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We all know how tough it is to get the smart-phone generation of journalism students involved in the history or ethics of journalism. I’ve discovered that using modern technology to update age-old ethical issues not only gets students excited about discussing ethical problems, but also becomes a dynamic part of their basic understanding of how to function in multimedia journalism. 

I believe my course, Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies, is a 21st-century way of teaching traditional journalistic issues. I show how those issues are dramatized in film and on television. I find that this approach dramatically helps students visualize, sometimes on a visceral level, the ethical problem under discussion.

I show carefully edited clips from each film with a brief lecture. This precedes what I consider to be the heart and soul of this class: a spirited give-and-take discussion of a major ethical issue.

Many consider the key to good journalism practices can be summed up in two words: accuracy and fairness. But there are many other ethical issues and controversies facing journalists on a daily basis that I want my students to not only understand, but also put into action. For example:

  • The best standards of inquiry and verification in a world where there is a deadline every minute
  • Fabrication and the issue of trust
  • Getting the whole story and checking the sources of a story
  • How far a journalist should go to get a story
  • Deception and undercover journalism
  • The price of access in beat coverage
  • Sensationalism and getting the story first
  • Journalistic values vs. business values and the staging of news
  • The myth of objectivity
  • The journalist as celebrity and the reporter’s role in society
  • Anonymous sources
  • Empathy in covering stories

What is even more important is to give students the opportunity to explore the moral issues involved in a white, patriarchal news media that discriminates against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ persons. By emphasizing diversity in each lecture, I can discuss traditional ethical values in a new context that students find invigorating, inclusive, and essential.

Through teaching this course multiple times, I have found that Professor Howard Good’s book, Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies, provides a solid outline for my syllabus. It is twelve chapters long, includes contributions written by some of the nation’s leading journalism scholars, and explores issues that should concern anyone who aspires to a career in journalism, who already works in the field, or who relies on the news media and the internet for daily information.

This book, along with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, enables me to give journalism and communication majors, as well as other students throughout the university, a chance to study specific ethical situations through the excitement and drama of film. Currently, my class covers the following media and topics:

  • The Paper: Responsible journalism inquiry
  • Shattered Glass: Fabrication in journalism.
  • Wag the Dog: Political manipulation of the media.
  • Absence of Malice: A multitude of ethical issues, including sourcing a story and poor reporting.
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and its remake Mr. Deeds: Deception and undercover journalism.
  • The Pride of the Yankees: Covering sports and the problems of beat coverage.
  • Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Ethical dilemmas facing first responders, especially TV journalists.
  • Broadcast News: Staging the news and prioritizing style over substance.
  • Veronica Guerin: Crime reporting.
  • The Year of Living Dangerously: Putting a source in danger.
  • Welcome to Sarajevo: The journalist and the victims of war.

You can easily add any other subject by finding a motion picture or television program to illustrate it. For example, I have added two subjects that are not included in the book but are essential in today’s discussion of ethics and media. The first is Sleeping with Sources and Sexual Harassment, illustrated by House of Cards, Thank You for Smoking, Richard Jewell and Bombshell. The second, The Journalist of Color, I have illustrated with Livin’ Color, Being Mary Jane, and Ugly Betty.

I have also discovered that by asking each student to find an ethical issue in media through scanning newspapers, TV, radio, the internet, the student newspaper or multimedia center, and other sources, they become even more invested in the class. Each week, they turn in a brief paper on that issue and, once a full discussion of the scheduled film is completed, there is usually time to explore two or three of the dilemmas supplied by students. These discussions involve the class more intimately with up-to-date controversies.

This process gives me the opportunity to have students identify complex factors that influence ethical decision-making on a daily basis in journalism. I help them create and apply standards to evaluate journalism as practitioners and/or consumers of news and information, including social media and the internet. I encourage them to analyze the effects of the lack of diversity in historically white, male-controlled news media throughout the 20th century and early 21st century. This approach includes the way the news is covered and the lack of news involving minority communities, racial issues, and gender issues. We discuss the situation as it was, is, and might be in the future.

One of my goals is to teach students to be more sophisticated in their understanding of the news media, their functions, and why the public has a love-hate relationship with the messengers who bring important news and information to them. Understanding the real world of journalism as well as that world in popular culture is to understand that the modern mainstream news media has been primarily controlled by white men writing news for other heterosexual white men. Women have slowly made inroads and perhaps are more influential in news media today than ever before, but representation and inclusion for them are still an uphill battle. People of color, ignored by mainstream news media throughout the 20th century , are also making gradual progress into high-profile mainstream media, but that progress has been agonizingly slow. LGBTQ+ journalists, who have had to hide their sexual preferences from employers for decades, are just now beginning to feel more freedom in revealing who they are and what they have to contribute to the reporting of information to the American people. Without the very important viewpoints from journalists who are not heterosexual white men, the coverage of news in the United States will never be complete. 

I hope you will join me in teaching media ethics through the movies. I think you will be as happy as I am in the way it gets students involved and active in discussing a multitude of ethical issues facing journalists and the public.

  • Joe Saltzman, professor of communication and journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, teaches Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies as well as other history and ethic courses. He is also director of The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, A Norman Lear Project at USC Annenberg, and won one of the AEJMC History’s Jinx Coleman Broussard Award for the Transformative Teaching of Media and Journalism in 2020.