Photo by javier trueba on UnsplashPhoto by javier trueba on UnsplashBACKGROUND

Preliminary attempts to understand the practices and teaching of media ethics on a global scale have occurred as early as the 1970s. In 1989, Christians, Cooper, Plude, and White assembled ethics experts from over a dozen countries to write chapters and contribute documents such as national codes of media ethic Stephen Ward, among many others, continue to research international journalism and media ethics in a prolific and profound way.1

Similarly, there has been a large literature dedicated to the teaching of media ethics featuring hallmark works such as those published by the Hastings Center by Christians and Covert (1980), by European researchers such as Gjelsten (1988) and Wunden (1989), and of special note Elliott’s Ph.D. dissertation (1984) at Harvard about how journalism ethics should be taught.2

This literature has developed to include Cooper ‘s recent (2017) inspection of how ethics is taught in leading English-speaking universities worldwide including those in the U.S. such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; those in the UK such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, and many others in Australia, Canada, Singapore, Hong, Kong, and New Zealand. The findings of this study may be found in the journal Teaching Ethics and on websites devoted to ethics instruction such as that of the Squire Foundation.3


Although this literature continued to expand about how ethics, including journalism/media ethics, could and should be taught, and although publications about international media ethics also grew both in scope and quantity, these were tributaries of what might be called the “documentary” river. For the most part such writings documented existing attempts to teach (media and journalism) ethics and also alluded to the professional journalism and media practices and codes of a limited number of nations. Although some of the writing was more aspirational and advocated better teaching and professional practices, none of the authors nor their institutes had the resources to implement their visions worldwide.

To be sure, ethics visionaries such as Ed Lambeth (U. of Missouri and U. of Kentucky) and teams such as Roy Peter Clarke, Don Fry, and Bob Steele (the Poynter Center, Florida) were able to secure funding to assemble journalism and media ethics faculty for workshops on ethics pedagogy. Lambeth selected faculty who were leaders in ethics to lead sessions to compare resources and techniques at workshops he hosted in Missouri and Kentucky from 1983-2003.4 The Poynter Center, which has continued in a leadership role in the study of journalism ethics, paid for the travel expenses of professionals and academics to convene to consider leading themes in ethics practices and teaching in St. Petersburg, Florida for decades.5

Yet these laudatory attempts to expand and improve media ethics instruction existed primarily for select numbers of American scholars and professionals. Although other training programs and the media ethics summits of 1987 and 2007 (led by Christians and Cooper) also assembled leaders in the field, the scope and frequency of these gatherings was clearly insufficient to implement ethics instruction worldwide.

Those who attempted to spread ethics instruction globally met a series of large challenges. These included:

  • Language/culture: what is meant by ethics in each culture?
  • Government/politics: what types of ethics instruction, if any, does the national government allow, if not foster?
  • Religion: do(es) prevailing religion(s) pre-determine what is meant by ethics and education?
  • Pedagogy: are the local teaching practices compatible with ethical thinking, debate, cases, and reasoning?
  • Inclusiveness: Are students of all races, orientations, genders, religions, and classes/castes welcome in local schools?
  • Resources: Often translators, publishers, teachers, educational administrators, and a large payroll are needed to introduce and implement curricula.
  • Perspective: Who determines which ethics paradigm is “normal?” For example, Buddhist, Baptist, capitalist, socialist, and indigenous ethics all differ. Which one prevails?
  • Complexity: What if a country has hundreds of dialects, little electricity, no internet access, 90 per cent illiteracy, etc.?

These and many more factors made the implementation of global ethics instruction worldwide little more than a dream.


Although these challenges seemed formidable, at least one global organization had sought to address these pedagogical differences and limitations over the decades. The United Nations was no stranger to issues such as cultural relativism, time and language diversity, regional practices and doctrines, and differing assumptions about “ethics,” a word which does not appear in some languages and tribes.

While the United Nations has a mixed track record with solving global problems, it has developed an infrastructure and resources sufficient for researching and addressing some multi-national, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual concerns. Indeed, the UN has offices, headquarters, members, or representatives in almost all populated sectors of the world and a sustained reputation for concurrently honoring multiple traditions, faiths, governments, and perspectives.

To their credit, the United Nations has also learned that no institution can positively change international concerns after the fact by solely focusing upon enforcement and suppression activities. While the United Nations has sometimes been effective in treating the effects of organized crime, corruption, human trafficking, terrorism, and other problems, it has also discovered the importance of understanding and addressing the causes of such problems. Hence an emphasis upon preventive solutions, rather than “band-aid” remedies, has become important.

Since both ethics and education are important to preventive solutions, the combination of the two into “ethics education” potentially creates a dynamic hybrid tool. Ideally the effective implementation of “ethics education” worldwide can reach if not train the “conscience” of millions of literate students and provide cognitive skills in moral decision-making if not effect preventive or corrective behavior.

Only a group like the United Nations has sufficient international support, financial capability, and trained multi-cultural, multi-lingual leadership to increase the quality and quantity of ethics instruction within all continents. For these and other reasons the United Nations, often working in cooperation with UNESCO, has sought to strengthen and support education as a vital preventive resource working against the most severe problems the world faces including war, poverty, crime, terrorism, disease, and sustainability.


Although previous steps taken by the United Nations were significant, the importance of implementing ethics education was not fully articulated until the conclusion of the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice held in Qatar in 2015. At that time the “Doha Declaration” was created which affirmed the importance of crime prevention and criminal justice through education as an aspect of work done by the United Nations.

While the actual word “ethics” was not used within the Declaration, it was frequently implied by an emphasis upon equality, justice, and other concepts central to ethics instruction. The value of education was emphasized repeatedly such that by inference the document calls for (ethics) education that supports the rule of law and civility worldwide.6

A Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration was established within the office of the United Nations known as UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime) with headquarters in Vienna. Within that office a specific initiative was created which is called Education for Justice (E4J), and it is within that program that the development of ethics education curriculum has been developed step-by-step over the past three years. The E4J initiative describes itself in this way:

The Education for Justice (E4J) initiative seeks to prevent crime and promote a culture of lawfulness through education activities designed for primary, secondary and tertiary levels. These activities will help educators teach the next generation to better understand and address problems that can undermine the rule of law and encourage students to actively engage in their communities and future professions in this regard. A set of products and activities for the primary and secondary levels is being developed in partnership with UNESCO.7

An important goal of E4J is to strengthen education at all three levels of schooling—primary, secondary, and tertiary—throughout the world. UNODC staff are familiar with customizing such instruction to differing educational systems worldwide such that each of the three program levels take national and regional differences into account.

Other attempts to strengthen justice education worldwide have seldom been so ambitious as to include all major levels of education. In a best-case scenario, students from six to thirty years of age would be taught about justice, law, and/or ethics when graduate schools are taken into account. More typically, students terminate their education at the approximate age of 18 (secondary school) or 22 (tertiary – college/university) if they successfully complete their programs.

Whatever the case, the E4J initiative approach might be seen as highly ambitious as it seeks to educate students in almost all countries of all backgrounds and at all levels of education wherever UNODC has access and influence. The initiative has also convened dozens of “experts” from all continents in the world to develop curriculum at all three levels.

It is within the “tertiary” (cf. university and college) level within E4J that the teaching of “integrity and ethics” are specifically named and taught as free-standing modules. While students at the other two levels are introduced to the nature and importance of specific ethical and legal principles, it is at the tertiary level where a specific ethics curriculum has been developed and offered as a discrete branch of education.8

At the same time, ethics is at the heart of E4J’s work on primary and secondary education that is carried out within the framework of the UNODC/UNESCO partnership “Global Citizenship Education: Doing the right thing.” Under this partnership the Education for Justice initiative proffered these goals:

By strengthening the capacities of policymakers, educators, teacher trainers and curriculum developers, the partnership (between UNODC/E4J and UNESCO) will empower learners to engage in society as constructive and ethically responsible agents of change, supporting justice and strong institutions. This, in turn, will enhance societies’ resilience to violent extremism by promoting a positive sense of identity and belonging.9


Hence the goals of E4J are not simply descriptive and analytic but also prescriptive in an attempt to change thinking and behavior for the betterment of society. Such a distinction is important to note since many academics have often debated whether behavior change can and should be taught, especially at the tertiary level when many students have already molded their moral habits and practice.

The initial discussion and development of the E4J draft curriculum began in March 2017 with a gathering of professional experts in ethics and integrity while concurrent gatherings of experts in related areas (not discussed herein) also met at UNODC in Vienna. They discussed and debated which ethics content and teaching methods should be included within the global curriculum as well as how to make these new modules available to interested teachers and administrators worldwide.

Their preliminary work was tested at regional gatherings one month later such that the discussion was broadened to include experts in far more countries. Six months later and again one year later many of the participants in the initial group reconvened in Sounion, Greece, with additional experts from yet other countries. In addition to these meetings many worked independently and collectively whether as paid consultants or as group participants to further develop a draft curriculum that could be used by tertiary level teachers worldwide.

Ultimately, over seventy academic experts from over thirty countries were involved with the discussions and development of the curriculum.10 Each contributed different specializations—such as business ethics, media ethics, professional ethics, classical ethics, etc.—to the overall pool of expertise.


Although many teaching tools are being developed by E4J including lists of references, promotional videos, a teaching guide, interviews with participants, and regional workshops for teachers, perhaps the most important tools readily available to all teachers are the integrity and ethics modules.11 The E4J website introduces and describes the modules in this way:

…the Education for Justice (E4J) initiative developed a series of Integrity and Ethics Modules, which lecturers can use as a basis for teaching in universities and academic institutions across the world. The Modules seek to enhance students’ ethical awareness and commitment to acting with integrity, and equip them with the necessary skills to apply and spread these norms in life, work and society. To increase their effectiveness, the Modules connect theory to practice, encourage critical thinking, and use innovative interactive teaching approaches such as experiential learning and group-based work. The Modules are multi-disciplinary and can be integrated as ethics components in non-ethics courses. By focusing on common universal values, the Modules leave room for diverse perspectives and lecturers can easily adapt them to different local and cultural contexts. Each Module is designed as a three-hour class but also provides guidelines on how to develop it into a full course. Additional pedagogical guidance is provided in the E4J Teaching Guide on Integrity and Ethics.12

The concluding sentences are worth emphasizing. In essence they say that the modules may be 1) customized for any school’s cultural context and student backgrounds, 2) potentially developed into a complete course, and 3) supplemented with the E4J Teaching Guide. Hence it is important to note that this is not a “one size fits all” pedagogy but rather local teachers, administrators, and students may all be participants in the further development and adaptation of the curriculum. At present, 14 modules are available and labeled in this way:13

Other modules were suggested during discussions and may be added later. Moreover, the current modules will be assessed after initial implementation and no doubt adjusted to accommodate helpful feedback.


Since one of the modules is about media ethics, it will be selected as an example for inspection. This media integrity and ethics module can be found online at the link provided.14 As with all the modules, the media ethics module begins with a home page which provides an overview about module use and includes this table of contents:

Inside each of these links is specific information which may be utilized or adapted for local use.


Every module begins not only with an introduction but also with suitable “learning outcomes” which familiarize both teacher and student with the educational purpose and intention of the module. In the media integrity and ethics module this introductory section reads:


This Module discusses the relationship between the concepts of ethics and media. It aims to facilitate introspective reflection on the ways in which all of us, as individuals, play a part in the creation and dissemination of media. The Module explores the critical importance of ethics to both traditional forms of media, such as journalism, as well as modern forms of social media. The advent of social media technologies and digital news has increased the ethical responsibility of individuals in this field, especially given the global reach and powerful impact of these new media forms. These changes, together with fake news and increasing media restraints worldwide, render this Module important and relevant to students from all disciplines.
The Module is meant to provide an outline for a three-hour class but can be used for shorter or longer sessions, or extended into a full-fledged course (see: Guidelines to develop a stand-alone course).

(paragraph deleted)


Learning Outcomes

  • Appreciate the responsibilities of media and the ethical dimensions of media creation, provision and consumption.
  • Understand the ethical obligations that media providers have towards society.
  • Make ethical decisions regarding media, whether as providers or consumers, professionals or non-professionals, or as mere users of social media.
  • Analyze media ethics cases and issues using the Potter Box decision-making model.16


Once the learning outcomes are presented, it is important to introduce not only the key issues but also new terms, concepts and principles to both faculty and students. This entire discussion of issues, concepts, and principles within the module may be found at the link provided.17

To avoid excessive length in this article, the module excerpt below will present only the subtopics (in blue) and the first paragraph under each subtopic to give the reader a sense of the overall content within this section:

Key Issues

Journalism has long been considered a pillar of democracy, given its function of communicating vital information to the public regarding institutions and individuals in positions of power. An informed citizenry is critical for good governance and essential for exposing and preventing corruption. This assumes that the information is accurate, truthful and non-biased. Indeed, these are some of the ethical responsibilities of media professionals that the Module explores. The discussions are relevant to all students who are media consumers and wish to understand what ethical obligations they can expect media professionals to uphold. In addition to consuming media, many students play an active role in the production of media, especially social media. Therefore, after discussing the ethical obligations of media professionals, the Module proceeds to address the responsibility of all individuals to practice ethical behaviour in the creation and dissemination of social media. The Module first examines key terms and concepts.


Terms and concepts

Two key concepts used in this Module are “media” and “ethics.” The word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, which means character, or what a good person is or does to have good character. The concept of ethics is explored in detail in Integrity and Ethics Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework), which introduces students to Richard Norman’s definition of ethics: “the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct” (Norman, 1988, p. 1). Media is defined by the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “the system and organizations of communication through which information is spread to a large number of people.” A more current and relatable definition for students is provided by, which defines media as “the means of communication, [such] as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely.”

(Three paragraphs deleted)


Ethical principles for journalists and other media providers

While the Module considers ethical obligations of both media professionals and non-professionals, it should be noted that media professionals are held to higher ethical standards compared to non-professionals. They have duties to provide society with accurate, truthful and non-biased information. Media professionals have ethical obligations towards society simply by virtue of their activities as journalists, reporters, anchors, or owners of media corporations. The role of the media in contemporary times is affected by the commercialization and diversity of media actors, which include grass roots and independent media, corporate media, advocacy groups, consolidated media companies, state-owned and privatized media. Media ethical obligations apply to all of these.

(One paragraph deleted)


(1) “Seek truth and report it”

With regard to the first principle (seek truth and report it), the SPJ Code calls on journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, confirm information before releasing it, and rely on original sources whenever possible. The Code promotes and encourages journalists to use their work to facilitate greater transparency of those in power. For example, the Code requires that journalists be persistent and brave in their constant effort to hold those in power accountable. Journalists, according to the SPJ Code, must provide a platform for those in society who may not have a voice. It also states that journalists should be supportive of open and civil dialogue in which different points of view are exchanged, even if the journalists themselves find those views objectionable. Journalists have a special responsibility to be watchdogs over the government and public affairs. Furthermore, journalists should endeavour to ensure the transparency of public records and public business. In this sense, the SPJ Code appears to promote the idea that journalists owe a duty to the public to provide accurate information, to facilitate open access and transparency of the government and other individuals in authoritative positions, and to provide those without a voice in society the opportunity to speak and share their beliefs, perspectives, and experiences.

(One paragraph deleted)


(2) “Minimize harm”

The drafters of the SPJ Code emphasize under the second principle that journalists must also minimize harm that could be caused by their reporting and that ethical journalism demands that sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public are treated as human beings deserving of respect. As such, journalists should consider individual privacy rights as well as the impact their reporting may have on individuals in general. The Code states that journalists must show compassion for individuals who may be affected by news coverage, which may include juveniles or victims of crimes. Journalists should also be mindful of cultural differences when reflecting on the ways in which news or information may be received. The Code advises journalists to show “heightened sensitivity” in these circumstances (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014).

(Five paragraphs deleted)


(3) “Act independently”

Journalists are also called on to act independently, which is the third principle outlined in the SPJ Code. Under this principle, the drafters of the Code emphasize that the primary responsibility of ethical journalism is to serve the public (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014, footnote 6). As such, journalists must put the public first and reject any special treatment to advertisers, donors, or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage. This requires journalists to refuse gifts and to avoid any conflicts of interest.

(Three key principles deleted)

A fifth ethical duty or principle that can be discussed in class is the concept of objectivity. Long considered a norm in journalism, objectivity is currently the subject of significant debate. That debate tends to recognize transparency to be a preferable principle. While human beings may never be truly objective, we can at least disclose our frames of reference. In her article Objectivity and Journalism: Should We Be Skeptical?, Alexandra Kitty elaborates further on this idea (2017).

(2 paragraphs deleted)

To conclude, this Module illustrates that media ethics applies to all of us, whether or not we intend to become media professionals. With this in mind, the following section suggests class activities through which students can engage with the issues discussed above.18


Within the modules multiple sample exercises are presented. The entire list and discussion of exercise may be found the provided link.19 Once again those exercises presented below are excerpted to give the reader exposure to the range of possible exercises within this module:


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.

(Two paragraphs deleted)

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 on the specific subject, delivered by a person with direct knowledge of the subject and represent a modern vehicle of contemporary media. 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?

This pre-class exercise could be useful for expanding students’ thinking about the Module topics. Before the class takes place, students are asked to prepare a one-page report assessing their use and view of media and social media. Lecturers should provide students with ample notice and time to complete this assignment before class. Students could be asked to answer questions such as: What is the role of news media and social media? What is its first priority: entertainment, news, profit, truth, public service, or a combination of these elements? Students must describe why they chose one of the above and what they see as their role in today ‘s media and social media environment. The assignment is due at the start of 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.

(3 paragraphs deleted)


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.19 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.

(paragraph deleted)


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?

(2 paragraphs deleted)


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.


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.

(3 paragraphs deleted)


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.


Each module presents a suggested class structure. Naturally, many faculty prefer to give more time for discussion than others which still other faculty find it humane to provide bio-breaks and leave time for the unexpected and exploration. The structure below is meant only as a possible template:

Possible class structure

This section contains recommendations for a teaching sequence and timing intended to achieve learning outcomes through a three-hour class. The lecturer may wish to disregard or shorten some of the segments below in order to give more time to other elements, including introduction, icebreakers, conclusion or short breaks. The structure could also be adapted for shorter or longer classes, given that the class durations vary across countries.


Introduction (10 mins)

It is recommended to start the class with questions, as a way to engage students and encourage them to think critically about the role of ethics in both media provision and consumption. The lecturer can open the class with these questions: Who controls the narrative of the media in important issues? If media providers do not ethically investigate their sources and report with honesty, who will know if a media report is true and how can we test its truth? Following a short discussion, the lecturer introduces the Module and emphasizes the importance of media ethics.

The lecturer may note that media ethics covers a wider range of media/journalism issues than those covered by this short Module, including free press, freedom and access of information, sources, confidentiality, accountability, conflict of interest, deception, hacking, sensationalism and misrepresentation. The lecturer will not have time to describe fully all of these issues but may give quick explanations with current examples as time permits.


How to choose your news - Exercise 1 (20 mins)

  • Screen How to choose your news TED Talk (5 mins)
  • Conduct Exercise 1 - ask students to write out current news choices (5 mins)
  • Guide a discussion in which students explain their choices (10 mins)


The rise of fake news - Exercise 2 (30 mins)

  • Screen the short documentary on fake news (3 mins)
  • Conduct Exercise 2 - ask students to create a fake news story (15 mins)
  • Discuss the rise of fake news and the ethical issues involved (12 mins)


Does the media have a “duty of care”? - Exercise 3 (30 mins)

  • Screen Does the media have a “duty of care”? TED Talk (11 mins)
  • Conduct Exercise 3 - divide students into consumer, journalist, media producer (owner) and government regulator (4 mins)
  • Students perform role-play/debate, emphasizing the primary ethical focus or expectations of each group (15 mins)


The Potter Box method - Exercise 4 (30 mins)

  • Explain the Potter Box, demonstrating each quadrant with Q&A (15 mins)
  • Conduct Exercise 4 - Students apply Potter Box to a case study and discuss the case and their own “boxes” (15 mins)


Following this suggested class structure each module not only provides a list of core readings but also a link for advanced readings for precocious undergraduates and for graduate students. A link for additional resources such as videos, PowerPoints, and blogs is also provided.

The module also offers suggestions about how student assessment may take place and a grid for converting this module into a full semester (cf. session/term) course. The latter grid provides the list of topics which might be sequentially taught over a multi-week period and may be found at the link provided.20


Whatever the virtues and possibilities of creating such modules and other teaching tools for global dissemination, the challenges are no less evident. There is no universal pedagogy across cultures nor a singular ethic.

Classroom methods of instruction are as different as places and peoples. Oxford and Cambridge often use a time-honored lecturing system open to all male and female students whereas some countries discourage or prohibit the teaching of women or encourage it only within the home. Many Western cultures encourage debating as a mode of university learning, especially in (sub)disciplines such as ethics, while in some Eastern cultures the idea of opposing the thoughts of a teacher or classmate seems truly foreign.

In many First Nations moral choice and practice are taught within gender specific instruction such as that passed down from father-to-son, mother-to-daughter, or uncle-to-nephew. Some traditional groups have “men’s circles” and “women’s circles” which meet separately to pass down tribal wisdom whereas in theocracies ethics instruction is often strictly the province of the religious leaders and their designees. The latter pedagogy is often based upon the reading and explication of sacred texts rather than by lecture, discussion, debate and case studies.

Even within a single country such as the United States, instructional practices are often far more rigid in say a military academy (e.g., West Point or the Naval Academy) or fundamentalist university (e.g., Oral Roberts University or Union University – Tennessee) than in an institution devoted to an extremely flexible curriculum such as Antioch University or Hampshire College. Even within “liberal arts” institutions, ethics pedagogy can be quite different. For example, the Harvard Business School has been famous for its case study approach whereas ethics classes in Harvard’s department of philosophy are far more theoretical and lecture/section based.

In addition to this widely differing approach to pedagogy both across and within cultures are the problems inherent in defining “ethics.” For some indigenous groups there is no word for “ethics” as it is assumed that the respectful cooperation with nature in all activity is simply the status quo and not a branch of thinking involving choice.

Even if cultures or nations agree upon ethical priorities such as “veracity,” “honesty” or “truth-telling” which are essential to media ethics, the concept of “truth” (and other cornerstone values) varies widely across cultures. For example, “Vatican truth” is ultimately interpreted by the Pope based upon scriptural exegesis whereas “truth” in Cuba, China, or Russia is “Party truth” as interpreted by communist leaders. Notions of truth in a lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) might well be measurable by quantitative methods whereas “truth” to many philosophers in other institutions (or even at MIT for that matter) might be debatable, unknowable, or relative to culture.

While language, doctrine, pedagogy, and tradition make it challenging to find a “one size fits all” curriculum across cultures, UNODC has developed a system of holding regional workshops and including regional experts in larger gatherings who can help to “translate” and adapt teaching tools into their own contexts. Such ongoing customizing of the curriculum does not guarantee the wholesale transcendence of cultural differences, but it does make the modules and teaching tools more widely available than any other ethics teaching resources known to this author.


Although these cross-cultural challenges discussed above underscore that no curricular schema is perfect, clearly the one developed within E4J has benefitted from much expertise, time, and many resources that may now be used to make the modules available to teachers in most countries. As always there will be resistance in varying nations to teaching specific issues, examples, and concepts whether for political, religious, or cultural reasons.

Clearly the UNODC is quite serious and exhaustive about implementation of such module s wherever there is a local desire for ethics education. With that in mind, E4J staff are planning regional workshops, participating in key international conferences, and carrying out impact assessments as next steps. Indeed, UNODC has set up financial incentives for those experts who need support with 1) mentoring new ethics faculty, 2) publicizing the modules via publications, and 3) assisting with localization and customization of the proposed curriculum.

Honoring Other Contributors

To be sure many other gifted scholars and organizations have contributed to the development of media ethics pedagogy such as Lambeth, Clark, Nordenstreng, Christians, and others mentioned at the outset. And there are also fine repositories of media ethics pedagogy tools such as the website created by Professor Jan Leach for the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Markkula Center video library at the University of Santa Clara, California, which has created many ethics tools including over 250 instructional videos.21

However, all these assembled tools, as helpful as they are, derive from one or at most a handful of countries and cultures and do not provide the resources such as mentors and regional workshops to explain how best to utilize them. Even the large inventory of pedagogical tools gleaned by this author from eighty ethicists at leading universities is limited to faculty at English-speaking institutions.22


All scholars, publications, institutions, and organizations committed to teaching journalism and media ethics are important. But it should nevertheless be obvious that the E4J initiative has taken a quantum leap forward unmatched by others. Quantitatively, the UNODC project reflects the work of over seventy experts from over thirty countries potentially available to over 190 member nations within the UN among others. Qualitatively, each module has been developed, reviewed, edited, and inspected by a team of experts and will be assessed and revised by others. The modules are rich in content, thinking, exercises, and approach benefitting from the perspectives of many cultures, institutions, and UN administrators who are trained to understand and work within and across regional differences.

Special acknowledgement should be given not only to the seventy experts who developed these modules but especially to the UN project leader, Sigall Horovitz, who has worked closely with UN staff colleagues, Julia Pilgrim and Doris Rodas Reyna-Waldner. While this author was one of the seventy “experts,” he bows to the far greater expertise of the larger group. He wishes to also credit Temple University graduate student Abigail Moore, who was invaluable in the creation of this article.

Teaching media ethics is invaluable in a world decrying fake news, invasion of privacy, press censorship, entertainment obscenity, election hacking, deceptive advertising, media hoaxes, and much more. While all approaches to ethics instruction are helpful, the E4J expansion is proving quite important not only in its own right but as a catalyst to inspire others. Finally, its most important influence may be yet to come in the steps taken by the thousands of teachers and students it reaches around the world.


1. Ward, Radical Media Ethics

2. Christians and Covert, Teaching Ethics in Journalism Education; Christians and Gjelsten (Eds), Media Ethics and the Church; Wunden (Ed.), Medien Zwischen Markt und Moral: Beitrage zur Medienethik.

3. Cooper, “Learning from ethicists, part 2: how ethics is taught at leading institutions in the pacific region pp 23-91.

4. Lambeth, “Ed Lambeth - Interviewed by Doug Cannon.”

5. Ethics,” Poynter,

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1) The author thanks UNODC and its E4J initiative, a component of the Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration, for the support that facilitated the publication of the article.

2) A larger chapter, from which this article is excerpted, will appear in the Handbook of Global Media Ethics, editor-in-chief Stephen J. A. Ward.


  • Professor Tom Cooper at Emerson College was a guest scholar at Stanford, Berkeley, the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii during his last sabbatical and at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge during the preceding sabbatical. The Association for Responsible Communication which he founded was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Cooper taught at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude, and was recently an ‘ethics expert’ at a United Nations project in Vienna and Athens. A former assistant to Marshall McLuhan, he was a consultant to the Elders Project which involved Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan and Jimmy Carter. Cooper is also a playwright, musician, poet, black belt, blogger, and author of eight books and over two hundred academic and professional articles and reviews.