Teach a little, learn a loT
A version of this blog was originally published on jeasprc.org Sept. 11, 2017.
In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd attached an amendment to a federal spending bill to create a new national observance: Constitution Day. This amendment required public schools and government offices “to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution.”
“I hope that kids understand that in this country, everything that we do in everyday life is touched upon by the Constitution of the United States," he said in an interview. "It protects our liberties and it protects our freedom of speech. It protects our religion. It protects the freedom of speech so the newspapers can tell us the news every day."
As a member of the Scholastic Press Rights Committee, it is especially important to me that students explore the First Amendment on Constitution Day, a critically important conversation to have in the face of today’s political climate and the rise of hate speech.
The 2017 Newseum’s State of the First Amendment survey showed an uptick in political speech this year — petition and assembly are two of the five freedoms, and almost half of those surveyed took advantage of them this year. It also showed overall agreement that a watchdog press is crucial, yet 22.5 percent of participants supported the claim that First Amendment freedom protection goes too far.
I suspect that number would be higher were the survey to happen today in the wake of Charlottesville and similar events.
Like many educators, I am troubled by the uptick in hate speech across the country and by white supremacists’ use of the term “free speech” to label rallies that are really about hatred. But as despicable as hate speech is, the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed, it is still protected by the First Amendment. It is not among the categories of unprotected speech defined by court cases over the years.
How can we face our students of color, our Jewish students or other students from marginalized groups and tell them that supporting the First Amendment means supporting the right of groups like the KKK or Nazis to spew this kind of hatred?
The American Bar Association has a good article to start the conversation. It outlines the difference between hateful speech and hateful acts using relevant court cases, and it defines libertarian and communitarian viewpoints on the issue. It also gives an example of how this played out on one college campus.
But I think a more compelling question to ask our students is if they trust our government — and future governments — to decide what is offensive. Some European countries do, and this suggests that democratic societies can have reasonable, differing views on the matter. But others argue “the freer the speech, the stronger the democracy.”
In my experience, my more liberal students are quick to say the government should ban offensive speech, and my more conservative students believe everyone is afraid to speak because of “political correctness.”
To even begin a meaningful conversation, students first need the facts, and Constitution Day is a great time to provide them.
I recommend starting by clarifying that the First Amendment is about how the government doesn’t have a right to censor or punish speech; it has no bearing on how private citizens, companies or employers choose to react. White supremacists’ constitutional right to speak will not shield them from counter-protests, public humiliation via social media or personal consequences, such as being fired by a private employer. Similarly, social media platforms owned by private companies such as Facebook or Twitter are not public forums set up by the government, so they have the right to censor any content they deem offensive.
This leads into the second point: the danger in giving the government the power to censor is that there isn’t a common understanding of “offensive.”
In a blog post explaining why the ACLU filed a lawsuit defending provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech, James Esseks, Director of the LGBT & HIV Project, expressed the deep divide between Yiannopoulos’ hateful speech and the ACLU’s core values: “Here at the ACLU, we vehemently disagree with Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views. We work hard, every day, with the very communities he targets, to fight for equal rights and dignity for all. We recognize that his words cause grievous pain to many individuals, their families, and their loved ones.”
However, he goes on to write, “Without free speech protections, all civil rights advocacy could be shut down by the people in power, precisely because government doesn’t agree with the ideas activists advance. That was true of the civil rights fights of the past, it’s true of the movements facing pitched battles today, and it will be true of the movements of the future that are still striving to be heard.”
Many people believe speech about such issues as abortion, gender identity or sexuality are offensive, Esseks argues, and “if First Amendment protections are eroded at any level, it's not hard to imagine the government successfully pushing one or more of those arguments in court.”
This is the heart of the First Amendment — the question of whether we trust the government to regulate our speech and define what is offensive and what is not, or if we want to retain that freedom ourselves.
That said, student editorial boards are not “the government.” They can and should make ethical decisions about what to publish, and they have a right to refuse to publish hateful speech, though I would caution them to differentiate between “hate speech” and student opinions they dislike. They also have the right and the responsibility to act as ethical leaders who take informed positions in unsigned editorials.
The editorial board of the nationally award-winning Harbinger Online provides a great example of ethical leadership in response to hateful speech in their most recent editorial, “Burn the Eastonian.” The Eastonian is an underground student newspaper known for its “diabolical” and “abusive” attacks on and lies about students, teachers and administrators, and this editorial makes a compelling case to convince students to end this “most shameful tradition.”
This editorial demonstrates how punishment and censorship are seldom as powerful as more speech can be. According to the piece, this tradition has been going on for decades, despite threats of suspension, being banned from school activities or legal consequences (I assume for the libel, which is a form of unprotected speech). These deterrents didn’t end the Eastonian last year, but the Harbinger’s passionate editorial might. By naming the problem, humanizing the victims, explaining the consequences — not just to the perpetrators if they get caught, but also to those defamed and to the reputation of the school — and providing examples of prominent students in the community who have pledged to take no part in the Eastonian, the Harbinger editorial board has shown the power of more speech in the face of hate.
Schools across the nation celebrate Constitution Day today and continue the discussion through the rest of the week. I urge you to use this opportunity to bring to the surface difficult conversations about hate speech and the First Amendment.
Originally published on jeasprc.org on Aug. 7, 2017
Inevitably, my intro journalism students have one question: “When do we get to start writing?” Their impatience is understandable — they joined my class to become reporters, and they are eager to start that work — but I believe it is critically important to build a solid foundation in law and ethics before sending them out for that first assignment.
I want them to see the bigger picture — to get a sense of why journalists pursue stories and how they make difficult decisions during that process. I want them to understand their own rights and the role of a free press in a democracy. I also want them to have a sense of the laws affecting them — for example, what libel is and how to avoid it and what constitutes “invasion of privacy.”
It’s heavy stuff, so my goal is to keep them engaged during those first few weeks as we talk about journalistic ethics and break down how the First Amendment, state laws, libel laws and court cases affect them.
Here are some strategies I’ve developed that I hope will help other advisers build those crucial foundations without losing students’ interest:
• Make it concrete. Rather than just giving them a list of journalist ethics, ask them to apply those ethics to situations they could face in the year to come. For example, what does it mean to “be independent” as sports reporters? Share coverage of a professional sports team and ask why the reporter doesn’t end with “Go [sports team]!” at the end. How does that impact their own sports reporting?
• Use case studies. Give students “what if” scenarios based on real situations or scandals and let them discuss and problem-solve. Provide relevant laws or guidelines for students to use as resources. Once they’ve come up with their own approaches, reveal the real situation and explain what happened.
• Have a debate. To introduce important court cases such as Hazelwood, split the class in half and let them debate each side, giving them enough information that they can see each perspective. At the end of the debate, share the actual outcome, discuss their feelings about the case and what they learned about its impact.
• Don’t talk too much. Too often when presenting this kind of information, we slip into lecture mode while our students drift away. Don’t talk for more than 5-6 minutes straight; get your students to think about the information, turn to a neighbor to discuss it and then share takeaways with the class — or — break up longer lectures with multiple choice games like Kahoot so they can compete to check their understanding. Kahoot is also a great way to start class to review previous learning.
• Look for multimedia. You can often find short videos to explain foundational knowledge rather than talking about it yourself. The Newseum Ed site — register for a free teacher teacher account —has great video resources about topics ranging from the First Amendment to fake news.
• Co-teach. New students, especially younger ones, look up to the older editors and advanced writers. Let them co-teach these crucial foundations with you. Your newbies will listen to them much more than they listen to us. You could also bring in local adult journalists.
• Reflect. I believe this is the most important part of instruction, yet we often run out of time and skip it. Leave time at the end of every class to reflect on what students have learned and why they are learning it. Why is it important? How does it affect them as student journalists? As future members of society? Also, don’t forget to reflect on your own instruction. Ask students for feedback on how the class went and use that feedback for future instruction. If they feel like you’re all part of the same instructional team, they are a lot more likely to invest in their learning.
Whatever approach you take, this is the time to build the foundations to make your media program strong. Don’t let them skip “the boring stuff” — prove how important and exciting it can be.
As more student newspapers move to digital platforms, editors and advisers are facing a new and insidious form of post-publication censorship: takedown requests.
The requests usually go something like this: "I was a student at [fill in name] high school [fill in number] years ago, and I was interviewed/wrote a story/was in a photo/made a comment that I regret now. I don't want this showing up in Google searches. Please remove this story from your site."
This hypothetical student may not know it, but her request is part of a much larger conversation about honoring individual privacy versus preserving the historical record. In 2014, Europe's highest court ruled that individuals have a "right to be forgotten" that may supersede the right to preserve and share information via search engines like Google. This court ruling is controversial and would probably not happen in the United States; the First Amendment has strong protections for free speech and press that would likely prevent this kind of revisionism, but that doesn't stop individuals from wishing they could take back the past.
Lawyer Mike Godwin, creator of the tongue-in-cheek "Godwin's law," has "been thinking longer than just about anyone else about why people can sometimes behave awfully on the Internet," according to the Washington Post. He is skeptical that we have more "right to be forgotten" online than we do in everyday life:
There's this fantasy that these people have that they have control over what they say or do online. But if I say "I love you" to someone, I can't take it back. I have no control over what happens to it after that. Words have effect in the real world that you can't take back. That's language's eerie power.
On one level, I have sympathy for takedown requests. It's true that we do a lot of growing in our high school years, and we do things we later regret. You only have to look at the growing number of articles and warnings about your "digital footprint" to realize this is a big issue in the Information Age. Unlike an op-ed published in a printed school paper, which is difficult to track down, an op-ed in an online paper is easily searchable. But so are that person's social media posts and posts where others have tagged her. Our digital footprint isn't going away, and part of being a successful 21st century citizen is learning to manage it.
I think we also need to help our students understand that it's all right to change our minds over time. Rather than insisting we have never held any other opinion or never made a mistake, we should embrace how our ideas and perspectives shift as we get older and have more experiences. Isn't it healthier to acknowledge our past beliefs and mistakes rather than deny them? If a college admissions officer or future employer brings up an op-ed you wrote in high school, why not say, "Yes, I had a very different view back then than I do now. Let me tell you about how and why my viewpoint has changed since then"?
As sympathetic as I am to the impulse to "take it back," I can't support revisionist history. Part of the job of journalism is to provide a historical record — a true account of events and people from a point in time. Professional papers certainly won't erase past articles, whether print or digital, and scholastic publications shouldn't either except, perhaps, in extraordinary circumstances.
So how should we deal with these requests when they arise? JEA's Scholastic Press Rights Committee outlines ethical guidelines, staff manual processes and a list of suggestions and resources, one of which is this list of three takedown models for your staff manual. Using these guidelines, I worked with my editors to craft a takedown policy for our manual that errs on the side of preserving the historical record unless the potential harm to the person making the request outweighs all other factors. I am sharing it here because it is still difficult to find specific policies online, but I'm eager to find more models.
What are your thoughts?
Staff Manual Model: Takedown Requests
The Oracle is a digital news source, but it is still part of Archer’s historical record. The Oracle’s primary purpose is to publish the truth, as best we can determine it, and be an accurate record of events and issues from students’ perspectives. Writers and editors use the 11 “Put Up” steps before publication to ensure the validity, newsworthiness and ethics of each article. For these reasons, the editorial board will not take down or edit past articles except in extraordinary circumstances.
If someone requests a takedown, the board will consider the following questions and actions:
Teachers and administrators want to help our students. We want to give them the tools to succeed, but we also sometimes want to protect them — to shield them from harsh truths and difficult situations.
When I'm teaching my journalism students about the social role of the mass media and their own societal role as young journalists, I also think a lot about my role as their adviser. I argued earlier this year that if we want students to value citizenship, we must let them be citizens, but citizenship isn't easy, and it isn't "safe." Citizenship means taking an active role, speaking truth to power, and taking risks. If I want them to learn to be citizens, I must resist that urge to shield and protect and instead empower them to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the outcome.
Earlier this month, I wrote about the remarkable team of high school journalists who uncovered fraud in their incoming new principal Amy Robertson's resume, which eventually led to her resignation. These students clearly understand citizenship and their role as watchdogs after making the hard choice to write a story directly targeting an administrator.
What is inspiring me today, however, is the Wichita Eagle's article about Emily Smith, the adviser who gave her students the strength to take this risk. The article outlines how a student uncovered some discrepancies and asked Smith for help looking into them. A little research and a meeting with the superintendent led to disturbing information and raised troubling questions about the validity of Robertson's educational credentials and experience.
Smith could have protected her students. She could have withheld information or told them —accurately — that pursuing this story was going to rock the boat in a serious way and could result in an adversarial relationship with their new principal. She also could have sat down with them and told them what to do — pursue it, or let it be. Instead, Smith gave them the information and left the room, leaving them to discuss and decide if they wanted to report this story. She empowered them to make a hard choice.
She told this team of six student journalists that she would support them no matter what they decided, but she also made sure they considered their societal responsibilities.
"If you guys decide this is not your place or it's over our head, I would completely respect that," Smith said in a video interview about the conversation she had with them. "However, you need to think about your responsibility to the community and the situation you're in," she said. "It's not always easy to do the right thing, and I think what you're doing is right."
Despite skepticism from superintendent Destry Brown and a Skype interview with Robertson (rather awkwardly supervised by Brown) where students had to interrupt to ask any questions, they pursued the story. Despite being scolded by Brown for being too hard on Robertson in that interview and being told he hoped they would write "a nice piece welcoming Robertson to the community" to make up for it, they pushed on. Despite losing Smith's advice after Spring Break when she recused herself on the advice of the director of Kansas Scholastic Press Association due to a potential conflict of interest — she'd been on an early hiring committee panel — they kept going. Smith brought in local reporters to act as adult advice but stepped back from the process and didn't see the final story until it was printed. Despite how hard these professional journalists pushed the students to corroborate and fact-check and sometimes re-interview, they wrote the story and met the deadline.
This is a story about grit and trust. It's a story about teaching students to push forward despite obstacles. It's a story about teaching teenagers that they are strong enough and smart enough and trustworthy enough to be citizens. It's also a story about that terrifying moment as an adviser when you must step back and trust that you have given your students the tools and ethical foundation to be journalists.
As Smith notes in the video, had they been wrong, this would have been a very different story. They would not have been invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, nor would they be flooded with congratulatory messages from national publications or an invitation from Duke to apply to its journalism program. Smith would have been in a very awkward position with the new principal, who would likely have placed some of the blame for the students' decisions on Smith herself — however unfairly, since students have all final say on content as per Kansas' free speech laws.
But making mistakes is also part of being a citizen, and accountability is another crucial lesson about adult life. Part of being a good adviser is knowing you, too, are taking a risk, but the risk is worth it.
The Eagle's article ends with Connor Balthazor, one of the team of six students who reported the story, reflecting on the difference between Superintendent Brown's and adviser Smith's approaches to the situation:
Although they will be recognized for their perseverance, Balthazor says he will always remember how, even as Brown tried to shield them from the dangers of the adult world, Smith pushed them to take responsibility for it.
Sometimes we must persist, despite warnings and explanations and fears of repercussions. Sometimes we have to be willing to take risks alongside our kids. While we must provide them with guidance, advice and foundational skills, we must also have the courage to trust our students to be citizens.
David Bornstein co-authors the "Fixes" column in the New York Times, a column focused on solutions journalism. In his 2012 TED talk above, Bornstein explains why he has pursued solutions in his investigative journalism rather than simply focusing on the problem.
Bornstein argues that consistently negative feedback alienates journalism's desired audience. How many of us, he wonders, have stopped watching the nightly news because it feels like such an unrelenting parade of misery? He has a point. Yet quick fluff hero stories — a firefighter saving a kitten from a tree — are also not the answer. He posits that serious journalism can investigate solutions as easily as it can problems, and argues that news producers need to devote equal resources to this alternative approach.
I really like this perspective, as it charts an important middle ground between gloom and fluff, and I think journalism students would benefit from watching this video and talking about the balance of their own articles. When writing about problems at school, are they also looking at what is working and how people are brainstorming possible solutions to the problem? If drug use at parties is a problem, they should report it honestly and fully. However, a solutions journalism approach would suggest they might also look into how organizations, adults or teenagers themselves are trying to address this problem.
Critics of solutions journalism fear this approach could cross the line between journalism and advocacy, and this is a valid concern. Student reporters must still go into their investigation of problems with an open mind, and they shouldn't take a stance on the best way to solve the problem. After all, part of the issue, journalist Jonathan Stay argues, is agreeing on the problems in the first place.
"You can’t just sit down and make a list like 'unemployment, education, crime, homelessness, global warming…' and get to reporting," Stay writes. "People are going to disagree not only about priorities, but about how to best to understand a problem, and even about whether or not certain things are problems. Dealing in solutions also tends to move the journalist from informer to advocate, which is tricky territory."
But thinking about stories from this perspective — or at least considering it as a valid approach — is a good way to motivate reporters and readers alike. Consider an article one of my students wrote about the recent rise of hate crimes. Although she didn't even know about the concept of solutions journalism when she wrote this piece, the angle she took — the way Muslims and Jews are coming together to support one another — is clearly a solutions approach.
"In my initial research, all I kept seeing was negativity," she wrote in an email when asked to reflect on her angle. "There were many of articles about the increasingly terrible hate crimes, but limited stories on what people were doing about them. When the news constantly evokes feelings of hopelessness, people stop reading it. I then decided to take on an angle of positivity, one in which there was community and action instead of a list of atrocities."
"The better people feel after reading the news, the more people's trust in the media will be restored," she added, "which is imperative to the functioning of our society."
We don't want our journalists to become advocates for causes, but we do want them to tell the whole story. The solutions, the people who help, are part of that story.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream