Instructor: Eileen McNamara

Time: Tuesday and Friday 9:30 a.m.-10:50 a.m. Place: 316 Brown

Office Hours: Tuesday and Friday 8 a.m.-9 a.m., 11 a.m.-noon and by appointment

Office: 321 Brown

Telephone: 781-736-3049 (Office), 781-929-1934 (Cell)



In a media climate dominated by scandal is the phrase “journalistic ethics” an oxymoron? Who decides what is fair or what is true? How are standards enforced in a profession that is constitutionally protected from regulation? We will consider how guides to ethical decision-making, from Aristotle to Sissela Bok, can help shape journalism’s efforts at self-policing in the digital age. The Society of Professional Journalists identifies four broad ethical responsibilities that will divide our semester and guide our explorations: To Seek Truth and Report It, To Minimize Harm, To Act Independently, To Be Accountable. Through case studies, we will examine the ethical challenges facing journalists, including lapses that have brought the profession into disrepute and corrective measures taken to restore trust. Our syllabus is not written in stone; cases that arise during the course of the semester will be incorporated into our studies. This underscores the necessity of students developing a daily news habit.


You are to read the assigned material prior to class in order to participate fully in discussions. You must read The New York Times daily and its Public Editor’s column whenever it appears in order to discuss ethical dilemmas in the news. You will write three essays on assigned topics. In addition, students in small groups will analyze assigned case studies and make written and oral presentations each Friday. Attendance is mandatory. Notify me by e-mail in advance if you are ill or have a valid reason for an absence. It will be your responsibility to switch assignments with a classmate if you will not be in class on the day you are designated to present a case study. Participation is key to our time together and will be reflected in your grade. Your essays and analysis of case studies (five typed, double-spaced pages each) are to be turned in on the dates due (no e-mail submissions, please). All electronic devices – laptops and cell phones - are to be turned off before class.


First Essay: February 10

Second Essay: March 10

Third Essay: April 21

Case Study written analysis and oral presentation: As assigned


Essays are to be well argued, with ample, thoughtful citation from the reading, and to be well written, with proper spelling and grammar. Each essay will count for 20% of your grade. The essay with the lowest grade may be re-written to improve your writing and raise your grade. Class participation, including case study presentations, will count for 40%. That means you must be prepared and fully engaged in discussions.

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: You are expected to be honest in all your academic work. The University policy on academic honesty is section 5 of the Rights and Responsibilities Handbook. Instances of alleged dishonesty will be forwarded to the Office of Campus Life for possible referral to the Student Judicial System. Potential sanctions include failure in the course and suspension from the University.

ACCOMODATIONS: If you are a student who needs academic accommodations because of a documented disability, please contact me and present your letter of accommodation as soon as possible. If you have questions about documenting a disability or requesting academic accommodations, you should contact Beth Rodgers-Kay in Academic Services (x6-3470 or .)Letters of accommodation should be presented at the start of the semester to ensure provision of accommodations. Accommodationscannot be granted retroactively.


Case Studies are to be purchased online through Columbia Journalism School

Links to other required reading are on LATTE. Check it regularly for updates.

The Journalist and The Murderer, by Janet Malcolm


January 13-16: Introduction

Why are journalists held in such low regard? Is there a common set of assumptions about what constitutes ethical practice in journalism? Is every opinion equally valid? If we cannot all agree on a course of action, does that mean there is no “right answer?”

Reading for Friday: The SPJ Code of Ethics; The Principles of Journalism; Public Mistrust of the Media (all on LATTE)


Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

January 20-23: Accuracy

On every pillar in the newsroom of The Boston Globe hangs a sign that reads: “Accuracy is the cornerstone of our business.” How do journalists seek the truth? Is there such a thing?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: Truthiness - This American Life and The Monologist; articles on LATTE

January 27-30: Sources, Anonymous and Otherwise

The source-reporter bond is a symbiotic one, each side needing something from the other. What are the ethical pitfalls for a journalist in that relationship?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: The Facebook Conundrum, The New Haven Independent and the Annie Lee murder; handout of case study on Senator Joseph McCarthy; articles on LATTE

February 3-6: Deception

Is it ever OK to break the law in pursuit of a story? To misrepresent yourself to get information? To lie?

Reading: Articles on LATTE

February 10-13: Plagiarism and Fabulism (a.k.a. Stealing and Making It Up)

How do we explain the rash of plagiarism charges against journalists? Are these lapses individual? Institutional? Both? What is being done about it?

Reading: Articles on LATTE

First Essay due Tuesday, February 10

February 17-20: Winter Break


Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

February 24-27: Privacy, Public Officials and Private Citizens

What happens when the public’s right to know conflicts with an individual’s right to privacy? The journalistic rules – and the law – depend on whether that person is a public figure or a private citizen.

Reading: Columbia Case Study: News or Rumor, Politico and the Edwards Affair; Columbia Case Study: Elusive Story, The Chicago Tribune Examines ‘No Child Left Behind;’ articles on LATTE

March 3-6: Photojournalism

Is it ever OK to stage or alter a photograph? To run photographs that the government has asked not be published? That might offend the reader? We consider photography in the age of the digital camera, Photoshop and national insecurity.

Reading: Columbia Case Study: A Woman’s Place? Photojournalist in Libya; articles on LATTE

March 10-13: Fair Trial/Free Press

How do journalists balance the public’s right to know with a defendant’s right to a fair trial. What happens when the First Amendment conflicts with the Sixth?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: Integrity on Deadline, ABC News and the Duke Lacrosse Photographs; articles on LATTE. Second Essay due Tuesday, March 10


Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

March 17-20: Conflicts of Interest, Personal

Journalists are people, too, with sometimes divided loyalties. Should art critics be barred from buying art they review? Can a reporter run for the School Committee in her suburban town? Can a reporter cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if his son is in the Israeli Defense Forces?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: The New York Times and the Bias Question; articles on LATTE

March 24-27: Conflicts of Interest, Corporate

Six corporations own most of the mass media in the U.S. Does Disney’s ownership of ABC affect its entertainment coverage? Does its ownership of ESPN affect sports coverage? Does it matter that the man who owns the Red Sox also owns The Boston Globe or that the head of Amazon owns The Washington Post?

Reading: Articles on LATTE, handout on case study of LA Times and the Staples Center

April 3-7-10: Spring Break


Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

April 14-17: When the Observers Become Participants

What happens when journalists themselves become part of the story?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: But Is It News? The New York Times and the International Freedom Center; Columbia Case Study: Caricatured, Le Monde and the Mohammed Cartoons; articles on LATTE

April 21-24: National Security and the Press

What are the limits to the media’s watchdog role toward the government? Should a claim of “national security” stop the press from publishing?

Reading: Columbia Case Study: The Washington Post, Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency

Third essay due Tuesday, April 21

April 28: Listening to the Critics

The digital age means readers are now participants in news coverage, talking back to the media in real time. How should journalism respond? We’ll look at “ombudsmen” and “public editors” and their role as the readers’ representative. Reading: articles on LATTE