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Com 440, Media Ethics

3 credits, Fall 2014, Wednesday, 6:00-8:40PM VMMC 115

Instructor: Mike Rancourt, PhD 1

Class Website: Angel at
Office: VMMC 102P
Phone: (360) 546-9445 (office hours only)
Office Hours: M, W 3:15-4:10PM
Also check Live Chat on Angel during office hours and other times if you have questions.
Course Description:
How do we resolve dilemmas in our professional, personal, and public lives? When faced with difficult choices as
media consumers and producers, how do we choose between competing loyalties, values, and responsibilities?
These are the kinds of questions a study in media ethics is designed to help students answer. Ethics always comes
down to choices, not laws, not decrees. Even professional codes of ethics will always leave gaps and gray areas
where each individual must weigh opposing factors and take a leap of faith into the void. Media Ethics is a general
introduction to western theories of ethics and their role in conceptions of the responsibilities of the mass media.
Course content will focus on both broad issuessuch as the role of media in a democracyand more specific issues
of media ethics.
Required text:
Patterson, Philip and Lee Wilkins, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases, 8th edition (available at the campus bookstore)
Other readings will be available on Angel, but this is the main one.
The grading in this course might seem unusual and complicated in some ways. In other ways, its super simple.
The simple part is this: Your grade will depend on the number of assignments you complete at a college level of
work. I use a form of what is called contract grading in my classes. That means at the beginning of the semester,
you sign a contract in which you tell me what grade you intend to aim for in the class. Whatever grade you want
to have at the end of the course determines how many assignments you will do throughout the semester. If you fail
to complete the number youre contracted for, your grade will be lowered one full letter for each missed assignment.
The contract also includes attendance, and your grade is lowered 1/3 of a letter for each day you miss beyond that
allowed by each level of the grading system. For example, if you want to go for a B in the class, youre required to
complete five assignments and miss no more than two classes. If you complete five assignments but are absent three
times, your final grade will be a B-. If, however, you only complete four assignments and miss just two classes,
your grade will be a C (B 1 letter grade for assignments). The terms of each grade level are listed below:

Call me Mike.

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For an A:
Miss no more than one class
Complete at a college level six assignments by their due dates
For a B:
Miss no more than two classes
Complete at a college level five assignments by their due dates
For a C:
Miss no more than three classes
Complete at a college level four assignments by their due dates
The following is a brief description of each of the assignments students may choose from in fulfilling their grade
contracts. Please never print out an assignment. Turn them all in electronically on Angel. The first two can be
uploaded on the appropriate discussion forum, and the rest can be uploaded in the drop boxes listed under Lessons
on Angel.
1. Create an Ethics Theory Study Aid or TutorialIve begun creating a study guide-type of thing to give to
students early in the semester that helps them highlight the key theories that serve as the basic foundation
for a study in media ethics. I started by listing and defining the three (or four) branches of ethics, including
normative ethics (the most important one for us). Then, I broke down normative ethics into the three main
classes of it (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics). Then, I listed some important theories
within those classes (you have to have utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, Golden Mean, communitarianism, and
ethics of care at minimum). I put all this in a crazy chart in which I tried to show the relationship between
them, listed some of the key ideas and people with whom each theory is associated, and especially the
emphasis of each (hint: the emphasis of consequentialism is on the outcome of an ethical decision). Instead
of distributing my study aid, I thought Id invite students to make their own to share with each other. The
key here is that, if you are working to make a chart or some other form of study aid (by all means, get
creative with thisas long as it helps you and classmates conceptualize and become more familiar with
these things), you really have to spend a few hours exploring each of the theories. This might require you
to read beyond the text. Dont be afraid to look elsewhere for resources that help make it easier to
understand all this stuff and see the relationship between the theories, classes, and branches. Remember,
though, you only get credit if this is college-level work, so put some effort into making it an effective
guide that shows some real understanding and sophisticated thinking (revisions are always allowed). DUE:
Upload to Angel discussion board by midnight on 9-3-14.
2. Create an Ethics Decision-making Model Study Aid or TutorialPatterson and Wilkins provide a handful
of guides folks have come up with to help people make ethical decisions: Boks model (Ch 1), Aristotles
Golden Mean (Ch 1), Rosss prima facie duties (Ch 1), TARES (Ch 3), Potter Box (Ch 4), Rawlss veil of
ignorance (Ch 5). I would also add Kidders checklist found in the article Applying Kidders ethical
decision-making checklist to media ethics by Sherry Baker. This assignment asks you to make some sort
of matrix, chart, three dimensional model, or something to aid those (including yourself) who wish to get a
better sense of how these models differ, how they are similar, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. I
dont know what this will look like. Be creative and be effective. DUE: Upload to Angel discussion
board by midnight on 10-15-14.
3. Case Study Type A: Choose a case study among the many that Patterson and Wilkins provide at the end of
each chapter and lead discussion on it in class. The key to leading a discussion is asking open-ended
questions for which there is no right or wrong answer, then figuring out how to ask them so that your
classmates are willing to speak up. You can take the discussion wherever you like (or, if youre confident
enough and know the material well enough, you can let it go wherever your classmates take it), but a good
starting point might be for you to pose an ethical dilemma about the case study in question, perhaps by
identifying the central dilemma and changing it, then asking something like, how would this change the
situation? Something like that. Another very good starting point would be to go to the SPJ code of ethics
and find the places where the case study seems to violate the code or bring multiple parts of the code in
conflict with each other. When you talk to the class, you may provide a handout and/or visual aids

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(although we have computers in front of us, so save paper and distribute them electronically), or just talk.
Introduce the case study as if your classmates havent read it, and introduce the relevant ethical principles
as if theyre familiar with them but not able to necessarily recite them from heart. Due in class on the day
a given chapter is set to be discussed (see schedule).
Empathy projectLook for an issue covered in the press recently that deals with victims of crime or
tragedy. Look at the way the victims (and their families) are depicted. This is a two-part writing
assignment. In the first part, write a first-person narrative in which you imagine how they feel about how
the news media has portrayed them. If they could take a step back and see the coverage from the outside,
would they feel good about it, would they be embarrassed, would they be outraged (talk about specific
media stories or reports that were good or bad and why)? In the second part of the assignment, write a
reflection on the ethical principles involved. Are news media organizations adequately following ethical
principles in reporting on tragedy? Consult the SPJ code of ethics, the principles and theories described in
Patterson and Wilkins, and the extra readings by Amend et al. and Muller. The total writing might be 7001500 words, I would think. Due electronically by midnight on 11-5-14.
The peoples critique of mediaFor this project, collect many different examples of discussion on a
particular ethical topic available in social media (i.e. Twitter is particularly helpful for this) and examine
the way many people seem to be talking about the issue (or have talked about it recently). The
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown trend is the prime example for this project, but dont use that one because weve
already talked about it. This comes up a lot (at least in my news feed) when an issue of race, gender, or
politics becomes a hot topic and people start noticing that the mainstream media is favoring one side over
the other. Obviously, if youre going to write about it in this class, you should start asking questions about
the ethics of the medias coverage. Do mainstream media seem to be biased? Why? Are they violating
ethical principles such as those outlined in the SPJ code of ethics? Or are the peoples accusations of a
breach of ethics unfounded? You can write about this in one of two ways to get credit for the assignment:
1. Write a journalistic article in which you cover the controversy and reveal the problem with one side or
the other (as long as youre reporting on the controversy in the publics interest). 2. Write a short essaytype thing (I dont like to specify length, but remember, this should be college-level work) in which you
do justice in summarizing the story, the criticism of the coverage of the story, and identify the ethical
principles at the heart of it. You should make an argument such as one about which side seems right or
about how the coverage should be improved to better meet ethical standards. Due electronically by
midnight on 11-12-14.
Huge Research ProjectThis one is huge, but its worth five(!) assignments if you get it right. Its
probably for people who have some experience in longer academic writing. For this one, write a serious
academic research paper of 5,000 to 7,000 words in which you explore in depth an ethical issue, theory,
principle, or case. You will develop your own research question, do some research (most likely the kind
where you just read news media texts critically, as well as some research on media and ethics theory to
support your point), and make an argument. This is not a report. Its not just describing something.
Youre making an argument. Look, for example, at Kate Nashs JMME article, Documentary-for-theOther: Relationships Ethics and (Observational) Documentary, as a model. Notice how she makes an
argument based on theoretical perspectives (citing important scholars in documentary film studies, as well
as philosophy) and observations about specific texts (films). This is a demanding assignment that will take
much time, so you can get credit for five assignments just by completing this AT A COLLEGE LEVEL.
That means it needs to make a solid argument thats well supported with specifics. Project Proposal due
electronically by midnight on 11-15-14. Final paper due electronically by midnight on 12-10-14.
Zero Dark Thirty project. I wrote a paper on Zero Dark Thirty and the debate it set off in public discourse,
focusing in particular on discussions on the IMDb message boards that revealed a particular deficiency in
the ethical standards of American public culture. I did not, however, discuss this from a media ethics
perspective. I am, however, inviting you to look at the film and the discussion (the same texts I didyou
can even find the paper online), and take the ethics approach to your analysis. You could discuss the ethics
of the film itself, the media coverage of the film, AND coverage of torture, asking question like, how are
the images in the film related to reporting in the media? How did the media handle torture in the Bush
Administration? How did it handle Abu Grahib? You could also focus on the IMDb conversationshow
are everyday people discussing torture in response to the film? What ethical theories or principles do
people tend to base their arguments on? Make sure you call on some of the ethical principles from the class
in your answers or else it probably wont seem like college-level work. How does 750-1500 words sound?

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The week after we watch ZDT, submit your paper to me electronically AND come prepared to present your
observations to the class in a short presentation. Due electronically by the start of class on 11-19-14.
8. Case Study Type B: JMME Cases And Commentaries response: The academic journal, Journal of Mass
Media Ethics occasionally prints what they call Cases and Commentaries. They work like this: One
person posts a summary of an ethical issue that has sprung up in the news or entertainment media (usually
news), and between three and five other journalism or public relations professionals respond with their
analysis on the issue. Sometimes, the respondents cite codes of ethics such as that of the Society of
Professional Journalists or the Public Relations Society of America, and sometimes they just talk about
issues assuming their reader will understand the basic ethical principles at the heart of the issue. To
complete this assignment, choose a JMME CASE and take a close look at the ethical principles on which
each is based. Write a brief 500-1000 word (I dont like to specify length, but remember, this should be
college-level work) reflection in which you summarize a handful of the principles on which
respondents based their responses. After you have summarized the principles, write an evaluation of the
respondents uses of these principles, answering questions like these: Were the principles appropriately
applied to the issue, or did the respondents miss something? Or did they fail to show that the principles
they chose applied to the case? Due electronically by midnight on 12-3-14.
9. Case Study Type C: Study your own casePick a news story published or broadcast in the mainstream
news media, and write a 500-1000 word (I dont like to specify length, but remember, this should be
college-level work) analysis of the ethical issues it raises. You might address issues like how journalists,
filmmakers, and other media producers address ethical issues; how the texts produced in public media
demonstrate or hint at the ethical decisions made by the producers (this includes spotting the ethical
shortcomings, as well as recognizing when the right ethical decisions have been made); what media
addressing particular issues reveals about the culture. For example, you may ask questions like these: Who
is invisible, who is deleted, who is forgotten, who is treated unfairly in these texts? What others ways
could this story have been told? Why was it told this way? Use the JMME cases as examples to follow
and the SPJ or other ethics codes or ethics theories discussed in class to support your findings. Due
electronically by midnight on 12-3-14.
10. Fact check the media critics: Many organizations have grown in prominence by acting as watchdogs of the
media, checking on their integrity, ethics, and accuracy. Perhaps the most prominent example might be
The Daily Show, but countlessCOUNTLESSpartisan blogs operate on this model (though often more
emotionally, taking it more seriously than the satire organizations). In this assignment, you might select a
handful of stories in which a blogger or media critic highlights questionable practices by another media
organization. Check out how many of these can be verified. Are there any that can be shown to be
misleading critiques? What conclusions can you draw from what you find? If you locate some
misrepresentation or unfair portrayals by the critics, why might you suggest this happened? I dont know,
750-1000 word should suffice to give you a chance to adequately explain the details of the research and
your findings. Due electronically by midnight on 12-10-14.
11. Fact check survey: Choose a fact check website like and look for trends in what they report on.
Is there one media organization that is frequently found to be weak on their facts? Is there one issue that
people get wrong a lot? Is there one public figure, or a group of public figures that are distorting an issue
(perhaps both sides of the debate are distorting equally)? Or maybe you think this indicates more an unfair
or outdated standard held by the fact checkers. Either way, write a short essay in which you make an
argument about the ethics involved. Again, 750-1000 word should suffice to give you a chance to
adequately explain the details of the survey and your findings. Due electronically by midnight on 12-1014.
12. Ethical Will: This is the only assignment I didnt make up. A professor who has previously taught this
class at WSUV shared it with me. Here is his description: When we pass on from this earth, we leave those
left here our possessions, money, a few stories, and memories. But the wisdom and ethics that we develop
remains with us. Associated with several cultures, but most prominently stemming from the Jewish
tradition, an ethical will comprises a document that explains the foundations for what you stand for in this
life. What have you learned, what have you changed, what would you have handled differently knowing
what you know now, what are your greatest life lessonsall of these and more. An ethical will,
specifically, tells the reader the guide(s) you use for making decisions in your life. How an ethical will is
constructed can vary from person to person, and to give you exact guidelines would contradict the spirit of
the assignment. What dictates how you make your decisions? The biggest thing from my perspective as the
professor is that you tie this in to one or two of the ethical perspectives that we learned in class, I want you

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to show me (and the class) how you will take what you have learned here and apply it to your future.
Where do you find this relevant in your life? Your ethical will should range between 1000-1500 words.
Due electronically by midnight on 12-10-14.
This form of grading is designed to enact a trusting relationship with the student, trusting them to make their own
decisions about their work and their time. It can also greatly reduce the stress and the competition for students. I
believe that students learn and develop skills by doing things and by exploring issues that interest them, not by
guessing what the teacher wants them to say or how the teacher wants them to say it. This course is designed to
provide students with many resources and many opportunities to practice their communication skills in many
different ways. The grading system attempts to reflect that, as well.
As described above, attendance is a part of the overall grade in the class. Because a certain number of absences are
built into the grading system, there is no such thing as an excused or unexcused absence except in the case of official
school business like athletics requiring a student to miss a certain number of classes. However, you must inform me
of your participation in such activities at the time of your contract agreement. I dont do excused absences because
its not my business to judge your reasons for missing class. I trust that if you miss class, you have a reason thats
good for you. I also trust that youll do what needs to be done to make up for your absence (i.e. asking a classmate
for notes, turning in assignments electronically that were due that day, etc).
Technology Devices in Class:
I encourage students to use their laptops and such to take notes in class. I mean, its 2014, for Petes sake!
Mutual Consideration:
Please view this class as a community. That means it is the task of all members of the community to take care of
themselves and each other. I am not a police officer. It is not my job to make sure you stay in line. I am not in
the business of telling people what to do or disciplining anyone. What I am getting at is this: if someone or
something is causing a distraction or disturbance in class, dont wait for me to solve the problem like I am some
hard-nosed authority figure. If someone is distracting you, ask them nicely to stop doing so. The flip side of this is
that everybody should try to be aware that what they are doing might be distracting to others. Dont take it
personally if somebody asks you to stop distracting them. Do your best to trust that they are doing so in good faith,
not because they are mean but because they are trying to concentrate.
WSUV Reasonable Accommodation Statement:
Accommodations may be available if you need them in order to fully participate in this class because of a disability.
Accommodations may take some time to implement so it is critical that you contact Disability Services as soon as
possible. All official accommodations must be approved through Disability Services, located in the Student
Resource Center on the Lower Level of Student Services Center, (360) 546-9138.
WSU Academic Integrity Statement:
Academic integrity is the cornerstone of the university. Any student found in violation of the academic integrity
policy will be denied credit for an assignment (lowering the contracted grade by one full letter) and will be referred
to the Office of Student Conduct. For additional information about WSUs Academic Integrity policy/procedures,
please contact (360) 546-9573.
Emergency Notification System:
WSU has made an emergency notification system available for faculty, students, and staff. Please register at zzusis
with emergency contact information (cell, email, text, etc.). You may have been prompted to complete emergency
contact information when registering for classes at RONet. In the event of a building evacuation, a map at each
classroom entrance shows the evacuation point for each building. Please refer to it. Finally, in case of class

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cancellation campus-wide, please check local media, the WSU Vancouver web page and/or Individual class cancellations may be made at the discretion of the instructor. Each
individual is expected to make the best decision for their personal circumstances, taking safety into account. Safety
plan website.
Tracking Your Progress Toward UCORE Learning Goals:
Learning Goals

At the end of this course, students

should be able to:


Define, analyze, and solve problems.

Integrate and synthesize knowledge
from multiple sources.
Understand how one thinks, reasons,
and makes value judgments,
including ethical and aesthetical
Understand diverse viewpoints,
including different philosophical and
cultural perspectives.
Combine and synthesize existing
ideas, images, or expertise in original
Determine the extent and type of
information needed.
Access information effectively and
efficiently from multiple sources.
Use information to accomplish a
specific purpose.




Tailor message to the audience.

Express concepts, propositions, and
beliefs in coherent, concise and
technically correct form.
Choose appropriate communication
medium and technology.
Speak with comfort in front of
Follow social norms for individual
and small group interactions, which
includes listening actively
Critically assess their own core
values, cultural assumptions and
biases in relation to those held by
other individuals, cultures, and
Analyze and critique social, economic
and political inequality on regional,
national and global levels, including
identifying ones own position within
Critically assess the cultural and
social underpinnings of knowledge
claims about individuals and groups,
and their relations to one another.

Course topics that

advance these learning
Written assignments
including case study
analyses, empathy project,
and other critical and
analytical assignments.

This objective will be

evaluated primarily by:

Assignments such as case

studies and People
critique that require
students to seek information
in online sources, select the
appropriate information, and
integrate it with new ideas
in written form.
Construction of study aids
for classmates, leading class
discussion on case studies,
participating in class

Quality of analysis and

implementation of key
concepts from the theory of
ethics and media studies.

Assignments such as case

studies, empathy project,
and People critique that
require students to examine
diverse cultural, racial,
gender, and other
perspectives to understand
the ethical issues of bias and
exclusion in the media.

Quality of analysis and

implementation of key
concepts from the theory of
ethics and media studies.

Quality of analysis and

implementation of key
concepts from the theory of
ethics and media studies.

Observation of
communication practices in
class and evaluation of
materials uploaded to

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The schedule below lists the topics we will discuss on each date, followed in parentheses by a list of relevant
readings you may which to look over before discussionor after. On a separate line for some dates, there is text in
bold that indicates an assignment due that day (if you choose to do that assignment). Another separate line, with
text in italics, is the name of a JMME Case Study. These are case studies from the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.
There is nothing due that day with respect to that JMME case study, but it may be helpful for you to know that the
case is relevant to that weeks discussion. See the list of assignments for details on JMME case studies.
Week 1
Week 2

Week 3

Week 4
Week 5

Week 6

Week 7
Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12
Week 13

W 8-27 Introductions and ethics tests

W 9-3 Classes of ethics theory: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics; specific theories:
Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Communitarianism, Ethics of Care, Virtue Ethics, and Pluralism (Paterson
& Wilkins Ch 2, 11)
Ethics Theory Study Aid or Tutorial due by midnight on Angel discussion board.
W 9-10 Cultural values and journalism (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 2, SPJ Ethics Code), plus empathy
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 2 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Grading contracts due to me in class.
W 9-17 Media, democracy, and information (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 6, Hutchins Report, Winner)
W 9-24 Loyalty, professionalism, the Potter Box (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 4, ) plus Kidders checklist
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 4 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Relevant JMME Case Study: (Hodges) The Enquirer and Chiquita
W 10-1 From loyalty to the people to loyalty to the stakeholder: media economics (Patterson &
Wilkins Ch 7, Tan)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 7 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
W 10-8 COLLECTIVE CASE STUDY 2: Goodnight and Good Luck; Media economics and ethics
W 10-15 Persuasion ethics (TARES) (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 3)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 3 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Ethics Decision-making Model Study Aid or Tutorial due by midnight on Angel discussion board.
W 10-22 Sometimes I feel like somebodys watching me (cant get no privacy)with an emphasis on
trauma (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 5, Culver, Muller, Armend et al.)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 5 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
W 10-29 The cameras gaze (Patterson & Wilkins Ch 8, DeGhett)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 8 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Relevant JMME Case Study: (Kittross & Frederickson & Hanson & Smith) The Phoenix and Daniel
W 11-5 Slightly beyond journalismethics on the edge of entertainment media (Patterson & Wilkins
Ch 10, Nash)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 10 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Huge Research Project proposal due electronically by midnight.
Empathy project due electronically by midnight.
Relevant JMME Case Study: (Shrader) Folly of Outrage Talk Radios Unethical and Damaging
W 11-12 COLLECTIVE CASE STUDY 3: Zero Dark Thirty: Ethics, media, and public discourse
The peoples critique of media due electronically by midnight.
Zero Dark Thirty Project due electronically before the start of class.

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Week 14
Week 15

Week 16


W 12-3 The rise of the nonprofessional journalist (i.e. here comes the digital media) (Patterson &
Wilkins Ch 9, Meyers et al., Ward)
You may choose to lead discussion on a case study from the end of Chapter 9 in Patterson &
Wilkins. (sign up at least one week before)
Case Study Types B (JMME Case Study) due electronically by midnight.
Case Study Types C (Study your own case) due electronically by midnight.
Relevant JMME Case Study: (Whitehouse) Pete/Repeat Tweet/Retweet Blog/Reblog: A Hoax Reveals
Media Mimicking
Relevant JMME Case Study: (Whitehouse & Wade) Advocate Hack or Flack: Ethics Questioned for an
Environmental Journalist-Blogger and a Coal Public Relations Exec
W 12-10 Aaaaaaaare we obligated to give up everything and expect nothing in return? From
googlization to piracy (Vaidhyanathan, Litman, Altschuller & Benbunan-Fich, Hull et al.)
Fact check the media critics due electronically by midnight.
Fact check survey due electronically by midnight.
Ethical Will due electronically by midnight.