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.
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.
Journalism isn't sexy anymore. That's the concern I hear from many when contemplating the future of this crucial profession. Veteran reporter and editor Bob Collins wrote about this problem in a 2012 News Cut piece for Minnesota Public Radio.
Collins remembered a time when aspiring young journalists flooded NPR World Headquarters, eager to explore a career in news, and he contrasted this to reporter Trisha Marczak's experience going to a high school career fair and finding not a single student interested in her work.
"I at least expected to meet one eager, young student with their eyes set on changing the world through their pen (that’s how I felt at that age)," Marczak writes. "Don’t these students watch movies? You have to admit; reporters are a movie character favorite. They may not always be small town editors, but you get the idea. Throughout the day, when explaining to students what I do, exactly, I also began to ask whether any of their schools had student-run newspapers. Not one."
And this, I believe, is the problem. How do students get interested in careers? Exposure. When I started the journalism program at my school. it had been years since we'd had more than a club, and I had a hard time drumming up interest for a class. That first year, 18 students were enrolled in my intro to journalism class, and almost none of them had signed up for it. It was a fluke of the schedule that I got as many as I did, and they were not particularly excited to be there.
Now, almost five years later, I have more students interested than can take the class, and that has little to do with me. What makes a teenager use all caps and three exclamation marks about an interview with the mayor (or "NOT NECESSARILY THE MAYOR PROBABLY SOMEONE FROM HIS OFFICE BUT STILL") about local election voter turnout, a topic more likely to induce snores than enthusiasm? Engagement.
If we want young people to understand the importance of journalism, news literacy is a critical part of the equation. If we want them to get really excited about journalism, though, we need to let them experience it. Only then will the professionals see more eager young journalists flooding their halls and dreaming of changing the world through their pens.
My student newspaper staff has a dilemma: how can they get their peers to read the paper when so much of the information in our articles is already known?
They are coming up against a problem professional journalists have been struggling with for years. In the old days (I won’t call them good, as I think that’s always relative), news producers — whether newspaper, radio or broadcast — were the source of information. News consumers found out about terrorists attack and new government policies when they opened the morning paper or turned on the evening news. With the advent of the Internet and social media, however, those gatekeepers lost control. Now people have more information than they know what to do with. This flood of data creates a number of problems — especially in terms of helping people separate fact from fiction — but I want to focus today on the issue it creates in terms of engagement.
If news consumers have the facts about an event — or at least think they do — why should they care when the paper publishes a story about it? We hope they care because they trust traditional news sources to have a vetting process for their stories; unlike Tweets at 2 a.m., these stories have been fact-checked and include a variety of primary and expert sources to ensure truthfulness in a holistic sense. News literate consumers know the value of good journalism, we hope, and will therefore seek it out.
But beyond getting the facts right, good journalism has a larger responsibility to serve as sense-maker. "When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what’s happening — whether that’s the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots,” Ken Doctor writes. "No, they don’t want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole."
This is what sets major news sources such as the New York Times apart from local news sources, Doctor argues. "It’s authority,” he writes. "You read the Times to understand. Sometimes it does a better job of that than others, but its great success in reader revenue shows us its audience gets that part of the value equation. Yes, readers can get the facts of the Gaza War free in so many places, but they can’t get a volume of rich, contextual stories from both sides of the conflict elsewhere every day."
In his essay "Journalism’s Moral Responsibility: Three Questions,” Bill Mitchell argues that journalism has a moral obligation to cover important stories and help readers understand their importance. He poses three crucial questions:
The key, he argues, is to make important news salient. "In moral journalism, salient is more than important, interesting, or relevant. It's more than selling a story that no one would otherwise read, or dumping it on an ignorant world with the righteous justification that it ought to be read. For journalists, Salient is a moral term, not a marketing one,” he writes. "Our moral responsibility is to cover significant threats to well-being, substantively, in such a way that our coverage leaps out, protrudes, and is strikingly and conspicuously prominent. So that it sears the conscience of our fellow citizens."
He points to Laurel Leff’s research on the Times’ coverage of the Holocaust during 1939-1945. Leff found that the Times did cover the Holocaust, but that coverage tended to be on inside pages and was missing in editorial commentary and summaries of important news. In her report, Leff writes, “Despite the detailed, credible information that was available, the American public actually did not know about the Holocaust while it was happening because mainstream American newspapers never presented the story of the extermination of the Jews in a way that highlighted its importance.” In other words, Mitchell concludes, "the Times had the story. It just didn't make it salient."
Mitchell’s essay is aimed at national and global news sources and news events on a much larger scale than those typical at a high school, clearly, but I believe this raises important questions for the moral responsibilities of scholastic journalists. If they want their reporting to matter — if they want their peers to read more than the humor columns or restaurant reviews — they must make their reporting on important topics salient to their peers.
Here is my suggestion for reworking Mitchell’s three questions for a scholastic journalism staff:
Although these questions are not a complete solution, they are a starting point for creating greater engagement without abandoning the most important stories.
Pop quiz: can you name the five freedoms of the First Amendment? According to the Newseum’s 2016 State of the First Amendment Survey, 39 percent of Americans can’t name a single one.
I couldn’t name more than a few when I left high school, but my current high school student journalists know all five. (For the record: speech, religion, petition, assembly and press.)
Knowing these rights is especially important for high school students on the cusp of adulthood, ready to leave the school bubble and embark on lives as citizens.
How can we inculcate a love of citizenship in teenagers who are already cynical about the mess left behind by adults? I believe a place to start is allowing them to BE citizens within the school walls.
I’m not going to give an entire overview of the First Amendment in public schools here, but I will say it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Heading over to the Student Press Law Center’s Top 10 High School FAQ’s is a place to start, but it’s not a stopping point.
A student’s free speech rights depends not only on the First Amendment and the major Supreme Court rulings (Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, to name the two most impactful), but also on individual state laws, which may expand those rights beyond the Hazelwood standard. The first of these was the California Student Free Expression Law, enacted before the Hazelwood ruling, but many states have added statutes like this in years since. To find out whether an instance of censorship of the school press is legal, I recommend using this helpful SPLC First Amendment Rights of High School Journalists chart.
But for students in private schools — unless they attend a non-religious school in California, in which case Leonard Law offers unique protection for their speech— the First Amendment is irrelevant. Faculty and staff at independent schools are not representatives of the government, so they are not governed by the First Amendment.
And honestly, though the law is a compelling reason, it is in some ways a much less compelling reason than the pedagogical and national benefits of freeing our scholastic presses. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in the 2002 film Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and therein lies the heart of this lesson: if student journalists don’t have real power, they will not learn the real responsibilities of citizenship.
"Without journalism, democratic life dies from lack of oxygen,” Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Pointer Institute, writes. "Without democracy, journalism loses its heartbeat. Without a serious study of journalism there can be no understanding of citizenship, democracy or community."
I am fortunate to work in a school that honors student journalism and gives our student editorial board the final say in all content decisions for their publications, and I’ve seen the lasting benefits of this firsthand.
Student journalists need guidance, no doubt, but that is why it is so crucial to hire a knowledgable journalism adviser who can teach not only core journalistic skills — interviewing, reporting, research, writing and editing — but also values and ethics. My role as an adviser is not to tell students what they can and cannot write, but rather to provide context and conversation to help them to see the tremendous responsibilities they take on and opportunities they have as journalists.
If students are subject to prior review, where someone other than the staff and adviser reads their work before they are allowed to publish it, they lack a sense of ownership. Why should they worry about making sure a story is ethical or thorough if an adult is going to do it for them? But when students know that they are fully responsible — ethically and legally — for everything they publish, editorial conversations become much richer.
I see this in action all the time with my own staff. Recently, one of my students wrote a column about her personal experience at the Los Angeles Women’s March. In this piece, she referenced putting on her “pussyhat” before leaving for the Metro. As the editors and I gave her feedback, a thoughtful conversation about the term and our student audience emerged. Was the p-word too controversial to print? Would following their own staff manual guidelines and using "p----hat” diminish the historical relevance of the movement? Should they just allude to the hat (“my pink knitted hat”) rather than naming it? Did the fact we are a grades 6-12 school (though the staff is entirely upper school) matter in this conversation? Did censoring themselves in this way set a bad precedent?
This is their paper, and this was their decision. Those facts meant that this conversation had real weight. It wasn’t just a hypothetical situation — their decision would have real impact and consequences. In the end, they decided to keep the reference and follow their staff manual guidelines (“p----hat.”) but hyperlink to a source explaining the Pussyhat Project. No adult in the community needed to censor them; they reached an ethical decision on their own, and, more importantly, they will remember this conversation far longer than an adult’s lecture.
The authors of the McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for a Free and Responsible Student Media argue that “good journalism energizes school culture. It integrates every dimension of school into its function and engages the entire school community in democratic participation.”
These benefits go beyond the student participants, they say: “Its peripheral effects on the school community strengthen partnership, participation, accountability, transparency, trust and all other essential components of a democratic school system. Student news media can be a bridge that connects administrators, students and the community in ways that profoundly benefit school culture.”
Again, I have seen this in practice. My student journalists, especially the editors, have built trusting relationships with our administration. We have invited them into our classroom to see our staff at work. We have sponsored group discussions about how to cover controversial issues and explained the ethical processes editors use to make difficult decisions. We have put systems in place to ensure accuracy, yet also shared our corrections policy when, inevitably, mistakes happen.
This doesn’t mean that the adults in our community always like the students’ coverage. For example, they have published editorials critical of various policies and changes at the school, and criticism is never easy to read.
But that, too, is a crucial democratic understanding.
One of the most cherished roles of the United States' free press is as a watchdog of the powerful. In the ruling for Dean v. Utica, the judge wrote that a key role of journalism, whether professional or scholastic, is to provide independent information so citizens can reach their own conclusions.
"It is often the case that this core value of journalistic independence requires a journalist to question authority rather than side with authority,” the ruling states. "Thus, if the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists — including student journalists — must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves. Without protection, the freedoms of speech and press are meaningless and the press becomes a mere channel for official thought."
Do we want our students to learn to accept authority without question, or do we want them to learn to think critically and dig deep to find answers? If we want critical thought and decision-making as citizens, we must model this in high school.
The core values that lie behind this watchdog role are, according to journalist and professor Lou Ureneck, idealism and skepticism.
"I try to teach students to challenge authority by asking hard questions," he writes. "I want them to develop a strong sense of skepticism. In a sense, I’m trying to acculturate them into the profession of journalism. [Idealism and skepticism] may seem oppositional, but in our craft their pairing can offer us a potent way to engage the world. For young journalists, these two values inspire as well as energize them to do useful, even penetrating, work."
In the Protocol, Frank LoMonte argues that a free student press brings grievances to the surface and promotes civility: "Students seek out the uncensored venue of social networking sites to criticize school policies and personnel because schools offer no meaningful alternative forum for them to be heard. Online ‘drive-by’ grievances can and should constructively be channeled into peer-moderated student media where discussion can occur civilly but without undue restraint."
And what happens if the students mess up? What if they misreport something or fail to seek the other side or make a choice to report on something that perhaps is a bit much for a high school readership? A good adviser will raise red flags throughout and offer suggestions, but ultimately the students make a choice and must live wth the consequences. Not in terms of punishment, but in terms of having to be accountable and make amends. Mistakes are powerful. We learn the most when we fail, and we owe it to our students to let this happen.
A free student press is a powerful tool. Whether uncovering difficult truths in the community that adults may not want to hear but probably need to or reporting on the latest softball triumph, journalism students are learning how to be citizens and modeling citizenship to their peers.
And as far as I’m concerned, informed and active citizens are the only superheroes we need.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream