Dr. Michael Robertson
Office: 502 University Center
Phone: 422-6250 (office); 510-836-4870 (home)
Office Hours: Monday & Wednesday 3:30p-430p. If you need to see me, don't hesitate to ask for a time convenient for you. (Coffee in Crossroads is always pleasant.)
Course Description: American Journalism (4). Analysis of the ethical constraints and obligations of U.S. journalism and their grounding in the First Amendment. Current ethical and legal issues facing journalists. Development of systems and techniques for confronting ethical challenges. Offered once a year. American Journalism Ethics is the capstone course for the journalism minor. Students should take the course after the completion of Introduction to Media Studies, Journalism I, Journalism II and one 300-level journalism course.
Rationale: The First Amendment is the bedrock of American journalism ethics. Nothing is more compelling (I hope) than investigating its philosophical antecedents, particularly the way in which the philosophical, the political, the practical and the ideal intermingled to produce the constitutional right to a free press that some would argue guards all our other freedoms. Nothing is more vexing than a consideration of how that freedom, by its very nature, seems to produce ethical dilemmas, tangles, abuses and outrages that may threaten the continued existence of that section of the First Amendment that applies to the press. Much has changed since founders deemed a free press the guarantee of an informed and engaged electorate. Advances in technology; the rise of the so-called “objective” mainstream press; government control and suppression of information; media consolidation; the splintering of audiences resulting from rise of the internet – all have changed the nature of news gathering and distribution. This class will examine the background of the First Amendment and the special protections it affords the news media, as well as the responsibilities implied by the powers granted the press. It will pay particular attention to the ethical problems that arise when journalists, sometimes driven by the highest motives, find themselves tempted to do things that the law says they may do but which the community feels those journalists should not do. We shall also pay attention to those instances when journalists decide to break the law, going beyond the protections afforded by the First Amendment but acting in what they believe to be the spirit of the First Amendment. We will pay particular attention to the ethical tension between the ideals of fair and balanced journalism and the desire to use journalism as an instrument for social justice.
Texts: J. Herbert Altschull’s From Milton to McLuhan, The Ideas Behind American Journalism. Additional required reading is on electronic reserve at the library.
Additional Required Media. Subscribe to Romanesko’s Media News at www.poynter.org. Students are required to create a blog on which they will post at least once a week on issues of journalism ethics. (More about your blogging responsibilities will be described in a separate handout.)
Class meets twice a week. Students should expect to put in an additional six to nine hours a week in outside reading, writing, research and consumption of required media.
Reminder: Under the current policies of the Media Studies Department, a student will not get credit in the major for any course in which he or she receives a grade of less than C; that is, a grade of C-minus or lower means you must retake the course.
Academic misconduct: Instances of source fabrication or plagiarism will result in the most severe sanctions possible.
Deadlines: If you have any handicap or any other physical, emotional or personal problem that will interfere with your performance, you should discuss it with the professor by the end of the first week of the course or as soon as the problem arises. Every effort will be made to accommodate legitimate problems if they are discussed in a timely fashion. Some chronic problems may receive a sympathetic hearing but result in no adjustment to expectations for performance. A semester's-end revelation of personal problems will not improve your grade
Attendance: Regular class attendance is also expected. Two unexcused absences are allowed, but in class work missed through absence may not be made up although it may be excused. If you miss class for any reason, it is YOUR responsibility to find out what future class assignments are. Excused assignments will not be averaged into your grade; unexcused assignments will be -- as a zero. Excessive absences will factor into the class participation portion of your grade.
Assignments: Weekly written reports are required on certain of the assigned readings. Three essays of 1,000 words are also required. The topics for those essays are currently posted at the class blog. Due dates are the 4th, 9th and 12th weeks of the semester. Each will draw on assigned reading, class discussion, interviews with at least two working journalists and whatever additional research you deem necessary. In the category of working journalists I include reporters, editors of all kinds, news directors, station managers, news anchors and so on. Many (but not all) committed bloggers would be acceptable sources. If you have any doubt if a potential source is appropriate, check with me beforehand. During those interviews, you may explore not only the specific actions of those news workers but also the broader ethical philosophies upon which they base their decisions.
A major paper of 2,500 words on a topic chosen in conjunction with the teacher will be due December 5. There will be a midterm. There will be no final exam.
Final grade: Essays, 30 percent; weekly reading reports, 15 percent; blogging and blog comments, 10 percent; midterm, 15 percent; class participation, 10 percent; final project, 20 percent.
Semester Schedule Fall 2009
Week One What good is this class? An introduction to the
8.26.2009 Potter Box. Assignment: For next Monday present me with: 1) the exact words of the First Amendment, accompanied by; 2) a page essay giving your opinion of its most important ethical implications in regard to contemporary journalism
Week Two Finding your ethics. Assignment:
8.31.2009 You will have read Christians, et al., “Ethical Foundations and Principles”on the Potter Box and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time on Wednesday. Topic for the first essay will be discussed. The essay will be due in two weeks.
Week Three No Monday Class. What were the founders thinking and
9.9.2009 why? Assignment: You will have read Altschull, pages 1-29, and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Wednesday.
Week Four Do the ends justify the means? The ethics of
9.14.2009 interviewing. Assignment: You will have read the
assigned essays on library reserve, but no Reading Response is required, although you will probably draw on those readings for citations in your First Essay, which is due at class time Wednesday.
Week Five The philosophical underpinnings of contemporary 9.21.2009 journalism ethics. Assignment: You will have read
Altschull, pages 33-64, and prepared a Reading Response,
which is due at class time Monday.
Week Six The philosophical underpinning of contemporary 9.28.2009 journalism ethics. Assignment: You will have read
Altschull, pages 101-135, 156-166, and prepared a Reading
Response, which is due at class time Monday.
Week Seven The rise of objectivity as the principal journalistic norm.
10.5.2009 Complicity in power: questioning objectivity. Assignment:
You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Monday. Discussion of second essay.
Week Eight No Monday Class. Midterm.
Week Nine Privacy: “A journalist is always selling someone out.” –
10.19.2009 Joan Didion. When journalism becomes “nonfiction,” does it acquire the privileges – and the excuses – of art? Assignment: You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve but no Reading Response is required. Second Essay is due Wednesday.
Week Ten When journalists bend the rules to do the job by going
10.26.2009 undercover: Do the ends ever justify the means? Assignment: You will have read the assigned essays and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Monday. Discussion of the Third Essay, which is due in two weeks.
Week Eleven Photojournalism. Showing those things we should not
11.2.2009 show. Turning away from those things that should be seen. Assignment: You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Monday.
Week Twelve National Security vs. the public’s right to know.
11.9.2009 The patriotic press. Prior restraint. The Freedom of Information Act, the Patriot Act and the government control of information. Assignment: You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve, but no Reader Response is due. Third essay is due at class time Wednesday.
Week Thirteen Protecting sources. Advocacy journalism. Assignment:
11.16.2009 You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Monday.
Week Fourteen Diversity in the newsroom and in news coverage. If “news
11.23.2009 is what happens to editors,” what happens when the editors don’t reflect the demographics of the community? Assignment: You will have read the assigned essays on library reserve and prepared a Reading Response, which is due at class time Monday.
Week Fifteen Newsroom Codes of Ethics. The class builds its own.
11.30.2009 Assignment: You will have read the assigned Codes of
Ethics. For class time Wednesday you will have
prepared a brief essay describing the essence of your
own personal code of journalistic ethics, those rules
or guidelines or insights that you can draw upon when
you face what you think will be your own greatest
challenges as a working journalist. You will also post this
essay on your blog.
Week Sixteen Final Evaluation: Field Trip to Pig & Whistle
The term paper is due December 12. There will be no final exam.