Teach a little, learn a loT
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.
I wish journalism was a required core subject. I wish we could help every high school student dive into the process and joy of determining what is newsworthy, learning what constitutes good reporting versus repeating rumors, developing the confidence to interview adults and peers and ask hard questions, considering the foundational pillars of ethical journalism, writing and editing and editing and editing and proofreading until an article is truly clear, and learning all the other skills and ways of thinking that happen naturally when a student is actively engaged in news-production.
Since every student at the school can't be on staff, however, how can we get the rest of the school engaged in news? I've been thinking about this in the wake of the Seattle JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention, inspiring as always. Being surrounded by engaged, excited young journalists makes me want to clone their experience and instill it in all students.
In a 2002 article for Poynter, Bob Steele explores definitions and ethics of "civic journalism," journalism that serves the public by revealing issues and offering solutions alongside problems. His essay primarily explores how journalists can walk the line between being impartial observers and experts who can empower the public to solve problems.
"Therein lies a major question about the role of the public journalist," Steele writes. "Is she merely a conscientious citizen, or is there something in the role of the journalist that distinguishes her from other citizens? Is the newspaper merely a recorder and reporter of events or is it a catalyst to change?"
The concept of civic journalism has many critics — important concerns about journalists becoming activists — but at the heart of this philosophy is the power of journalism that thinks first about what the public needs and wants — and how to make them want what they need. For Generation Z, socially conscious and technologically deft, this kind of civic journalism may be the key to engagement outside of journalism classrooms.
In Chapter 8 of Elements of Journalism, Rosenstiel and Kovach discuss journalism as "a map for citizens to navigate society." If a cartographer leaves off an important country, the public is going to get lost. This, too, is a kind of civic journalism. When selecting and writing stories, journalists must be comprehensive in their coverage and cover events proportionally. Relevance creates engagement.
I can't convince every student to take journalism, but I can work with my student journalists to make sure they are always thinking about what their public needs and wants and help them to get their peers engaged in important conversations.
I've also thought about how we can better talk about what it means to experience the world from a journalistic mindset. My students tell me that they see the world and hear professional news very differently because of their experiences working on the paper, and I want them to think about how they can bring that experience to their peers. Next year, we plan to set up a "Meet the Press" panel to talk about topics like journalistic ethics and social role. Their peers know we have a paper, but do they know what goes into it? Perhaps drawing back the curtain will help them to see why it matters so much.
Additionally, I've been thinking about citizen journalism, which journalist Tony Rogers puts into two categories: independent (done completely autonomously) and semi-independent (contributing to existing professional news sites). We've always been wary of inviting students at the school to write for the paper without proper training. With some basic guidance and oversight from student editors, though, I think this is another key to bringing more students into the fold and getting them excited to read and share the paper.
For those of you who advise student journalism, what have your staffs done to get their peers engaged in news that matters? How can we get everyone else to care? I'd love to continue this conversation.
I woke up this morning to multiple social media notifications from friends tagging me to make sure I saw this story in the Washington Post. The article details how a group of six student reporters for the Booster Redux at Pittsburg High School in southeastern Kansas started researching their new principal and uncovered some major discrepancies in her educational record, which eventually led to her resignation.
You can (and should!) read the story for specific details about what they uncovered, but for me the story reaffirmed how crucial it is for students to be empowered to be investigators and watchdogs, not just public relations tools.
We know how crucial it is for students to learn to be critical thinkers. In a 2014 article about "agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance," reporter Michael Hiltzik interviewed Robert Proctor, a Stanford professor and leading expert in this area. Proctor described how ignorance can be profitable, such as with the tobacco industry's "goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease," according to the article "In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, 'Doubt is our product.' Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a 'controversy.'"
This erosion of trust in science, combined with ongoing political spin to sell ideologies on both sides, means critical thinking is especially important for students to learn today. As I argued in an earlier post, an understanding of truthfulness is not partisan; it is foundational to a healthy democracy.
So how do we help students be great investigative reporters?
"I think there's too much emphasis on speed and feeding the impatience people have," Bob Woodward, most famous for nation-changing exposure of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, said in an 2011 appearance at Poynter. "In many ways, journalism is not often enough up to the task of dealing with the dangerous and fragile nature of the world, or the community, or anything you might try to understand."
Time and teamwork are the keys, I believe, to this deeper level of great journalism. Some stories have to be written, edited and published quickly. That's a reality. But deeper stories, stories that dig into what is important, need more. These student journalists worked as a team over the course of several weeks to uncover and verify the truth – and adults were part of that team. Their adviser recused herself because she had been on the hiring committee for the principal, according to Schmidt's article, so students reached out to journalism professionals. The account of their process by journalism professor Jonathan Peters provides insight into his partnership with the students. His account reveals more details about how the students took the time to dig into the research, verify their information, seek guidance and publish ethically.
They also live in Kansas, a New Voices state where high school journalists are protected from administrative censorship, and the article notes that their superintendent, Destry Brown, was supportive throughout the process, though he stood behind the principal until her missing credentials were fully revealed and she resigned.
As I head to the spring National High School Journalism Convention this weekend in Seattle, I'm thinking about how I can build more opportunities for time and teamwork into my own students' reporting. It's so easy to get caught up in the speed and quantity game, especially for those of us advising online-only publications, but Woodward is right: our world can be fragile and dangerous. Slowing down and asking for help along the way is how we get real answers.
Correction: I updated this post on April 7, 2017, to add a link to the CJR article by Jonathan Peters and to remove my initial suggestion that the superintendent deserves an administrative JEA award, given that Peters' account of his work with the students indicates that Brown's support was more a result of the state law than explicit support for student journalism.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream