The Grinder and the Potter Box

I was listening to the Media Report with Richard Aedy on ABC Radio National on Thursday night. One conversation that struck me as very relevant to education was an interview with Denis Muller of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Discussed was the impact of digital technologies on media, including new and old ethical dilemmas that they raise.

The two discussed the protection of sources, ethical linking to external sites and the ‘propaganda problem’ that goes beyond what we would consider traditional propaganda. Organisations, corporations and government departments now set up so-called ‘news rooms’ that prepackage ‘news’ that is hard to resist for time-strapped journalists. I think our students have to navigate much of this same data that is proliferated further by the traditional media.

We teachers need to help our students wrestle with the very same problems that moral journalists must face every day. Impartiality, honesty, bias, propaganda, critical thinking. Students and journalists alike are asked to consider the actions of people and groups but it’s often difficult not to take sides with the agents that you are most familiar with. It can be difficult to get to the reasons for another’s actions.

The real gem in the discussion came when Denis raised a wonderful tool called the Potter Box. The four quadrants of the Potter Box have been expanded to five by Denis Muller for journalistic (and I’d say for educational) purposes, including the question of ‘interests’; whose interests are involved here and what are they?

The Potter Box is a practical tool for considering ethical dilemmas, and in Muller’s version the questions asked are these:


What are the facts? Can they be defined without biased ideas or language?


State and compare the different values of those involved in decision making.


Here, a rudimentary understanding of philosophical views is important, including more modern feminist and care-based philosophies.


These are the interests of the people involved. This is a good one for advancing our thoughts well beyond a good and evil view of situations.


How do people prioritise their allegiances? For instance, loyalties to an organisation, group, corporation or ‘the public’ will often sway decisions regardless of the other categories.

For Education

I don’t think you could properly consider these five categories without forcing yourself to step into the shoes of each agent in any given situation.

I hadn’t heard of the Potter Box before this discussion. Interestingly, neither had Richard Aedy who is an experienced and perceptive journalist. I feel if this tool were used in classrooms, we would help our students better understand many concepts in media, literacy, history and social studies. If it were used more by journalists and even decision-makers, it’d be evolutionary for society. Denis Muller calls his new version of the Potter Box “The Grinder”, which I think is a great name for a tool that systematically requires you to consider each agent in any given scenario.

If you blog, perhaps you’d consider using the Grinder to help you get a better picture of an issue before writing on it? If you teach, I encourage you to try it out. It would be great to see the Grinder supported with questions suitable for different developmental levels of students.

The full episode of Media Watch is titled Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age. The discussion begins about 6 minutes into the program.

About The Author

Primary Technologies Teacher

Rob McTaggart teaches Technologies from K-6 in Newcastle, Australia. He is co-founder of the Digital Sparks regional student technology design challenge & expo. Rob is a Google for Education Certified Innovator who loves to help students to engage and create with the world using technology. He developed the RAPID Design framework to support students and teachers in these aims. Rob is a moderator for #aussieED and plays a logistics role for the team, managing the website and various channels. He is an ambassador and teacher trainer for Code Club Australia and runs a local Code Club for his students. His main gig is teaching 550 amazing kids every week which makes him a very lucky teacher!

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