Lesson Plan: Ethics in Journalism

Download the Lesson Plan

Jump to:

The filmmakers have partnered with the Zinn Education Project to create a 94-page teaching guide that includes 8 additional lesson plans. Download the PDF »


This lesson plan is designed to accompany the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The intent of this lesson is to familiarize students with the release of the Pentagon Papers and some of the broader issues, questions and considerations it raised.


By the end of the lessons, students will:

  • Understand the historical context of the release of the Pentagon Papers
  • Analyze the First Amendment and the ethical considerations associated with freedom of speech
  • Evaluate the public impact of the release of government documents
  • Discuss the future of journalism, as it pertains to freedom of the press


SUBJECT AREAS World History, U.S. History, Civics, Journalism

Internet access and equipment to conduct research and show the class online video clips and resources (as detailed in each lesson)

The curriculum has been divided into three lessons, though it also could be taught in one to two 50-minute classes if taught in the style of a lecture rather than a discussion. For discussion-based classes, the following time is recommended per class:

  • Two to three 50-minute class sessions
  • One to two 1.5-hour classes
  • One 3-hour class (or most of one)

Note: Each student should view the film outside of class prior to Lesson 1.

Lesson 1: Understanding the Events
Knowledge of the events preceding and following the release of the Pentagon Papers is crucial to understanding the magnitude of this information made public. Not only did the release of the Pentagon Papers confirm public suspicions about lies and cover-ups from the then-current Johnson administration and the four previous administrations, but the release led to an unprecedented event in U.S. history: the Watergate scandal.

This lesson is intended to be more factual than subjective. In order for the discussion during Lesson 2 to be productive, students must first have a clear understanding of the events that took place.

Discuss with the class the following questions on each given topic.

Vietnam War

1. Which events pertinent to the Vietnam War were kept from the media? (These include the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos and North Vietnam raids.) What was the public led to believe was happening?

2. When did U.S. involvement in Vietnam begin? Which presidents were involved in the Vietnam War strategy? How were they involved? In what ways did they deceive the public?

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

1. What were the Pentagon Papers? Who commissioned them? Why?
Explain that in June 1967, three years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, disturbed at how poorly the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was going, commissioned a comprehensive study of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam from 1945 to the present. Thirty-six men, including Daniel Ellsberg, worked on the project.

2. Who was Daniel Ellsberg? What was his area of expertise? Who employed him? How did he become privy to knowledge about the Vietnam War? How did he learn about the Pentagon Papers?

3. What was Ellsberg's goal in trying to make the McNamara study (which later became known as the Pentagon Papers) public? To whom did Daniel Ellsberg first try to give the papers? What was the reaction?

4. Why were The New York Times and The Washington Post apprehensive about publishing the papers? Was there a real legal threat to the press, or was the press concerned about the power of the White House and the Nixon administration? Why did the newspapers decide to go ahead and publish, in spite of their concerns?

5. What were some of the major revelations of the Pentagon Papers?
Compare the facts revealed in the Pentagon Papers to presidential rhetoric during the Vietnam War. Students can reference the Pentagon Papers in books or online (scroll to the bottom of the page for the table of contents).

Presidential speeches to consider include:


1. How did the Nixon administration handle the release of the Pentagon Papers? Why did it pursue both legal and extra-legal actions against Daniel Ellsberg? What were those actions and what were the consequences of each?

2. How did Nixon administration actions against Ellsberg ultimately lead to the Watergate scandal? What was uncovered during the trial of Ellsberg and Anthony Russo that was potentially more damaging to President Nixon than the Watergate Hotel break-in, and what made it more damaging?


Read excerpts from Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg
Suggested chapters: 1; 20; 23-28; 30-31

Read "In Defense of Secrecy" by Noah Feldman.

Read the first colume of The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition.

Read articles on Daniel Ellsberg's website.

Read "Seeking New Ways to Nurture the Capacity to Report" by Charles Lewis.

This last article can serve as a starting point for discussion during the following lesson. Charles Lewis notes the lack of investigative journalism during the time leading up to the Iraq War. He asks a difficult and ultimately unanswerable question: "Could such a controversial war of choice have been prevented if the public had been better informed about the specious official statements . . . and governmental decision-making processes?"

Lesson 2: Ethical Considerations
After students have a grasp of the events, a more subjective dialogue can begin. Ideally, this should be a discussion that forces students to articulate why freedom of speech exists and why, or if, it is a right that ultimately benefits the public and the government.

To start, review the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


According to the First Amendment, the people and the press are guaranteed the right to free speech, including the right to "petition the Government." The founding fathers provided these rights, but are there situations in which government secrecy is necessary and better for the public?

Explore Daniel Ellsberg's reasoning for revealing the Pentagon Papers. By releasing the Pentagon Papers, did Ellsberg put the nation, or the world, at risk? Why or why not?

The New York Times Magazine article by Noah Feldman suggests that some level of secrecy is necessary in government. To what extent should the government be allowed to have such secrecy? Discuss where and how the line between national security concerns and the public's right to know should be drawn.

If time permits Report on President Barack Obama's record on government transparency. The current administration has stated that they are committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. Ask the class to read President Obama's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government as well as the Executive Order on Ethics. You can find links to both documents on the White House Blog: Ethics, as well as an overview of the administration's progress to date. Then, ask the class to review the data in the document "Secrecy Report Card 2010," (PDF) which evaluates the last three months of the Bush administration and the first nine months of the Obama administration. How does the report card compare to the two documents President Obama signed?


Have students refer to POV's Whistleblower Timeline and choose a present-day whistleblower to study (2000 to the present). Alternately, each can select a whistleblower of his or her choice. Students should prepare 3 to 5 minute presentations for the following class.

Presentation information should include information about who the person is (profession), what type of information he or she leaked, how he or she went about leaking it, who published the information, how the information helped or hurt the public and what, if any, consequences the whistleblower faced.

Read "Purveyors of Truth About the Powers That Be" (PDF) by Charles Lewis.
On the 100-year anniversary of the Society of Professional Journalists, Lewis discusses high points in journalism history (such as the release of the Pentagon Papers and coverage of Watergate), as well as the fact that there must be committed investigative journalists, now and in the future, in order for true democracy to be maintained.

Read the first four chapters of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen and the New York Times article about his subpoena, "U.S. Subpoenas Times Reporter Over Book on CIA."

Lesson 3: Present and Future
The first half of the class will be used to hear presentations. This should give the class an overall sense of other whistleblowers and the kind of in-depth journalism practiced around their stories. It should also give students a sense of the ultimate impact these stories have had on the American public, or in some cases a global audience, for better or worse.

The remainder of class time should be used to discuss the future of journalism as it pertains to freedom of the press and petitioning the government:

Ask the class the following questions:

1. Has government transparency increased or decreased since the time when the Pentagon Papers were released?

2. Are journalists and publishers today more or less likely to risk potential jail time or financial ruin for doing the right thing? Are there less severe consequences that journalists and publishers might face? (These might include ruined professional relationships with politicians and corporations, less financial support and so on.)

3. In the information age, it often seems as though we are inundated with scandals and rumors involving politicians. At the same time, less in-depth journalism is being conducted. Discuss the reasons for this. (For example, publications do not provide adequate time and funding for true investigation and research.)


Discuss the chapters of James Risen's book. Discuss how the Bush and Obama administrations have viewed and handled leaks. What measures are being taken to prevent future leaks? Do these measures violate the First Amendment?

In light of its timeliness and relevance, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange himself could be discussed beyond student presentations. Students should be prepared to articulate their stances on Julian Assange's actions (if they feel strongly one way or the other). Refer students to the following sources to help them gain a deeper understanding and perspective: "The Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks 'Afghan War Diary'" on the POV website; "Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets" by Bill Keller



  • Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking, 2002.
  • Ellsberg, Daniel. Papers on the War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
  • Lewis, Charles. Purveyors of Truth About The Powers That Be. Society of Professional Journalists centennial anniversary book essay, 2009.
  • Risen, James. State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. New York: Free Press, 2006.


Charles Lewis is a tenured professor and the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C. He is the founder of the award-winning Center for Public Integrity including its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as well as other nonprofit organizations. A former producer for ABC News and CBS News 60 Minutes, Lewis is the principal co-author of five Center books, including national bestseller The Buying of the President 2004. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998.

Jennifer Collins is a graduate student in the Film and Media program at American University in Washington, D.C. As a student in the School of Communication, she is able to purse her interests in both documentary-style storytelling and in-depth journalism. Through her education and work experience she has been involved in a number of projects, serving in roles ranging from filmmaker and photographer, to researcher and writer.