Discussion questions for the October /November 2008 issue, along with suggestions for further readings on the ethics of befriending sources via social media, the handling of coarse language in stories, the future of newspapers and the digital transformation of National Public Radio.

Story 1: "To Friend or Not to Friend?" |  Story 2: "Language Barriers" |  
Story 3: "The Elite Newspaper of the Future"
|  Story 4: "The Transformation of NPR"

STORY 1: "To Friend or Not to Friend?: Should reporters befriend their sources via social media?" By Steven Mendoza  

MORE INFO FROM THE STORY:  "Does becoming friends on social media sites change the reporter-source relationship?" Mendoza asks. Craig Whitney, the standards editor at the New York Times, argues that being a "friend" on Facebook is "essentially meaningless. ... So it's hard to imagine any real conflict of interest could arise." But, he adds, reporters shouldn't spell out their political views on social networking sites. Other reporters and editors offer cautions against getting too close to sources and avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest.


  • Ask students to imagine that they're running a news Web site or other news-gathering operation. What guidelines would they put in place in an ethics manual for employees regarding allowable conduct on social networking sites? Students should not only draft their written guidelines, but include their reasoning. They should be prepared to discuss the language in class.
  • Invite in a panel of professional reporters and editors to talk about ethics in the digital age. Some possible topics: Should reporters "befriend" sources on social networking sites? Should reporters "lurk" in chat rooms for stories? Should they be permitted to go undercover in chat rooms for stories? (See OJR story linked below, from Robert I. Berkman.) Should reporters be permitted to have personal blogs outside the newsroom? Should reporters be permitted to blog opinions for their news organizations on topics they cover as beat reporters? (See link to Kevin Rector piece below.)
  • After the panel discussion, ask students to expand their ethics manual guidelines (see bullet one), to incorporate other digital-age topics.


    Jesse Jackson / Courtesy wikipedia
    The Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2007 (Courtesy Wikipedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share-alike 3.0 License)
    STORY 2: "Language Barriers: The New York Times' handling of Jesse Jackson's crude remark about Barack Obama rekindles the debate about how news outlets should deal with coarse language." By Beth Macy  

    MORE INFO FROM THE STORY:  Macy reports that while the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune printed Jackson's complete remarks, the Washington Post said Jackson "wanted to castrate the presumptive Democratic nominee," while the New York Times simply described Jackson's remarks as "critical and crude" without quoting them. The coverage left journalists debating where the line against obscenities and vulgarities should be drawn. Did refusing to print crude remarks protect readers, or simply confuse them?


  • Ask students to review obscenity and vulgarity policies at five major mainstream newspapers and Web sites of their choice. How do the publications define inappropriate language? In what instances - if ever - do they allow it in print? What exceptions have been made in the last three decades? Students should summarize their findings into a research paper, which they should be prepared to discuss with the class. Proper attribution and citations are required.

  • How do alternative magazines and weeklies - such as Rolling Stone and the Dallas Observer - handle obscene and vulgar language? Arrange for a Skype videoconference between at least one editor of an alternative publication and the class. If the publication's guidelines are different than those of the mainstream media's, what reasons are given? Does the class agree with them?


    STORY 3: "The Elite Newspaper of the Future: A smaller, less frequently published version packed with analysis and investigative reporting and aimed at well-educated news junkies--that may well be a smart survival strategy for the beleaguered old print product. " By Philip Meyer

    MORE INFO FROM THE STORY: Meyer writes that the Internet is "as disruptive to today's newspapers as Gutenberg's invention of movable type was to the town criers, the journalists of the 15th century." It moves information "with zero variable cost," and its entry costs are low. This makes it possible to make profits from publishing highly specialized information. To compete, Meyer argues, newspapers need to narrow their focus to areas least vulnerable to substitution, such as community influence. They gain and sustain this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting. Their audience need not be large, Meyer argues. Resources should be focused on producing evidence-based journalism for "the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience."


  • Invite in editors and publishers from professional news publications in the area for a panel discussion on the future of the business. How do they predict their publications will look in five, 10 or 15 years? What content will likely be jettisoned? What readership will they be catering to? What business models are likely for sustainability? Will they continue to publish both print and electronic products?

  • The Christian Science Monitor in April 2009 is expected to morph from a national daily newspaper to a weekly newspaper with an online publication that is updated continuously. Is this switch likely for other publications? Why or why not? Ask students to talk to media analysts, publishers, academics and futurists to write a story or research paper on the future of newspapers. This should be reported and researched, with proper attributions and citations.


    STORY 4: "The Transformation of NPR: Long defined by its radio programming, National Public Radio is reinventing itself as a multiplatform force." By Jennifer Dorroh

    MORE INFO FROM THE STORY: Dorroh reports that this year and next, NPR is asking all of its journalists to rethink the way they tell stories and interact with their audience. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to train its 450 editorial employees in digital storytelling skills and to pay for substitutes to fill in for them while they learn. NPR is putting an additional $1 million into the training. NPR expects to overhaul its Web site by early next year and launch an open application programming interface that will allow independent Web publishers to use NPR content on their sites.

  • At NPR, trained radio journalists are learning to expand their stories with photos, printed words and video. Are all of these skills necessary now for young journalists entering the job market? What primary skills are recruiters at major newspaper, TV stations and news Web sites recommending that students equip themselves with before entering the market? Ask 1/3 of the students in the class to call newspaper recruiters, 1/3 to call TV station recruiters and 1/3 to call news Web site recruiters to pose questions about skills necessary to land reporting, editing, production, design and photography jobs. What other recommendations do the hiring managers have for journalism students in the job hunt? Students should summarize their findings in a brief paper and be prepared to discuss them in class.
  • Although many of the job openings on sites such as JournalismJobs.com are still for reporters, editors, copy editors, graphic artists and page designers, other, more exotic job titles have worked their way in: "Live Discussions Producer" (Washingtonpost Newsweek Interative), "interactive journalist with attitude," (Northwest Herald), "Entertainment Programmer for Yahoo! Front Page," (Yahoo!) and "Home Page Producer," (NYTimes.com). Internet news consultants, such as washingtonpost.com co-founder Mark Potts, predict additional jobs will become increasingly necessary as more news is published digitally: search engine optimization expert; database expert; comments moderator and discussion leader, for instance. Ask students to write a research paper on some of the new types of journalistic jobs that have emerged over the last 10 years. The paper --which should include attribution and citations -- should detail what those jobs are and what skills are necessary to land them.

    Teachers' guide written and produced by Chris Harvey, online bureau director at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a former managing editor of AJR.

    First item for this issue written Oct. 12, 2008. Second and third items added Nov. 16, 2008; final item added Nov. 17, 2008.

    Copyright 2008 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Permission is granted to freely print, for classroom use, up to 100 copies of the most up-to-date version of this document, as long as the document is not modified.