Professional Ethics Assignment Ideas

COMM 431: Mass Media Ethics
Final Project

Instructor: Ross Collins

This capstone project is worth 300 points, about 30 percent of your course grade...the time you spend on it ought to reflect that. I've tried to offer you a choice of options to match your interests and to give you a variety of approaches to research in ethics.

Note: please have your choice (explained in writing) approved by me before you begin. I'm pretty flexible, but choices must clearly have something to do with the mass media, and must not be a case we already covered in class. I can't be blamed for poor grades I give on projects because, though well done, they have nothing to do with mass media ethics!

Yes, spelling, grammar, and writing quality count. If you're unsure, find a good editor, or share your work with other students from before handing in. While not required, the instructor will critique a rough draft of your work if submitted at least a week before the deadline listed on the syllabus.

Due date: 4:30 p.m., last day of class as noted on the syllabus. I'll accept late projects, but grade will suffer depending on how late, so don't leave everything until the last week, please!

Group option: I've discovered that many juniors and seniors prefer to work alone, so I have decided not to require a group project in this class. If you really would prefer to do a group project (no more than four in a group), submit your proposal, and I'll let you know if it meets expections for a capstone.

Option 1, Case study using ethics worksheet.
a. Identify an actual media case which includes ethical considerations. The case may involve national or local news media, advertisers, public relations practitioners, or media entertainment in magazines, movies, books, etc. The sweep is broad, though the case must in some way involve one of the media: newspapers, magazines, books, TV, radio, movies, records or the web. It may involve advertising, public relations, or journalism. Try to choose an issue you're already interested in, or something based on a personal experience. It will make this project more fun to do. The choice must NOT be something we already used for a class case study.

To find ideas, read, read, read, listen, listen, listen, or watch, watch, watch. Get ideas from your textbooks, or from class discussions. You can find oodles of ethically-sensitive cases out there, if you're looking. I won't give you possible choices here--as this is an advanced-level class, it's time for you to take the initiative!

b. Identify the ethical issue posed by the case, and collect background information on this issue from library sources and interviews with experts. You'll need to explain:

  • how the issue has been handled by philosophers and media people in the past;
  • legal considerations;
  • professional considerations;
  • opinions of experts in the field. Basically, tell me everything the world knows about the ethical issue raised by your sample case.

c. Complete the ethics worksheet, decide how you would, or would have, handled the case. This part of the assignment is similar to previous class exercises.

Length: Using the ethics worksheet as an outline, description of the case should be at least one page. Research on the case should total at least five to seven pages, and a good eight sources, books and articles included--not only web sites! You'll probably have to rely on the library's on-line databases, perhaps interlibrary loan.

Your paper should be set up using the ethics worksheet questions, with each question number indicated. Your answer will probably be both in narrative and bulleted form, as you think works best. This means your description of the case will fit into, perhaps, questions two and three. Your consideration of how ethical theories relate to your case will fit under question 11, etc. Your ethics worksheet analysis will be similar in size to those you've turned in for class projects, but longer, about 10-12 double-spaced, typewritten pages.

Objectives: To recognize an ethical issue based on an actual situation; to understand how ethics philosophers and writers have considered your chosen issue; to critically analyze a case, acknowleding ambiguities. At the end of your work, you'll be the expert on this issue, so I expect to read in your work a lot that I don't know already.

Option 2, Informal content analysis
a. Choose a recent event or issue that's received wide coverage in the media, and that clearly suggests ethical considerations. It may be an event in the news, such as some aspect of a presidential campaign, wars, violence, or local, such as a political campaign, abortion protests, race issues, etc. If you prefer doing research in public relations, you might choose material supplied by a particular organization. If you prefer advertising topics, you might analyze a series of ads on one topic. Your choice should reflect your interests, but needs to be something that's been covered enough to give you material to analyze. On the other hand, be specific enough so that you don't have huge amounts of material to plow through. You might even choose an issue currently being covered in the media, and monitor coverage for the next few weeks.

b. Read, listen to, or watch every story on that subject, gathering at least 10 or so stories. You'll likely have to limit your monitoring, say, to only coverage by the Forum, or only coverage by one or two television stations, a couple web sites, or a source such as Newsweek magazine, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, etc.

c. Analyze coverage emphasizing important ethical concerns, such as bias, truth, fairness, economic considerations, competition, deception, emotional and rational approach, etc. You may also wish to count certain words or phrases used, if useful. Don't forget also to analyze images shown in photos and video.

Note: Although I don't expect a full-blown research project here, I do expect you to at least be familiar with the approach, based on work you may have done in theory or comm analysis classes. If you're not sure you remember that, don't choose this option.

d. Write the results of your content analysis. Results should be 10-12 pages, double-spaced typewritten, with graphs and illustrations, if necessary. Include at least a page or two of introduction to the general ethical issues raised in the study.

Objectives: to recognize ethical issues in actual media coverage; apply critical skills of reason and analysis to an actual ethical problem; tolerate ambiguity in treatment of ethical issues; apply ethical theories to a case study. You'll gain insights into the media decision-making process. Your results may reveal a surprising bias in treatment of an issue.

Option 3, Ethics focus group
a. Choose a case study clearly raising ethical issues related to the media. This may be an actual case, or a hypothetical case from your text or another source.

b. Set up a group of at least six persons from outside ethics class somewhat at random who can meet to discuss the case. Please try to avoid choosing all your friends or five other mass comm majors, not exactly a random choice. This is an informal study, not graduate-level thesis research, but I'll need the names of your group members. Names will be kept confidential; they need not appear on your final report.

c. Carefully construct at least a half dozen questions based on the case. Ask the group each question, and record and/or take notes on answers given, and discussions.

d. Write the results in the form of a report, analyzing answers using your knowledge of ethical approaches (utilitarianism, egoism, relativism, etc.), legal and professional concerns. Length: about 10-12 pages, typewritten, double-spaced. Include in your report at least two pages of introduction, describing the case, and briefly reviewing other research done by philosophers and writers on this issue. Your introduction will likely require library and on-line research.

Objectives: to apply critical skills of reason to ethical discussions; analyze responses of a small group and relate them to ethical theories; recognize and articulate ethical issues in media case studies; tolerate ambiguity and disagreement in ethical reasoning. Focus groups form a common way to gather opinions on a topic, and are commonly used for marketing research. This exercise will give you an informal opportunity to study the dynamics of the group as it relates to the differences of opinion common in ethical considerations.

Alternative: You may complete this project as a web site instead of a traditional term paper. For help, check out this student web paper guide.

Note: a strong project may certainly enhance a future professional portfolio, and may even be of publishable quality, so try to do your best! I'll publish a worthy project as part of my web site student portfolio, guaranteeing you a larger audience.

Guest Blog Post by Michael Monroe. Psy.D.

[Blogger’s Note:  My colleague Mike Monroe teaches ethics at the University of Denver.  His major course assignment—the “Ethics Project”—is a unique idea that I have used twice in my ethics classes because it fits so well with positive ethics.  I wanted to share the spirit of the assignment with you, because it’s so extraordinary, so I asked Dr. Monroe to write a guest blog entry to introduce the concept and his inspiration for it.  Enjoy!]

Back in 2001 when, in a misguided attempt to assuage my new Professor of Ethics anxiety, I buried my students under an avalanche of readings, one bit of the avalanche was entitled: The Failure of Clinical Psychology Graduate Students to Apply Understood Ethical Principles. It was about the common phenomenon of not doing what one knows to be the right thing.

Like, for example, unwittingly assuaging anxiety by burying one’s students under piles of readings.

Unethical acts like that.

In the decade that has followed, I like to think that I’ve become a more compassionate, empathic, humane—in a word, “ethical” —professor.  I hope my students would no longer say they are buried in readings.  They don’t even have to read that particular (and excellent) article.  But, surprisingly, I have found that the article has formed the bedrock of my course.

I have returned again and again to the question of what caused such “failures.” What horrible thing happened to those poor, presumably well-meaning psychology graduate students?

Especially when it seems that the deck should be stacked in their favor. 

Most of my students come from relatively favorable lives.  The GRE and other gross weeding tools ensure that my students can read, write, that sort of thing. They could probably memorize the thing while walking backwards while chewing ethical gum.

Me, too.

Why then, is it that those psychology graduate students failed to do the thing they knew was the right thing to do?  Why did I whole-heartedly engage in that ironic act of being unethical in ethics? And why would intelligent students, who could “master” that silly old ethics code, then go on to not truly practice it in their professional (and even personal) lives?


Even more puzzling when one considers that most people choose psychology not out of some evil intent, but rather to do good.  In the first class period, I often ask how many students jumped through multiple admissions hoops in order to do harm unto others.

Nary a hand has yet been raised.

So what gives?

And, more importantly, how could I help it not give?

In the decade or so that my students and I have spent pondering that question, we have come up with a range of hypotheses and an equally diverse range of solutions.  These days I come to class with a jam-packed ethical toolbox.  But if I were to be stranded on an Ethical Teaching Island and only bring one teaching tool, it would be this: The Ethics Project.

I will explain what The Ethics Project is, but I will also say that it is at this point in my class where I do my best to get purposely vague because, as I hope you will see, this vagueness serves a function. 

Here’s the simplest version of the Ethics Project instruction: 

Make the world of psychology a more ethical place.

Oh, and make it more ethical by actually doing something—not just thinking or writing about some experientially-distant something.

And while I watch the students twitch about uncomfortably in their chairs as they stare into that void of vagueness and I hear the ethics professor in my head remind me of the critical importance of the “Do no harm” first principle I do my best to employ some version of good old mindfulness to become comfortable with my discomfort about their discomfort.

To explain why I do not take away their anxiety, I will employ the counsel of one of my favorite ethics consultants:

By three ways may we learn wisdom;

First, by reflection which is noblest;

Second, by imitation which is the easiest;

And third, by experience which is the bitterest.

----Confucius (551-479 BC)

Now the word “bitter” can have a lot of connotations.  We don’t tend to like bitter so much.  Even amoebas move to the less acidic side of the solution.

Which makes sense.

However, I don’t believe that the point of Confucius’ words were that one ought to avoid bitterness at all costs.  One does not get exiled by way of simply seeking comfort.  When it came down to it Confucius made a tough choice, a bitter choice.  And I would guess that he had had some practice in doing so.

I wish the same for my students.

It is my contention that this avoidance of bitterness accounts for a considerable portion of the ethical “failures.”  So, from step one of the ethics project I am doing my best to help those students learn how to befriend bitterness.

To get comfortable with discomfort.

And be all the better able to do the oft’ uncomfortable work of applying ethical principles.

Which brings up the primary goal of the project: to get students to find the things that they might not recognize—even when being able to engage in high-minded ethical discourse—that would keep them from living their principles.  To find the discrepancies and contradictions when it comes to practicing what we preach.  To not be one of those subjects in the well-publicized study where theology students rushing to give a good Samaritan talk failed to be a good Samaritan.

Another way to say it is to turn those vast mountains of ethical declarative knowledge into trusty old, fit in your pocket, procedural knowledge.

So, I place this vague, befuddled conundrum at my students’ feet, step back, and watch.

To see what they do.

And, bless their souls, do they do.

One student single-handedly brought in tens of thousands of dollars to improve minority recruitment.  Another bunch o’ students went to price lumber at Home Depot in order to construct more sound-proof, and thus more confidential, therapy rooms at the jail.  Another began an innovative and much-needed program for disaster relief clinicians returning from the field.  Others have eagerly taken on the onerous task of translating consent forms into the native languages of their clients.  

And on and on and on.

And in doing so, a number of things happened.  Bitterness happened, frustration happened, and most importantly, neurons fired and wired together to complete the miraculous transformation of bringing ethics to life.

This is a good thing.

A very good thing.

Because I believe that we are often at risk of losing the ethics patient on the table.  I’d eagerly wager that at the next professional developmental conference—say APA in Hawaii—the breakout sessions for ethics will not be standing room only.

At a time in our world where no small number of people would say ethics is most needed.

Ethics often collapses into a sad parody of itself—somewhere between a policeman, an attorney, and the guy that no one wants to talk to at the party.   You can kind of sense it slowly losing consciousness and life.

“Clear!” they say in the ER.

The ethics project is a sort of a paddleless defibrillator to attempt to revive the heart of the thing.  Which seemed to be the whole point of the original ethics project.

Way, way, way back when.

Because if you follow the slight bud of applied clinical psychology ethics to the twig of applied ethics out into the branch of ethics proper and keep going you get to the tree of philosophy.

Which, though philosophy is often resting on the next gurney in the ER beside the inert body of ethics, if we can trace it back to the roots—the whole point of the thing—we find that wacky and hugely alive soul Socrates out in the streets; the gadfly biting—his words—the rear end of the sleepy horse of humanity to get it moving towards life.

“The unexamined life is not worth living!” he passionately cried.

Definitely got a heartbeat there.

In the definition of philosophy you will not find the words “dead,” “boring,” “morgue,” or any version of “cardiac arrest.”

Rather this: The Love of Wisdom.

And bringing that love to life is quite glorious.

And it is my experience that the failure to apply things like known ethical principles decreases significantly when one is in love with ethical principles. 

The problem is that ethics and love don’t always hang out together.

But in my class I keep seeing wonderful, surprising encounters between the two.  This year a group of students who were trying to find innovative ways of solving the endemic and ironic problem of therapists not taking care of themselves ended up doing a Harlem Shake—think flash mob but kind of wackier—right there in the hallowed, but often morgue-like classroom. And in doing so, I saw love and ethics dancing—literally and figuratively—about the room.

Which is in danger of sounding a bit hokey. 

And maybe simplistic. 

And possibly naïve. 

Of course, it is not that easy. It remains an absolute imperative to solidly ground ourselves in intellectual, empirical and theoretical soil. I appreciate Mitch’s latest blog about the need for ethics courses (his article “Ethics Training by Osmosis” articulates the point very well). I feel quite fortunate that I was able to attend ethics rounds during my internship at the VA. Don’t tell anyone, but I still assign too much reading in my ethics class.  I am quite strict in my requirement that students are able to clearly articulate specific applications of their ethics project to the APA Ethics Code.

All that is true.

However, another truth that I have come to know and deeply appreciate was voiced by Abraham Lincoln—while undertaking his rather epic ethics project: “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad.  That is my religion.”

I think in that quote lies the often overlooked—and more often scoffed at—source of Lincoln’s power.  It could be seen as a leap—okay, a vast leap—to say that those Harlem Shake students were drinking deeply from Lincoln’s wellspring.  However, I will say that that day in class I could sense a powerful force leading those students to willingly dance through the fires of social judgments, academic pressures, and what I would imagine was the very real fear that their professor would immediately text all potential internship directors a warning of the clear and present danger of these obviously deranged students.

And there was no failure that day.

Because I could sense that day in class—and in so many more moments while witnessing the courage, strength, and integrity conveyed via ethics projects—that those students were learning how to harness a force against which there was no power in the universe to stop those ethical principles from being applied.

And that is a very good thing.


If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

-----Antoine de Saint Exupéry

I wish you the endless immensity of the ethics sea.  



Bernard, J. L, & Jara, C. S. (1986). The Failure of Clinical Psychology Graduate Students to Apply Understood Ethical Principles.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 17, 313-315.

Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 100-108.

Handelsman, M. M. (1986). Problems with ethics training by "osmosis." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 17, 371-372.


Dr. Michael Monroe is a psychologist, consultant, and teacher based in Denver, Colorado.  A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Colorado, he holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Denver.  Dr. Monroe is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver and a lecturer at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  He also works with individuals, couples, and groups in private practice.   

Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Dr. Michael Monroe

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