Accuracy. Integrity. Truth. Three canons of journalism, three concepts we strive to teach our students. As is evidenced from the many ethics scandals in recent years, professionals don’t always get this right either.  Courses in institutions of higher education are not self-limiting—in the journalism field, they are also a bridge to a later professional career. So, how do we teach integrity and the other canons of journalism in colleges and universities—and do those concepts even have a place in college classrooms? And where and when does teaching academic (as well as professional media) integrity begin? Those were some of the issues and questions addressed at the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) annual conference in April 2013. 

    The “perpetual change” of today’s professional journalism drives the need professors have to convince students that Journalism (with a capital J) is important, and that Journalistic ethics matter. A discussion with Tony DeMars (Texas A&M), Maria Williams-Hawkins (Ball State), Gary Larson (U. Nevada-Las Vegas), and Ron Comins and Dan Landson (from KLAS-TV), addressed those challenges. News professionals want and need students who both understand core journalistic and ethical values and know how to apply them to real-life situations. One suggestion from the KLAS team was the need to train students to discern opinion and separate it from fact. The tricky paths of Google algorithms, Wikipedia, and other sources of information that may not be as open as they should be might trip the unwary and untrained. Teaching students how to find appropriate facts accurately and quickly is a skill students of electronic (and print and digital) journalism need as they transition into professional life.

     A second panel, specifically addressing academic integrity in skills courses shared ideas for helping students make correct choices, and strategies for punishing those who don’t.  John MacKerron, John Turner and Cynthia Cooper from Towson University, Hub Brown from Syracuse University, Jody Morrison from Salisbury University and I agreed that the usual notes in a syllabus directing students to the local Code of Student Conduct is a start. But there’s much more that faculty can do on the front end to set the standards and expectations for classes, especially those involving internships or their institution’s student-operated journalistic media.

    Morrison offered details of her 6-page “syllabus and contract” with students who wished to undertake an internship (usually with a nearby professional journalistic organization) for credit. This document states explicitly how the internship application is filled out, the deadline for turning in the application—and the basic rules she expects the students to follow. So, the students know up front what is “right” and meets the school’s expectations for honesty and integrity. But that document is not the end. Once the student has submitted the application, Morrison then personally contacts the internship supervisor. She confirms the details of the student’s hours and responsibilities. This prevents a student from “fudging” (obviously, a form of cheating) the details then and in the future. She also makes sure to tell students things that many faculty members would expect to be obvious. “Don’t steal from those who give you an internship.” She said that whenever she tells that to a class, some students laugh—isn’t that obvious? But it happened to one of her students and now she makes sure to let others know that breaking the law is also a violation of academic integrity.

    Since those who teach skills classes don’t have a service like turnitin.com to check news packages for validity and reliability, the use of front end explanations is vital for those classes as well. Hub Brown noted that using examples of bad behavior from previous classes can provide a guide for current students in what not to do. He used the example of a student who got a quote from a person who didn’t want to appear on camera. So the student got his roommate to say the same words on camera. The student figured he’d gotten the quote right, and had someone on camera. The faculty member had to explain the problem with this misleading execution of a soundbite—and then use it for educating others. That example has become part of the larger explanation of honesty and integrity at Syracuse.

    Discussions such as these, as well as informal talks in the hallways at the BEA conference and elsewhere, show that the need for integrity is not limited to the academy—and neither is it limited to work in the media after graduation. What students learn and what they do while in college sets them up for their future in journalism.  The teaching and practice of ethical integrity in courses, co-curricular activities, and internships are key steps towards creating ethical students—and ethical professionals.

Lydia Timmins

  • Lydia Timmins is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication of the University of Delaware.  She can be reached through www.udel.edu/communication.