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Yes, Common Core has room for law & ethics

Yes, Common Core has room for law & ethics

by Candace Bowen

Like so many things, it’s good news and bad news. The Common Core State Standards actually may help us show how journalism has skills everyone should know, but in the process could we be losing support to teach the very framework necessary to use our voices in democracy?

In other words, where does teaching law and ethics fit with the new standards?

Nowhere that’s obvious, that’s for sure, but maybe we can find niches that aren’t so apparent.

*Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of rotating columns by commission members to appear Wednesdays. Megan Fromm will present best practices for teaching ethics; Jeff Kocur will discuss common problems student leaders and advisers face and how to overcome them; Candace Perkins Bowen will examine journalistic ties to teaching issues, like Common Core standards; Mark Goodman will write about current events and impact on law as it affects scholastic media and Marina Hendricks will address ethical issues and online journalism.

According to its website, “The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a shared set of clear educational standards for English language arts and mathematics that states can voluntarily adopt … These standards are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to go to college or enter the workforce and that parents, teachers, and students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.”

Part of that sounds pretty good. What better preparation for life after high school than understanding and appreciating how to use your voices freely and responsibly in a democracy? With that in mind, one place to look for alignment is in the English Language Arts College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards. These cover what students must do to be ready for this lives after graduation.

All 10 of these standards could be used for journalism, coupled with law and ethics, but the following work particularly well.  (I have left out several – such as narratives and research projects – because, while applying to journalism in general, they aren’t as readily adapted to teaching law and ethics.)

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

What better opportunity to write a good editorial, especially one that supports student free speech? Use it for Constitution Day, adapt it for the anniversary of Hazelwood, or Banned Books Week, requiring the research good editorials need. Students will develop critical thinking if they are truly allowed to choose their topics and … to really think critically.

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

One such complex idea could be to develop an editorial policy, researching the legal background for choosing what you use, both in content and wording, organizing it so it explains your mission to others and analyzing content so you have covered what’s important to your student media.

5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

This is just good, solid journalism, but it is also the very essence of many codes of ethics, including that of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). In part that code says, “Seek Truth and Report It. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.”

These are simply the first four in a long list of ethical considerations we can teach through the writing process.

6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Although English classes may be working to incorporate the Internet and digital media components, this is and has been the very heart of today’s journalism. Think of the legal and ethical concepts WE could and probably SHOULD be teaching not only our own students but others in our school as well. One of the recent English-class projects I saw was a lovely poetry collage, including beautiful photos – all downloaded without a thought to copyright and all used without permission.

8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

This standard is just full of good journalism words – credibility, accuracy, avoiding plagiarism.  What better way to apply lessons in journalistic ethics than focusing on these aspects of the craft? Much of this, too, is in codes of ethics. Again, citing SPJ’s:

— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.

10. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Who writes more routinely over an extended period of time than a journalist and who thinks more about audiences and purposes than a journalist? While some “English-class writing” only needs to appeal to a teacher and is designed simply to get a good grade, journalism has that audience and purpose in mind continuously.

So when you’re tasked with aligning your journalism with the CCSS, don’t think you need to look only at writing. Those who created the standards said they did so “to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.” Including a healthy dose of law and ethics will certainly add to their success … and make them better citizens in the process.


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