The Potter Box


Module 10 – 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.

The lecturer asks the students to apply the Potter Box method to selected case studies found on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists. The case studies available on the SPJ website address a range of issues, as reflected by their titles:

  • Using the 'Holocaust' Metaphor
  • Aaargh! Pirates! (and the Press)
  • Reigning on the Parade
  • Controversy over a Concert
  • Deep Throat, and His Motive
  • When Sources Won't Talk
  • A Suspect "Confession"
  • Who's the "Predator"?
  • The Media's Foul Ball
  • Publishing Drunk Drivers' Photos
  • Naming Victims of Sex Crimes
  • A Self-Serving Leak
  • The Times and Jayson Blair
  • Cooperating with the Government
  • Offensive Images
  • The Sting
  • A Media-Savvy Killer
  • A Congressman's Past
  • Crafting a Policy

After selecting the case study, the lecturer asks the students to create their Potter Box, working individually and writing down their thoughts. The lecturer then asks the students to share their analysis with the class and reflect on the following questions:

  • Which values, principles, and loyalties are in direct opposition? Use a "vs." indicator in between these such as "truth vs. innocence" or "safety vs. accountability".
  • Can you use the Potter Box to push yourself to new thinking beyond the obvious answers? After you first listed "oppositions", can you next list more such conflicting values, principles, and loyalties which will help you better understand and solve the case?
  • What are the likely limitations to the Potter Box? What possible flaws in logic or problem solving could arise when depending only upon this Box?
  • Do you think your use of the Box is producing a better answer than your own intuitive thinking? What is the net value of the Box and of your current solution to the problem?

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.

The Potter Box method is well introduced, illustrated, and explained in the opening chapter of the book Media Ethics: Cases in Moral Reasoning cited in the Advanced reading section below. If you do not have access to the book, you can learn about the Potter Box method by watching this video as well as reading this article and this blog post. If you are unfamiliar with the Potter Box it would be helpful for you not only to read about it, but also to take one or two case studies of your choosing and apply the Potter Box reasoning yourself. Relevant case studies can be found in a textbook or on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Students in a classroom setting do not have time to fully develop the thinking behind each block of the Potter Box. Nonetheless, the exercise will train the student to ask important questions such as: Who else would be impacted? What precedent might I set? What personal, employment and social interest will my decision impact? How much will I hurt and assist innocent third parties? Overall, the student must learn to ask key questions and use systematic analysis, not just make snap judgments without a moral rationale.

Last modified: Tuesday, 3 December 2019, 9:49 AM