Journalism Ethics and Issues (JRNL 4650)

Syllabus and Online Reading List
Summer 2015
Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:30 to 5 p.m.

Skip to the week-by-week schedule.

Dan Kennedy
139 Holmes Hall
Office phone: (617) 373-5187
Cell phone: (978) 314-4721 (call any time)
Email: da {dot} kennedy {at} neu {dot} edu (best way to reach me)
Class website:
Office hours: Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to noon and by appointment


Ethics are the beating heart of good journalism. It’s not enough for us to be entertaining storytellers. We must also strive to be accurate and truthful (almost but not quite the same thing), fair, thorough and independent. In this course we will examine various codes of conduct, consider issues such as fabrication and plagiarism, and broaden our view beyond basic ethics by looking at how to interact with our audience, how to navigate the perilous shores of aggregation, and how media ownership trends affect our ability to do our job.

Requirements for this class

You will read three books during the semester. None is a textbook; all are well-written and absorbing. I think you will enjoy them and learn a lot from them. The first two should be available in the university bookstore. The third can be found wherever fine books are sold. You can also purchase any of them from Amazon. The Kindle edition is fine if that’s what you prefer.

  • Thomas E. Patterson, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism”
  • Janet Malcolm, “The Journalist and the Murderer”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood”

In addition, you need to keep up with the news on a daily basis. As a journalism student in the Boston area, you should already be a paid subscriber to The Boston Globe; if you are not, you’ll find that a digital subscription is inexpensive and well worth it. You should read a good national newspaper as well.

If you already read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal (for instance), then you’re all set. But I want to point out that The Washington Post is re-establishing itself as a real alternative to the Times, and that digital subscriptions are free to anyone with an .edu email address. Just click here. Sign up for Digital Premium, which will give you access to all of the Post’s digital products, not just the website.

You’ll also find links to articles, video and audio here in the syllabus. I will post additional links on the class blog as topics for discussion come up. You will need to keep up with what is on the blog on a daily basis. You can sign up for email delivery, read it through an RSS aggregator such as Feedly or simply make a note to check it at the same time every day — especially on the mornings of class days.

Finally, I’ve posted a number of links to journalism- and ethics-related websites in the blogroll. You should familiarize yourself with them so that you understand what they have to offer, though I don’t expect you will read them all comprehensively.

School of Journalism attendance policy

The School of Journalism requires that you attend at least 80 percent of all scheduled class meetings. If you miss 20 percent or more of scheduled classes for any reason, you will automatically fail. Every absence will have some effect on my assessment of your class participation, which will be factored into your final grade.

This is a short semester, and on-time performance is crucial. I will begin at 1:30:00. At 1:45 I will take attendance. If you come in after that, it will be counted as a half-absence.

University statement regarding academic honesty

Northeastern University is committed to the principles of intellectual honesty and integrity. All members of the Northeastern community are expected to maintain complete honesty in all academic work, presenting only that which is their own work in tests and all other assignments. If you have any questions regarding proper attribution of the work of others, please contact me prior to submitting the work for evaluation.

A personal note: The two capital offenses of journalism are fabrication and plagiarism. Commit either of these and you can expect to receive an “F” for the course, with possible referral to OSCCR. My presumption is that you are honest. But as Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”

And here is my attribution: Parts of this syllabus are based on Journalism Ethics and Issues syllabusi prepared by other instructors.

Assignments, deadlines and grades

On the first day of class you will set up a blog to which you will post your work this semester — not just graded assignments but also shorter pieces that I will ask you to write in response to readings and class discussion. All of your blogs will be linked from the class website. Assignments will be explained in greater detail once the semester is under way.

  • May 21, 10 a.m. Book review, “Informing the News” (15 percent)
  • June 4, 10 a.m. Book review, “The Journalist and the Murderer” (15 percent)
  • June 18, 10 a.m. Book review, “The Beautiful Struggle” (15 percent)
  • June 29, 10 a.m. Final project (30 percent)
  • Class participation, including ungraded blog posts, class presentations and discussion (25 percent)

Please note that this is a journalism class, and one of the things we do is spell proper names correctly. Any graded assignment with a misspelled proper name will be marked down by two-thirds of a grade — that is, an A becomes a B-plus, a B-plus becomes a B-minus, etc. Don’t let this happen to you!

A word about deadlines. If an assignment is due on a Thursday at 10 a.m., you will lose a third of a grade for each day that it is late. In other words, a B would become a B-minus until Friday at 10 a.m., after which it would become a C-plus until Saturday at 10 a.m., etc.

The only exception to this policy is if you have a really good excuse such as an illness serious enough to prevent you from working. I expect to be informed before the deadline, and depending on the circumstances, I may ask for documentation.

I expect ungraded blog posts to be up on time as well. Consistent lateness will figure into my assessment of your class participation.

Special accommodations

If you have physical, psychiatric or learning disabilities that may require accommodations for this course, please meet with me after class or during conference hours to discuss what adaptations might be helpful to you. The Disability Resource Center, 20 Dodge Hall (x2675), can provide you with information and assistance. The university requires that you provide documentation of your disability to the DRC.

Course evaluations

The College of Arts, Media and Design has asked that the following language be included in each syllabus:

CAMD considers student feedback essential and requires all students to complete TRACE evaluations at the end of the semester. You will be asked to provide a screen shot to your instructor that reflects your participation. Note that you can, anonymously, opt out of completing the survey and still obtain the screen shot that satisfies the TRACE requirement.

Not to be too confusing, but as a matter of policy the School of Journalism does not require that you submit a TRACE evaluation. Nevertheless, we take such evaluations seriously, and I will strongly encourage you to participate when we reach the end of the semester.

Semester schedule

The schedule and readings for Ethics and Issues are meant to be flexible in order to accommodate guest speakers and big news stories. We will stick to the following as closely as possible, especially with regard to assignments and deadlines. Changes and updates will be posted on the class website.


May 11

May 13

  • Topic: What are the qualities of good journalism?
  • Media links: “Essays about ‘The Elements of Journalism,'” Nieman Reports, Summer 2001. This is a special issue of Nieman Reports devoted to analyzing “The Elements of Journalism,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. You certainly may read the entire issue, but I am only assigning nine pages. If you flip to page e9, you’ll find a large numeral “1” at the top of the page, followed by “Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.” There are nine such excerpts from the book in the pages that follow. I am not assigning the material that supplements it because you have enough to read.
  • Assignment: Before class on Monday, please write a short (200 to 300 words) blog post on what additional element you would add to “The Elements of Journalism.” (There are nine in the reading I assigned you, but as I will discuss, Kovach and Rosenstiel later came up with a 10th. So I’m looking for an 11th.)


May 18

  • Topic: We will examine several journalistic codes of ethics and discuss how they have evolved over time. Also, today we will have our first student presentation on an ethical issue in the news.
  • Media links: Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics; SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers; Radio Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics (follow the link and read the proposed revision, too); the Online News Association’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code” project.
  • Assignment: Before class on Wednesday, please write a short (200 to 300 words) blog post on journalistic codes of ethics. We will discuss this in greater detail in class.

May 20

  • Topic: Knowledge-based journalism. In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson argues that journalism’s traditional toolkit — direct observation and interviews — is not enough. We also need knowledge in the form of reliable research in order to sort out competing claims and arrive at the best version of the truth.
  • Media links: “A Compelling Case for ‘Knowledge-Based Journalism,'” by Dan Kennedy, The Huffington Post; “Journalism site The Conversation taps knowledge of academia,” by James Sullivan, The Boston Globe; Journalist’s ResourceThe Conversation (U.S. edition).
  • Assignment: Review of “Informing the News,” to be posted on your blog by 10 a.m. on May 21. Please write 500 to 800 words, which is somewhere in the range of a short to medium-long op-ed piece. In your review you should summarize what you think are the key points in the book, tell us what you agree with, what you disagree with and what you think Patterson left out.


May 27


June 1

June 3


June 8

June 10


June 15

June 17


June 22

June 24


We will not have a final exam.


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