How to Ethics: A syllabus for journalism students

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Journalism Ethics and Issues (JRNL 4650) with Betsy O’Donovan

Northeastern University • Fall 2015

Tuesdays and Fridays, 8 to 9:40 a.m.


This is a pragmatic course. A decent grasp of ethics won’t make you a good journalist, but it might save you from being a bad one.

There are obvious evils in journalism: plagiarism, fabrication, sloppiness. We will tackle those (and their consequences), but I’m not particularly interested in the kinds of ethics that you can satisfy by checking boxes, and neither is this course.

Instead, we will look at what happens when a public service mission collides with competition, at media company ownership, diversity in media (both in terms of reporting staff and coverage of events), the opportunities and problems of a digital tools, and more.

We will work hard not to be printcentric (a fairly common problem for journalism ethicists), and to make sure that you leave this class prepared to make and defend decisions as a journalist.

tl;dr version: Ethics are a journalist’s shield and sword. Suit up.

Your instructor: A maintenance guide

Journalist since 1998, working around the U.S. Reporter, copy editor, city editor, editorial page editor, editor, digital strategist. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, web. B.A. in English lit (Wake Forest), M.Phil. in writing (Trinity College Dublin), Nieman fellowship (Harvard). Sympathetic listener. Tough grader. Quiet voice — if you can’t hear me, remind me to speak up.

Requirements for this class


In addition to short weekly reading assignments, you are required to read two books for this course.

Everyone will read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” this term (available from libraries and retailers everywhere). You have a choice of reading (or re-reading) either:

  • Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or
  • “The Lifespan of a Fact” by John d’Agata and Jim Fingal

A word about these latter two: The authors have been accused of crimes against journalism. Assigning them is problematic — my own little ethical dilemma, which I’m passing on to you.

It is up to you how to lay hands on these books. Options include: Buy new. Check them out of a library. Find them secondhand so that no royalties accrue to the authors. Take Abbie Hoffman’s advice and steal a copy (digital or physical). I am also open to creative solutions of your own devising. Each choice has a range of possible effects and, therefore, is a statement with ethical weight.

NOTE: Your decision about how to secure one of these books, and the logic behind it, is the subject of one of three papers you’ll write this term. (If you already have the book you want to read, congratulations: you get to write the paper as a thought exercise rather than a memoir.)

• In addition, you need to keep up with local news on a daily basis.

I am not going to require you to subscribe to The Boston Globe (although it’s a very good paper, digital subscriptions are $10 for students, and you should read it regularly if you hope to write for them). But you need to figure out how to stay abreast of Boston events.

• You should read a good national newspaper as well. And, if it’s not obvious, follow the news sources of your choice on Twitter (reach for unfamiliar; come see me if you’d like help cultivating a list).

If you already read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal (for instance), then you’re all set. I also recommend The Washington Post, and its digital subscriptions are free to anyone with an .edu/.gov/.mil email address. Just click here. Digital Premium will give you access to all of the Post’s digital products, not just the website.

• I’ll provide weekly readings that you’ll need in order to participate in weekly discussions.

• Finally, I’ve posted a number of links to journalism- and ethics-related websites on the Journalism Ethics Pinterest board. Take some time with them.

School of Journalism attendance policy

The School of Journalism requires that you attend at least 80 percent of all scheduled class meetings. If you miss 20 percent or more of scheduled classes for any reason, you will automatically fail. Every absence will, obviously, affect your class participation, which will be factored into your final grade.

Class begins at 8 a.m. Given my own feelings about the hour, here is some leeway: I will take attendance around 8:10 or 8:15. If you come in after attendance is called, it will be counted as a half-absence. I’d rather you show up late than not at all. Don’t make a production number of it. Come see me after class to make sure I count your attendance.

University statement regarding academic honesty

Northeastern University is committed to the principles of intellectual honesty and integrity. All members of the Northeastern community are expected to maintain complete honesty in all academic work, presenting only that which is their own work in tests and all other assignments. If you have any questions regarding proper attribution of the work of others, please contact me prior to submitting the work for evaluation.

A personal note: The contemptible offenses of journalism include fabrication and plagiarism. Commit either of these and you can expect to receive an “F” for the course, with probable referral to OSCCR.

And I owe you an attribution: Sections of this syllabus (most of the disclaimers and policy statements, for sure) are based on Journalism Ethics and Issues syllabuses prepared by other instructors, including Dan Kennedy.

Assignments, deadlines and grades

All work must be emailed to me with “Journalism Ethics and Issues” in the subject line (along with whatever additional information is relevant).

  • Sept. 25, 5 p.m.
    Essay: Write your personal code of ethics. No minimum length; keep it under 1,000 words. (Ungraded, but you’re going to need it later in the term.)
  • Oct. 9, 5 p.m.
    Essay: Explain the ethical questions you considered and the decision you made when you secured a copy of “In Cold Blood” or “The Lifespan of a Fact.”
    Length: 850–1,000 words. (10 percent of grade)
  • Nov. 6, 5 p.m.
    Essay: Congratulations: You’re in charge of your hometown newsroom (the medium of your choice). You’ve just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and you’re thinking about how his observations play out in your community. What changes, if any, will you make in response, and why? How would you express the ethical principles behind your decisions?
    Length: 850–1,000 words (20 percent)
  • Nov. 20, 5 p.m.
    In both of these essays, I am asking you to take the contrarian perspective. Go ahead and advocate for the devil — be bold. Is there an ethically defensible argument for these authors’ actions?
    If you read “The Lifespan of a Fact,” take d’Agata’s side for a moment. Stop and honestly assess his arguments in an essay. An example of the kinds of questions I want you to ask (find your own for the paper; this one is off-limits): Does it matter whether he changed the name of “Tweety Nails” to “Famous Nails”? Why or why not? Don’t repeat d’Agata’s arguments; find your own.
    If you read “In Cold Blood,” please review the allegations of error, fabrication, and manipulation against Capote. (There are many; take your pick.) Write from Capote’s perspective. Find an ethical defense for his decisions and actions. (If you can’t, then explain the defenses you considered and why you discarded them. Work for it.)
    Length: 850–1,000 (20 percent)
  • Dec. 8, 2015, 5 p.m.
    Final project: First, rewrite the ungraded code of ethics that you created in the first weeks of the semester (try to keep it tight). Then answer the following questions in an essay: How have your ideas changed? What concerns have come to light as you have studied this term? Which areas of journalism ethics seems difficult or problematic for you, personally? What is the cost of ethical decision-making?
    Length: 1,000- to 1,500-word essay (30 percent) + code of ethics
  • Ongoing
    Class participation, including presentations and discussion.
    (20 percent)


Spelling names: This is a journalism class, and one of the things we do is spell proper names correctly. Any graded assignment with a misspelled proper name will be marked down by a grade — that is, an A becomes a B, a B-plus becomes a C-plus, etc. Be paranoid. I don’t want to mark you down, but better to lose a grade now than a job later.

Deadlines: If an assignment is due on a Friday at 5 p.m., you will lose a full grade for each day or portion of a day that it is late. At 5:01 p.m. on Friday, an A drops to a B. At 5:01 on Saturday, a B drops to a C, etc.

If/when you are doing the mental calculus of whether to turn in an assignment late, please bear in mind that I only give As to exceptional work, Bs to work that is above the average in the class (and in my expectations), and Cs for work that is what I expect of you, an upperclassman with writing experience. Do not assume that you are starting with an A and gamble down from there.

The only exception to this policy is if you have an exceptionally good and provable excuse, such as a hospitalization or a death in the family. Unspecified illness is not, in general, a compelling excuse.


If you have physical, psychiatric or learning disabilities that may require accommodations for this course, please meet with me after class or during conference hours to discuss what adaptations might be helpful to you. The Disability Resource Center, 20 Dodge Hall (x2675), can provide you with information and assistance. The university requires that you provide documentation of your disability to the DRC.


The College of Arts, Media and Design has asked that the following language be included in each syllabus:

CAMD considers student feedback essential and requires all students to complete TRACE evaluations at the end of the semester. You will be asked to provide a screen shot to your instructor that reflects your participation. Note that you can, anonymously, opt out of completing the survey and still obtain the screen shot that satisfies the TRACE requirement.

BUT NOT SO FAST: As a matter of policy the School of Journalism does not require that you submit a TRACE evaluation.

THE UPSHOT: TRACE evaluations aren’t compulsory for you, but the School of Journalism takes them seriously. Evaluations help the school (and me, your teacher) improve the class and the program. I will strongly encourage you to participate when we reach the end of the semester; please do.


Every week this fall, we’ll tackle a topic included in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and looking at the various ways it is applied … or not.

At the beginning of the semester, the class will be divided into small groups, each of which will represent a particular subset of journalism for the term. Some of you will be thinking of ethics as they apply to video. Or audio. Or photography. Or text. Or graphics. Or social. Or data. As we look at different aspects of ethics, your job is to think about the particular ways these ethical principles affect your medium.

Reading: You’re going to want to do each week’s assigned reading before Tuesday. It’s going to underpin our discussions.

On Tuesdays, expect a quick introduction to the week’s concepts, a group discussion of the assigned readings, and sometimes a guest speaker.

On Fridays, each group is responsible for bringing forward real-world examples for class discussion from your assigned medium. You could bring an example of a spectacular and/or notorious failure of ethics, or an example of a complicated question.

Example of something you might present: Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.

Week 1

Topic: Syllabus review; introductions; a little about ethics and codes of ethics.

Week 2 (Sept. 15, 18)

Topic: The big four principles

Reading: “Using the SPJ Code.” Check out codes of ethics beyond the SPJ’s; bring your favorite examples to class for discussion

Week 3 (Sept. 22, 25 — NO CLASS on Sept. 25; code of ethics due at 5 p.m. ET)

Topic: Accuracy

Word to the wise: On Thursday, the ONA conference will include a session, “Build Your Own Ethics Code” that you might find helpful. Real-world examples, interesting experts. Find it here.

Week 4 (Sept. 29, Oct. 2)

Topic: Context and thoroughness

Tuesday guest: Hasit Shah

Week 5 (Oct. 6, 9)

Paper due Friday at 5 p.m. ET (Ethical challenges of procuring a book for this class)

Topic: Bias (newsroom and public)

Tuesday guest: Adriana Gallardo

Week 6 (Oct. 13, 16)

Topic: Attribution and aggregation

Week 7 (Oct. 20, 23)

Topic: Newsgathering tactics

Week 8 (Oct. 27, 30)

Topic: Privacy vs. public interest

Week 9 (Nov. 3, 6)

Paper due Friday at 5 p.m. ET (“Between the World and Me”)

Topic: Cultural differences

Week 10 (Nov. 10, 13)

Topic: Using influence (yours), being influenced (by “them”)

Week 11 (Nov. 17, 20)

Paper due Friday at 5 p.m. ET (“Lifespan of a Fact” or “In Cold Blood”)

Topic: Economic influences

Week 12 (Nov. 24, 27 — NO CLASS NOV. 27 DUE TO TRYPTOPHAN COMAS)

Topic: Getting it wrong (and recovering)

Week 13 (Dec. 1, 4)

Topic: Civic vs. professional journalism


Topic: Resources; what to do when you have an ethical conflict with editors; wrap-up questions.