JRNL 3651 Media Law and Ethics

Instructor Contact:

Elizabeth A. Skewes

Email: elizabeth.skewes@colorado.edu


This course is designed to introduce students to the two most important contributors to responsible media behavior: law and ethics.

If the theme of the course could be summed into one word, that word would be responsibility. Responsibility can be examined at various levels, from the societal level (e.g. journalism’s responsibilities to an electorate) all the way down to the individual (your own responsibilities to your co-workers, your client, your source, your partner, yourself, etc.). We will be covering the entire range of these levels of analysis. And, of course there is a special category of responsibility: the legal rights and obligations of the media communicator.

Virtually every aspect of media practice has both a legal and an ethical dimension. The law tells us what we must (or must not) do; ethics suggests what we ought (or ought not) to do. Throughout human history, the law has managed to regulate a small portion of human behavior; the rest is left to ethics.

This distinction is particularly important in American society, because of the permanence and power of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Over the course of the 20th century, the federal courts consistently strengthened expressive rights – of both the news media and individual citizens. As a result, communicators have acquired tremendous freedoms, especially compared to citizens and media in most other countries in the world. Communicators have the legal freedom, for example, to express hatred and bigotry, to peddle obscenity, to advocate violence, to produce the most sensationalistic “news stories” imaginable. But is it enough to assert a legal right as justification for that behavior?

Media law tells us where the courts and statutes draw the line between acceptable media behavior and punishable media behavior. But where do we, as ethically responsible media practitioners, draw the lines for ourselves and for our professions? The interplay of legal requirement and ethical obligation is what makes this course important, and, I hope, fascinating.

By learning new principle-based methods of ethical and legal reasoning — and applying them systematically to contemporary issues — you should be able to grapple with similar situations as you begin your own professional work — as a communicator, or simply as an adult human being. With this goal in mind, we will spend a great deal of time discussing real-world situations that individuals encounter — either controversial decisions that communicators have made, or “hypothetical” dilemmas that you will resolve as if you were the decision-maker. In the law, there is usually a “correct” answer, but again: The law covers only a small portion of media behavior. The rest is up to ethics, and in ethics, there is no single “correct” answer to any of these problems. If I’m teaching this material well, you will be able to develop your own personal style of moral reasoning that is based on the principles and logic that we read about and discuss. You will be evaluated not according to how “ethical” or “moral” I think your analysis is, but according to how logically you apply moral principles and how well you support your analysis with reasoning and well-researched evidence. It is this style of moral reasoning, in addition to your legal knowledge, that we hope you will take with you to your new work, beyond your days at dear old CU.

The course is organized around themes common in professionaol media work – and themes that directly involve both media law and media ethics. Once we get a solid conceputal foundation in both law and ethics, we’ll tackle these themes:

  • Freedom of Expression and Autonomy
  • Freedom of Expression and Social Responsibility Internet Regulation and Internet Ethics
  • Justice Ethics and the Reporting of the Judicial Process Advertising and Persuasion
  • Truth, Harm and Libel
  • Privacy Law and Privacy Ethics
  • Transparency and Freedom of Information
  • The Law and Ethics of Intellectual Property

Never in media history has ethical and legal practice been so important – and yet so greatly at risk. The congruent phenomena of economic and technological disruptions to the media industries have resulted in a work force – those who digitally publish media content – that is not necessarily trained or even interested in law or ethics. In this class, we all need to do our part to help counteract that trend.

Therefore, the purposes of JRNL 3651 are to offer theoretical grounding to enhance your understanding of First Amendment-based rights and your understanding of the ethical choices you have — and to offer the tools with which to make defensible decisions in professional settings.


This course is designed to enable you to:

  • Apply moral theories to real-life situations in professional media practice, in order to produce ethically sound solutions.
  • Apply legal principles and legal doctrine to real-life legal disputes in order to predict the most likely legal outcome.
  • Understand and explain the differences and the synergies between ethical obligations and legal imperatives, in any problematic situation involving media practice.
  • Comprehend original court opinions and original scholarly articles on ethics, and represent their main ideas and arguments to classmates.

Additionally, as part of the Journalism department’s ongoing commitment to national accreditation, this course satisfies two of the learning outcomes identified for assessment by our field’s accrediting body, the Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC):

  • “Understand and apply the principles and laws of freedom of speech and press, including the right to dissent, to monitor and criticize power, and to assemble and petition for redress of grievances.”
  • “Demonstrate an understanding of professional ethical principles and work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity.”

Required Text:

Trager, Robert, Joseph Russomanno, Susan Dente Ross and Amy Reynolds. The Law of Journalism and Mass Commumnication. 5th ed., 2015. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage/CQ Press.

Plaisance, Patrick L. Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice. 2nd ed., 2014. Los Angeles: Sage.


Quizzes 25%
First Exam 15%
Second Exam 20%
Third Exam 25%
Participation 15%

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Monday – Friday
8:00am to 5:00pm


We are located at the corner of University Avenue and 15th Street in a white brick building.


1505 University Avenue
University of Colorado Boulder
178 UCB
Boulder, Colorado