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The importance of context: A lesson on ethics and editing


Last week, NBC officials bore the brunt of an outraged public when the Today Show played a poorly edited 9-1-1 tape from the Trayvon Martin shooting investigation.  The tape, some argued, unfairly portrayed Zimmerman as racist.  This lesson explores the ethics of proper editing as well as the journalistic mandate that context never be sacrificed for brevity.

Lesson plan by Megan Fromm

Lesson Time: 25-30 minutes
Materials: computer lab/group internet access for research, white board, projection capabilities (or you can make copies of materials for students)

First, discuss the background of the Martin/Zimmerman case.  What information do students already know? What “facts” do they need to research and verify?
1. Create a class list on the white board of all the “facts” students believe they know about the case.
2.In groups of 2-3, students should take 5-10 minutes to research and verify or discredit one of the facts.
3. Bring the class back together, and make a list of verified facts on the white board, including the sources where students got the information.

Now, as a class, listen to the NBC version of the 9-1-1 tapes.  Here is a link for the audio: (Pause at 10 seconds)

Instruct students to write down any assumptions they might draw about the case from listening to this 911 tape.

Then, play the unabridged 9-1-1 tapes, also found here: (continue playing from 00:10)

Discuss whether the assumptions created from the edited tapes were supported in the original audio. Ask the following:

Did the second segment tell a different story? What was different? Was there more or less context?  Why do you think NBC edited the 911 tape the way they did? How many seconds long was the edited version? How long was the original version?

As a class, take a look at some of the reaction to the NBC audio:

For an interesting twitter feed screen-capture with responses:

Now, back in their groups (or as a class if you can project the internet onto a screen), have students search for the original NBC statement of apology, issued by NBC president to Reuters news service.

Can anyone find it? Is it on the Today Show’s homepage?
Can you find it on, NBC’s online news outlet?
What about at
Is it acceptable that the original statement is so hard to find? What do you think this says to readers/viewers?
How prominent should the statement be if the original mistake has gone viral?

Here’s a synopsis of the statement (you can also finish playing the youtube video from earlier, which shows a quote from the apology):

Some further ethical questions to consider:
• Is it ever OK to edit a 9-1-1 tape?
• How should we give readers/viewers/listeners access to the full content?
•  What type of information is it OK to cut from audio?
• Do we tell our readers/viewers/listeners that we have edited parts out?
• How do we ensure that an edited slice of audio reflects the factual and contextual information our audience would get if they heard the whole thing?
• What is the appropriate way to correct a mistake of this magnitude?
• If you were the editor in charge, how would you handle this? How would you handle the apology and statement?

Finally, as a class, read the Radio Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics, and highlight and discuss the parts that discuss context and accuracy.  Did NBC act ethically according to this guide?

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