This module is a resource for lecturers  




This section contains suggestions for in-class and pre-class educational exercises, while a post-class assignment for assessing student understanding of the Module is suggested in a separate section.

The exercises in this section are most appropriate for classes of up to 50 students, where students can be easily organized into small groups in which they discuss cases or conduct activities before group representatives provide feedback to the entire class. Although it is possible to have the same small group structure in large classes comprising a few hundred students, it is more challenging and the lecturer might wish to adapt facilitation techniques to ensure sufficient time for group discussions as well as providing feedback to the entire class. The easiest way to deal with the requirement for small group discussion in a large class is to ask students to discuss the issues with the four or five students sitting close to them. Given time limitations, not all groups will be able to provide feedback in each exercise. It is recommended that the lecturer makes random selections and tries to ensure that all groups get the opportunity to provide feedback at least once during the session. If time permits, the lecturer could facilitate a discussion in plenary after each group has provided feedback.

All exercises in this section are appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate students. However, as students' prior knowledge and exposure to these issues vary widely, decisions about appropriateness of exercises should be based on their educational and social context. The lecturer is encouraged to relate and connect each exercise to the key issues of the Module.

Some of the exercises include a recommended TED Talk which the lecturer can show in class to inspire discussion. TED Talks are open sourced on the Internet. They are informative and delivered by a person with direct knowledge of the subject. Lecturers may use alternative TED Talks that he or she deems more appropriate for the students, or conduct the exercises without a TED Talk.


Pre-class exercise: What do we know about media ethics?

Ask the students to prepare at home, before the class takes place, a one-page report assessing their use and view of media and social media. Ask them to answer questions such as: What is the role of news media and social media? What is their first priority: entertainment, news, profit, truth, public service, or a combination of these elements? Students should describe why they chose one of the above and what they see as their own role in today's media and social media environment. The assignment is due at the start of class.

Lecturer guidelines

This pre-class exercise could be useful for expanding students' thinking about the Module topics. Lecturers should provide students with ample notice and time to complete this assignment before class.


Exercise 1: How to choose your news

Ask the students to write down their current sources of news stories, both traditional media or trending social media.

Call on students to disclose their choices and ask them the following questions:

  • Why did they choose that source(s)?
  • Why did they think it is reliable?
  • Could they identify the author of the story?
  • What further investigation did they do to verify a story?
  • How many times have they shared, re-tweeted or posted a story without any investigation of its authenticity or reliability?
  • Did they ever learn at a later stage that the story they shared was not true? If so, what did they do?

Wrap up the discussion by asking the students the following question: What is our ethical responsibility as citizens, students and social media participants to think independently and safeguard the truth of what we read and report?

The lecturer could end or start this exercise by screening the TED Talk: How to Choose Your News . This is a short, concise TED Talk on modern media. The talk addresses issues of media control, how to identify media bias by considering timing and word choices, how to cross check or challenge a media or social media story for truth or depth and how to be a smart consumer of media.

Lecturer guidelines

Guiding students to think about these questions may be informed by your own experiences with traditional media and social media. The point of this exercise is to make the students realize that these issues have a personal impact on them, and are not only someone else's responsibility or problem to solve. The lecturer can use this exercise to make students aware that in today's world everyone participates in the gathering and dissemination of news and stories. This requires all of us to take some measure of responsibility for the truth of what we produce, distribute, redistribute or read.

It may also be helpful to reference the article "Visiting the House of Rumor" (see Core readings) to provide a historical perspective and to highlight that the concerns about fake news are not new or just a social media problem.


Exercise 2: The rise of fake news

Have the students watch this documentary that shows fake news 'factories' in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. After a short discussion of the documentary, ask each student to create a fake news story and show it to the class together with another story that is true. Ask a few of the students to present their stories and ask their fellow students to distinguish the true from the fake news and facilitate a discussion around that.

After the students complete the activity, screen the TED Talk: Think like a Journalist . This TED Talk has a funny personal beginning that relates well to the main theme of ethical, trustworthy journalism and argues that re-sending social media news content makes all of us instant reporters. This is an excellent transition from the big picture of media ethics to the media ethics of the individual. As a news reporter for the Plano Star Journal newspaper, Ms. Samuels delivers a talk on fake news, disinformation, dangers of silo social media and the role of the media as well as the role of the consumer of media in our Internet age. She uses her personal experiences from high school, as a university student, and later as a young journalist, which will help the issues seem relevant to the students.

Lecturer guidelines

This exercise will help students understand the complexities involved in the rise of fake news, a pervasive issue that transcends politics and borders.


Exercise 3: Role play: does the media have a "duty of care"?

The lecturer divides the class into four groups representing different parties: media consumer, journalist, media producer (owner), and government regulator. The lecturer asks the students to role-play or debate the following themes: Does the media have a duty of care to be accurate? To whom does it owe this duty?

Other questions to explore might be:

  • What is the media's duty of care to consumers?
  • Can a media duty of care be governed, regulated or guided by legal decisions on duty of care in other circumstances?
  • Does a duty of care apply differently to tabloid vs. traditional vs. openly biased vs. bought media outlets vs. any individualized social media outlet?
  • Is the media's role to inflame, inform or sell media by any means chosen and how does this affect the duty of care?

Students should emphasize the primary ethical focus or expectations of their assigned group.

The lecturer can start or conclude the exercise by screening the TED Talk: Does the media have a "duty of care"? This talk addresses the obligations of media to be correct and truthful, and the media's duty of care to consumers.

Lecturer guidelines

The lecturer opens the discussion with the above questions and then gently guides the groups to keep them focused. It is especially important that they maintain the focus of their assigned group and not let a different personal belief distract them. It is the learning from the exercise that is important, not that the student has to believe the position they are assigned.

This teaches the importance of peer disagreement as a fact-finding methodology for the truth or best decision on the truth and as a critical practice to arrive at ethical decision-making. A colleague who can effectively play a devil's advocate is a journalist or social blogger's best friend.


Exercise 4: The Potter Box and media ethics case studies

The purpose of this exercise is to introduce students to the ethical decision-making model known as the "Potter Box" (named after its creator, Harvard professor Ralph Potter), and explore its application to media ethics case studies. The Potter Box method requires us (1) to precisely define the situation or dilemma, and then to think about (2) the underlying values of each case, (3) the principles which are most important to apply, and (4) the conflicting loyalties that one might hold to the various stakeholders in the case. This four-step approach is designed to open one's thinking and promote discussions about a systematic process for making ethical decisions.

The lecturer introduces the Potter Box method, and demonstrates each of the method's four steps through a discussion with the students.

The lecturer asks the students to apply the Potter Box method to selected case studies found on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists. The case studies available on the SPJ website address a range of issues, as reflected by their titles:

  • Using the 'Holocaust' Metaphor
  • Aaargh! Pirates! (and the Press)
  • Reigning on the Parade
  • Controversy over a Concert
  • Deep Throat, and His Motive
  • When Sources Won't Talk
  • A Suspect "Confession"
  • Who's the "Predator"?
  • The Media's Foul Ball
  • Publishing Drunk Drivers' Photos
  • Naming Victims of Sex Crimes
  • A Self-Serving Leak
  • The Times and Jayson Blair
  • Cooperating with the Government
  • Offensive Images
  • The Sting
  • A Media-Savvy Killer
  • A Congressman's Past
  • Crafting a Policy

After selecting the case study, the lecturer asks the students to create their Potter Box, working individually and writing down their thoughts. The lecturer then asks the students to share their analysis with the class and reflect on the following questions:

  • Which values, principles, and loyalties are in direct opposition? Use a "vs." indicator in between these such as "truth vs. innocence" or "safety vs. accountability".
  • Can you use the Potter Box to push yourself to new thinking beyond the obvious answers? After you first listed "oppositions", can you next list more such conflicting values, principles, and loyalties which will help you better understand and solve the case?
  • What are the likely limitations to the Potter Box? What possible flaws in logic or problem solving could arise when depending only upon this Box?
  • Do you think your use of the Box is producing a better answer than your own intuitive thinking? What is the net value of the Box and of your current solution to the problem?

Lecturer guidelines

The importance of introducing students to an actual systematic tool for moral decision-making cannot be over-emphasized. The Potter Box, although open to criticism like any other such tool, has been employed for decades in many types of ethics work and instruction. The Potter Box is designed to open one's thinking and promote discussions about a systematic process for making ethical decisions. It can serve as a microscope that helps us see what is underneath the ethical issue, rather than a calculator that gives precise answers.

The Potter Box method is well introduced, illustrated, and explained in the opening chapter of the book Media Ethics: Cases in Moral Reasoning cited in the Advanced reading section below. If you do not have access to the book, you can learn about the Potter Box method by watching this video as well as reading this article and this blog post. If you are unfamiliar with the Potter Box it would be helpful for you not only to read about it, but also to take one or two case studies of your choosing and apply the Potter Box reasoning yourself. Relevant case studies can be found in a textbook or on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Students in a classroom setting do not have time to fully develop the thinking behind each block of the Potter Box. Nonetheless, the exercise will train the student to ask important questions such as: Who else would be impacted? What precedent might I set? What personal, employment and social interest will my decision impact? How much will I hurt and assist innocent third parties? Overall, the student must learn to ask key questions and use systematic analysis, not just make snap judgments without a moral rationale.


Exercise 5: Astroturf and manipulation of media messages

The lecturer starts the exercise by screening the TED Talk Astroturf and manipulation of media messages . This TED Talk is an excellent follow on to the Potter Box as it demonstrates the need for ethical investigation of news and the harm from not doing such ethical investigations to the consumer, as well as to the reporter and to the news organization's credibility. This talk sheds light on the growing phenomenon of political, corporate or other interest groups disguising themselves as grassroots groups, research foundations or well-researched personal testimonials. The talk discusses the motivations behind this, such as controlling the social media discourse surrounding a particular issue or product and overwhelming independent investigations or contrary information with a flood of confusing data, information and alleged expert opinion. Corporate or political resources marshal their wealth and power to create a cohesive but fake story for their gain in all forms of media. The discussion of Wikipedia will be startling to the students. The TED Talk concludes with helpful hints for recognizing if "astroturfing" is behind the story.

The TED Talk exposes that much of modern media is so driven by ratings and advertising that it often ignores its ethical duty to investigate stories for the truth before distributing them as news. Helpful strategies for recognizing "astroturfing" in order to apply the ethical duty to the truth in media and social media reporting are discussed and can lead to important class discussions.

Following the TED Talk and a brief discussion, assign for small group preparation and class discussion stories from the Fake News site for considering whether "astroturfing" was behind the fake news. See: iMediaEthics. This site posts a running list of current news stories published without fact checking or investigation of truth or authenticity. Most have follow up retractions but the site provides contemporary stories to create interesting class discussions on how those stories were published if they were fake. Through negligence? Deliberate deception? Astroturfing?

Lecturer guidelines

The TED Talk is very engaging and interesting but it is really a brief overview of a very complex issue. Students will need to understand the difficulty of detecting "astroturfing" and even more so, uncovering the facts of "astroturfing." It will be important to acknowledge this complexity while encouraging students to make the effort to understand the issues. This is best achieved by visiting each group during the exercise and encouraging the investigation and preparation for class discussion.


Exercise 6: Citizen journalism

The lecturer starts the exercise by screening the TED Talk Citizen Journalism . This TED Talk introduces the idea of "new journalism": i.e., citizen or collaborative journalism. What are the possibilities and dangers associated with modern citizen journalism? Using two true examples with widely different media reporting news stories that are far from the truth, the talk explains how an interested group manipulates each story. Both stories are later rebutted by, or with the help of, citizen journalism exposing the facts as they really happened. This TED Talk powerfully demonstrates the importance of citizen journalism.

The TED Talk provides an excellent point of departure to introduce the Code of Ethics for Journalists from the Society of Professional Journalists. The stories allow for an engaged and inspiring final class discussion with the caution that errors, manipulation or fake news are always likely, mandating the principles found in the code of ethics. The class should end as it began with an open and student-centered class discussion.

Lecturer guidelines

One goal of Exercise 6 is to leave students on a positive note, and give them the self-motivation to research and read more on the topic. As this Module represents a tight time schedule, the lecturer may wish to eliminate the TED Talk or the discussion of the Code of Ethics. The TED Talk can be proposed to students as a follow on self-study or for students who have a particular interest in the subject. If the Code of Ethics is skipped, it can be copied and handed out to students at the end of class for their future reference.

Next page
Back to top