” ​​Erin A. Hennessy and Kristine Maloney, both higher education communications professionals, write for Poynter. “Colleges and their students would be better served by taking the time to work with students covering campus issues, particularly with sensitive or potentially controversial stories, to make sure the issues are understood and reflected.”

Opportunities and trainings

📅 Programming note: The Lead is taking next week off for Thanksgiving. Relax, eat some pie, and we’ll be back on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Student journalists ask: Is objectivity becoming obsolete?

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email thelead@poynter.org.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
Taylor Blatchford

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