Reflective essay tips

For 2006MAPA in 2019, you must submit:

  • 600 words of journalism, made up of court report and a story on an ethical issue. Simon won’t mind you going a bit over length if the stories justify it. A two-way includes conversation, which will add to the length.
  • A 600-word reflective essay. Maximum: 660.

The official requirement

The assignment brief calls for:

A 600-word reflection on the legal and ethical issues raised in the portfolio items or during the course of the module, to address [the first two learning outcomes – see the briefing under the assessment tab on Moodle].

In stripped-down simplicity, the learning outcomes say you will demonstrate you understand media law and ethics affecting journalists.

Remember that it is a reflective essay. Here’s some tips on reflective writing:


You can’t say much. So be clear about it

You only have 660 words. That’s not enough for detailed soul-searching, or a deep exploration of your work or an issue. So don’t use cumbersome academic language: make the point in direct, even journalistic language, whack in a citation where you have one; ideally make two or three points on the same topic, if not more, so you can show you’re considering it.

What does it have to be about? 

It’s not what you’ve done: it’s what you’ve learned from what you’ve done.

And that doesn’t mean what facts or skills you learned; it means what you’ve learned by thinking about your experiences, and exploring.

So if you didn’t learning anything meaningful from the Freedom of Information project, you don’t have to mention it at all.

Did it all suddenly make sense?

Was there one stand-out moment for you in the module, that changed your understanding or got you interested, or made you realise why all this law and ethics stuff matters?

Maybe it was the New Zealand shootings, or the video we watched about Molly Russell committing suicide after seeing dangerous imagery on Instagram.

Or maybe you were sitting in court next to the relatives of a defendant, or their victim, and it made you realise media law isn’t just dull old legal stuff, it’s about real people with feelings, often at a moment of trauma.

Just for the moment, hold that thought. 

Now think about what you might want to say. Has there been one big thing you’ve learned from the module, apart from a bunch of facts? Have you read an Ofcom rulings, seen an Ipso blog post that helps you make sense of things? Or found a useful link from Simon’s website?

Have you thought about how to make sense of all this?

That could be how you’re going to end the piece.

Now you can start

Once you know how you’re going to end your reflection, you can think about how you’re going to start it.

Some possibilities are:

Make a statement about something that happened. “At lunchtime on 15 March 2019, a lone gunman walked into a mosque in New Zealand and started shooting people dead. What made this more shocking was that the killer broadcast it all live on social media – and Facebook couldn’t stop it circulating. In the following days, the newspapers were running stories about media regulation: or rather, the lack of social media regulation….”

Make a statement about law or ethics. “The BBC makes its position clear: its audiences must be given stories and programmes that meet the highest ethical and legal standards. ‘Their trust depends on it’, it says in its statement of its editorial values. But…”

Or just talk about yourself! “I thought media law would be a dry subject. Sitting in a courtroom, next to the family of a woman facing prison, made me realise…” 

What topics can I write about? 

It’s law, and ethics. Issues “raised in the portfolio items” is straightforward. But “during the course of the module” gives you a lot of scope.

It might cover anything we talked about in class (fake news, reporting suicide, social media regulation). You can explore the issue further and reflect on it.

Or it might be something you read on Simon’s website: that’s part of the module.

It might be a new Ofcom or Ipso ruling that came out. What did it teach you?

Or it might be something that came up in the news – especially if it was a story that directly related to media law or ethics. MPs in Westminster have been making angry noises about social media, for instance.

Give us the facts. Then explore the issues, and reflect on how they increased your understanding.

The court visit was a significant part of the module, so you really should say something about it. If it was the big revelatory experience for you, then build your essay around it; but if not, at least give some space to your experiences and the insights you gained. Most cases don’t raise any ethical or legal issues, but you might say something about the importance of open justice, or the decline of court reporting and what that means for society. There are some useful pointers in the first two pages of the Open Justice chapter in McNae’s – especially on Scott v Scott.

If you made some initial errors in your court report, what does that tell you about the job of court reporting, and the challenges it presented for you personally?

Some topics

New Zealand: Several people are looking into the fallout from the New Zealand mosque shootings. There are any number of things that could be explored: best to examine one in some depth rather than trying to summarise all the issues. Remember: the essay is about demonstrating understanding; it’s not a news story that pumps out attention-grabbing facts. The Emily Bell story on this website gives you lots of strands to choose from.

Molly Russell: We had some animated discussion after hearing about the Molly Russell suicide, and watching the film about it. Within the class, there were people who felt young people should be protected, but others argued strongly for individual responsibility. What do you think now, having had time to reflect?

Trump and fake news: The first lecture talked about why ethics matters, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal of 2011, and Donald Trump dismissing every story he doesn’t like as “fake news”, and calling the media “the enemies of the people”. Surveys have showed that many people believe him, and the cry has been taken up by despotic leaders around the world. It’s undermined confidence in the media, at a time when it has never been more important for the media to hold power to account. One might think the media needs to try harder than ever to be seen to be trustworthy. But many stories about Trump rely on single, anonymous sources: normally that would mean they were considered unreliable; but is it more important the public be told what appears to be going on in a White House mad-house, even if the evidence is thin?

If you’re not interested in politics, you won’t want to write about Trump. But it’s a good indication of the climate we’re operating in today: you can mention “fake news” in passing.

Balance: several of the Ofcom rulings on the website involve famous presenters disregarding the rules on balance. They’re mostly straightforward to tell and quite interesting, and you’ll genuinely learn something about balance and fairness, and how mistakes get made (especially when people think they’re too famous to obey the rules). And the story about the blind man with a guide horse… how can you resist it?

Make life easy for yourself

You could pick a topic that an expert has already written about. Here are some possibilities:

The IPSO blog: thoughtful, straightforward probing of topics such as reporting suicide, fake news, protecting children in media reports, and inquests.

David Banks’s media law blog: up-to-the-minute, and very readable.

The Columbia Journalism Review: yes, it’s in America but it looks at issues worldwide, including in England, and there is a lot of discussion about right and wrong. Bear in mind that the Ofcom code and Ipso code reflect ethical standards in the UK: other countries have different values.

Harvard referencing

This shouldn’t be a heavyweight academic essay, but we need to know where you got your information.

So you must have in-text citations and a list of references, using Harvard referencing.

If you’re truly going to reflect on your experiences, then you should be reading some of the “theory” sources – whether from a book, an academic journal, or a respected academic source such as the Columbia Journalism Review.

Here’s a video on how to find something you can reference.

Finding sources for references from Simon Pipe on Vimeo.

The video uses a general observation about ethics. You should also try to find references that applies to the particular situations you write about.

The list of references is not included in the word-count for the reflection.








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