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JOURN 460: Journalism Ethics (Fall 2016)

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 – 11:15 a.m.

Integrative Learning Center, room N155

Instructor: Razvan Sibii

E-mail: razvan [at]


In this course you will develop your ability to understand and evaluate the ethical decisions that journalists face every day. What to publish/air? How to do it? Whom to talk to? What questions to ask? When to be the good guy and when the bad guy? Should a reporter take this or that action? What are the consequences of this journalistic decision? These are all questions that most journalists ask themselves every day (even if they don’t always choose the best possible option). In a time when journalism’s role in society, its values, its norms and its best practices are all undergoing radical transformations, adhering to a code of ethics is perhaps more important than ever to the aspiring journalist. This course will help you familiarize yourself with traditional codes of ethics, but will also emphasize the need to create your own system of ethics – a system whose constitutive elements you have thought through and are always ready to explain and defend.

At the end of the course, you will hopefully be able to assess the ethical value of a media item or a journalistic practice while drawing on more than just “common sense.” You will hopefully be able to move beyond knee-jerk reactions to controversial issues, and analyze those issues in all their complexity before making up your mind (rather than first deciding and then rationalizing your decision to make it palatable to your audience). Also, this course should leave you with a set of core beliefs and ethical rules that will act as your guides in most, if not all, circumstances that require ethical decision-making (as opposed to having you change your ethical imperatives depending on the desired outcome of the decision-making process).

The course requires you to do a great deal of reading every week. The assigned texts combine (chapter-length) theoretical material with (article-length) insightful treatments of current events. While much of our attention will be devoted to media coverage of recent events, you will also familiarize yourself with a variety of high-profile case-studies in media ethics (e.g., the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Unabomber, “Jimmy’s World,” WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, etc.).

Warning! In this course, we will often tackle difficult, uncomfortable issues. Since journalists deal with the entirety of human experience, I expect you to step out of your comfort zone on a regular basis and try to wrap your mind around new issues and new perspectives. As such, you should fully expect to discuss (always in a rational, civil manner) issues that might make you uncomfortable (e.g., sex, terrorism, murder, politics, religion, profanity and blasphemy, disease, etc.).


This class fulfills the Integrative Experience (IE) GenEd requirement. The IE is meant to provide “a structured context for students to reflect on their own learning and explore the connections between the broad exposure provided by General Education and the more focused exposure of their major” (GenEd website). As such, this course will ask you to put some serious thought into the role that your UMass education has played so far in your development as a liberal arts intellectual, a journalist, and a citizen of Massachusetts, the United States and the world.


Objective 1: “Providing a structured, credited context for students to reflect on and to integrate their learning and experience from the broad exposure in their General Education courses and the focus in their major.” This IE goal will be fulfilled primarily with the help of the weekly reflection papers. Each reflection paper will ask you to address either an open-ended ethical question (e.g., “Would you ever promise complete confidentiality to a source? If no, why not? If yes, would you then be willing to go to prison to protect that confidentiality?”), or a specific case-study. In either case, in addition to answering the “What would you do and why?” question, you will also be asked to reflect on the development of your own code of ethics.

Furthermore, given that ethical codes are never strictly personal, but rather are heavily informed by various contemporary cultural narratives, you will be asked to reflect on how your values, beliefs, norms, assumptions and expectations have been – and continue to be – shaped by your sociocultural environment. This is where you will have to leverage the knowledge you have acquired in your GenEd classes (particularly those that satisfied the SB, AL, and AT categories, but not only).

Objective 2: “Providing students with the opportunity to practice General Education learning objectives such as oral communication, collaboration, critical thinking and interdisciplinary perspective-taking, at a more advanced level.” Much contemporary journalism is the result of teamwork bringing together reporters, editors, interactive designers, etc., so chances are that you will have had ample opportunity to work in a group of your peers in other Journalism classes, as well. Almost every class session will have a group work component, as you will be asked to discuss the ethical considerations surrounding a case-study and then reach an agreement on an (ethical) course of action – much like an editorial board would. You will thus have the opportunity to reflect on how one’s own ethics might differ from others’, and how frustrating – but necessary – compromise is when it comes to reconciling several individuals’ sense of right and wrong.

Objective 3: “Offering students a shared learning experience for applying their prior learning to new situations, challenging questions, and real-world problems.” Most of the readings in this class will address concrete case-studies in journalism ethics. You will repeatedly be asked to put yourself in the shoes of reporters and editors struggling with ethical issues, think through dilemmas, propose a course of action, and defend your decisions. Also, you will be asked to examine situations in which you have found yourself in the past (i.e., while researching and writing stories as assignments for other classes, freelancing projects, or internship/campus media tasks), and imagine alternative ways of thinking about dilemmas and acting on them.


The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” by Kelly McBride.

In addition, you must be able to access this class blog on a regular basis.


  • Attendance: Given that this is a course that relies heavily on class discussion, everyone’s contribution to each class is extremely important. Absences due to emergencies will receive proper consideration. Please get in touch with me as soon as possible if you must miss a class session.
  • Deadlines: Please keep all deadlines. Since this is a journalism class, deadlines are near sacred. Please give yourself plenty of time to complete each assignment, so as to be able to deal with any emergency that might occur. Missed assignments cannot be made up, except in case of a legitimate, documentable emergency.
  • Participation: The class is designed in such a way as to give each student the opportunity to contribute to class discussion. Participation is expected of everyone on a regular basis, both in class and in the course blog. There will be a minimal amount of lecturing in this class; we will mostly discuss case studies.
  • Academic honesty: Your student handbook has formal statements on plagiarism. Please familiarize yourself with them.

CONSULTATION: I respond to my e-mail daily. I am available for consultation after class for as long as necessary. Please do not hesitate to ask for my help. At some point in the semester, I may conduct an anonymous survey with regards to possible improvements to the course.

ACCESS: If you have a physical, psychological or learning disability, you have the right to a series of classroom and content-related accommodations. Please also contact Disability Services as they will be able to help us figure out what the appropriate accommodations are.


(Total: 120 + bonus points)

  • 12 Weekly News & Readings Quizzes = 60 points
  • 10 Response Papers (5 points each) = 50 points
  • Attendance and In-Class & Blog Participation = 10 points
  • Extra credit: Journal (5 points), Debates (5 points), Research Paper (10 points) or Multimedia project (10 points)

GRADING SCALE (110 points = 100%):

A 100-92%,        A- 91-90%,        B+ 89-88%,        B 87-82%,        B- 81-80%,        C+ 79-78%,

                C 77-72%,            C- 71-70%,        D+ 69-68%,        D 67-61%,        F 60-0%.


RESPONSE PAPERS. Required length: two to three pages, single spaced. Due every Tuesday, at the end of class. There will be a total of 13 response papers assigned; you only need to complete 10 of them. If you complete more than 10, I will drop your lowest grade(s) and only keep the 10 highest grades at the end of the semester. Roughly a week before each response is due, I will create a post in the blog and will ask one or more questions that you are to answer in the response paper. The response papers should be typed up. Please do not email them to me. Late papers will not be accepted (except in the case of documented emergencies/legitimate absences). Some of your responses will be subjected to peer review as well as in-class group analysis. When that happens, your name will not be erased from your paper, so write at all time as if you were going to have your essay published widely.

The response papers will be graded according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ “Critical Thinking” rubric, as well as the following rubric:

* 5 points – This is an “excellent” response, not just a “good” response. The paper clearly establishes familiarity with the week’s readings. The student is able to deploy good research/analytical/critical skills. The student can engage the readings in an interesting, insightful manner. The student can ask insightful questions and can make solid connections between theories and concepts. The student can provide proof for his/her assertions (e.g., proper citations, clear step-by-step argumentation, etc.), and demonstrates comprehension of the opposite argument. The paper is a good piece of text (i.e., it has good structure, no grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors). The response addresses every question in the prompt.

* 4 points – The paper is insightful and contains solid information, good argumentation, etc. It is missing something, however – e.g., the reasoning is not followed all the way through, assertions are not fully backed up, the response does not address every question in the prompt, the opposing argument is never considered, the text has a considerable amount of grammatical, punctuation, or spelling errors, the examples or analogies provided are not properly and carefully laid out, etc. This is still a good paper.

* 3 points – The paper is not really insightful or well-thought out, even though many points raised in it make perfect sense. The topics addressed might be merely tangential to the day’s readings, the examples or analogies might be faulty (though not completely useless), many of the questions in the prompt might be ignored, the analysis might seem completely rushed or it might betray insufficient familiarity with the readings. A thoroughly messy text (in terms of structure, grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) will do the trick as well.

* 2 points – Some good points are raised, but the paper is lacking in pretty much every department: insufficient familiarity with the readings, insufficient deployment of analytical and critical skills, rushed writing, insufficient argumentation, limited research, not addressing the actual questions asked in the prompt, etc.

* 1 point – The paper attempts to engage the readings but fails in proving analytical or critical skills. Way too much quoting or paraphrasing, instead of argumentation and original writing. Drastically limited demonstration of understanding of concepts/theories or of original research.

QUIZZES: There will be a 5-minute quiz at the beginning of each Tuesday class (with the exception of the first two Tuesdays of the semester) for a total of 12 quizzes. Each quiz will include 5 questions (1 point per question): 3 about the week’s readings and 2 about current events. These quizzes cannot be made up. (That’s what the bonus assignments are for).

COURSE BLOG ( For the full 10 points, each student must respond to a professor’s/ other student’s posting at least three times during the semester. In addition to that, each student must make his/her own post (and initiate a discussion) at least twice during the semester. During first week, the instructor will circulate a sign-up sheet for the latter. Participation in the class blog is meant to complement your participation in class discussion. If you are a bit shy or simply can’t get a word in edgewise during class, this is the place where you should make your voice heard. All students should post in this blog on a regular basis so that we can have the in-depth, meaningful discussions that we might not have time for in class. The posts or comments must deal, in some fashion, with either the journalism profession or the media industry. They can relate some interesting observation or they can discuss some argument made in one of the required or recommended readings.

BONUS JOURNAL: Due the last day of class. Should be typed up. Length of entry: roughly two pages. For the full five points, you will need to have at least an entry every two weeks. The entries will discuss a current media issue in light of the concepts addressed that week in class. Please credit the media outlets from which you have taken your information.

BONUS MULTIMEDIA PROJECT or RESEARCH PAPER: If interested, please see me soon to talk about it.

BONUS DEBATE PARTICIPATION: If interested, please see me soon to talk about it. If there is enough interest, I will organize several debates. You will most likely have to speak for 3-5 minutes and argue your position (which you will have researched in advance). Most of your grade will be determined by your peers (who will be giving you feedback and a grade on anonymous index cards).


  • At the beginning of some classes, we will discuss the day’s news. Please stay up-to-date on the news  – I strongly suggest you read at least one legitimate news source daily.
  • Please bring to class any questions or observations you might have about your interactions with the media or the day’s news.
  • The material discussed in class will be adapted to whatever outside event manages to catch our collective attention (e.g., something in the news, some movie that has just come out).
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