Teach a little, learn a loT
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.
Social media has had such a profound effect on journalism that it's sometimes hard to remember how traditional news functioned before it. Reading this 2009 MediaShift article is a powerful reminder that Twitter wasn't always the source of breaking news. In fact, as author Julie Posetti wrote just eight years ago, "Some employers are either so afraid of the platform or so disdainful about its journalistic potential that they've tried to bar their reporters from even accessing Twitter in the workplace."
Not accessing Twitter in the newsroom? It's laughable now. Yet for some high school newsrooms, this is still the case. Overzealous school policies banning the use of various forms of social media and cell phones at school cripple student journalists who need to learn these tools in order to survive and thrive in our new media world.
However, setting students loose with social media journalism without strong guidelines is just as problematic. Just as professional news producers such as NPR have developed thorough social media policies, advisers should work with their student edition board to develop a robust social media policy for their own publications.
A place to start when tackling this task is to look to professional models like NPR's. This recap of a 2014 panel about the ethics of social media news is another good resource. For scholastic guidance, check out JEA's SPRC’s foundation materials or this 2012 Social Media Toolbox masters project — though a bit dated, it still contains some great lessons and ideas. For help convincing administration of the value of social media in the newsroom, Quill & Scroll's Principal's Guide to Scholastic Journalism has a strong rationale and additional resources.
As you develop your guidelines, however, it's important to consider both sides of social media journalism: not only how to use it as a tool to share information or report a breaking story, but also how to use it as a reporter seeking information — the importance of verification so not to spread misinformation. For this second part of the equation, the Columbia Journalism Review's "Best Practices for Social Media Verification" and the Online News Association's Social Newsgathering Ethics Code are good places to start.
Our student journalists deserve to use the same tools as the professionals, but they also need the same caliber of ethics and responsible practices to guide them. These guidelines must be specific, yet flexible, as social media platforms are constantly evolving. With guidance for how to post to social media as a journalist and how to use it as a reporting tool, students will be uniquely poised to take new media journalism to places we can't yet even imagine.
One of the most important roles of a free press in a journalistic society is to act as a watchdog, to keep an eye on those in power and to ensure that power is not being misused. Although this role is more prominent among professionals, student journalists willing to put in the necessary time and research can be powerful watchdogs for their communities.
In his Poynter article "Watchdog Culture: Why You Need it, How You Can Build it," Butch Ward describes a 2005 conference for media professionals and public service journalism organizations about the importance of creating a watchdog culture in newsrooms.
"From the outset," Ward writes, "the group emphasized that newspapers must pursue watchdog journalism in order to carry out their responsibility for public service. There also was broad consensus that the pressure on newsrooms to achieve the highest standards of accuracy and fairness has never been higher."
Journalists in 2005 were faced with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and concerns about the Bush administration. It's understandable why major news producers would have felt the need for a focus on watchdog journalism at that time. Journalists in 2017 are facing a very different set of concerns, but the need for a free press to hold the powerful accountable remains critical. This goes beyond overseeing politicians and the White House. "Watchdog journalism is at the heart of a newspaper's commitment to public service," Ward writes. Take a look at the Associated Press Media Editors dynamic list of watchdog reporting, and you'll see stories ranging from disproportionally high rates of punishment for students of color in Illinois to the effects of food waste in Arizona.
This type of reporting is difficult even for professionals, but for students, it can feel impossible. Being a watchdog means doing extensive research and reporting over a long period of time — meticulous fact-checking and verifying every piece of information — and students don't have as much time or as many resources as professional journalists. They also may fear censorship from school officials if they bring unsavory information to light. Although most students are legally protected from this kind of censorship, there can be a wide gap between legal rights and school practices.
Despite these obstacles, however, student journalists can and should take on the role of watchdogs in their school communities. As reported in Teen Vogue, a growing watchdog in its own right, "The Townsend Harris High School's student newspaper, The Classic, has been actively covering the controversy surrounding the school's interim principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, and has broken a series of stories exposing the principal's alleged inappropriate conduct at closed-door meetings, mistreatment of LGBT students while a math teacher at Stuyvesant High School, and workday 'furniture shopping' for her office, even though she hasn't yet been hired as the permanent principal."
These student journalists, with guidance from adviser Brian Sweeney, have made a tangible difference in their community, and their stories have been picked up by national newspapers such as the New York Post and the New York Daily News. How have they done this? Time, hard work and fact-checking. They've weathered accusations of "fake news" by carefully verifying and researching every fact.
Reading reporter Kate Dwyer's account of their process shows how professional the amateurs can be.
“These girls are sitting on so many stories that they could be writing, but refuse to publish because they can’t confirm them," Sweeney says. "They have documents and pages of interviews and they will only publish what they can verify." The story on the visually impaired Bronx Science student was uncovered by thorough reporting by Sumaita and Mehrose, who looked for non-THHS names on a petition to have Jahoda removed from their school. They figured the people who signed it and didn't have children attending THHS had a reason for doing so. Over their December break, the girls spent every day tracking down potential sources, and found the student's mother on Facebook. Once they had the story, they spent three weeks confirming it and later sent it to the head of the High School News Consortium, she gave them feedback.
Granted, most schools are not facing major corruption scandals that warrant national coverage of student reporting. But that doesn't mean the watchdog role is irrelevant — far from it.
Students have unique insight into problems at schools that may go unnoticed by even the most well-intentioned teachers and administrators. They are the ones most likely to see when a policy or practice isn't working or hear about hidden problems like a culture of hazing within a sports program or drugs coming onto campus.
The role of a watchdog student journalist is to seek out these problems, investigate them meticulously, verify facts completely and then bring them into the light where adults with power in the community can do something about them.
When reporting with integrity and tenacity, these student journalists have the power to fulfill Ward's call to the professionals in 2005: to hold "the powerful accountable to the rest of us...serving the public interest in ways that truly interest the public."
"Are some of the newsroom's most prized values contributing to journalism's continuing decline in credibility?” Tim Porter poses this question in his 2005 essay “New values for a new age of journalism.” He outlines “old” values (including competition, speed and individualism) and argues these concepts must be replaced with new values (such as context, discipline and collaboration) more reflective of the information age.
Written before the advent of the iPhone and social media, Porter’s essay now seems oddly prescient. It was hard to get the “scoop” on breaking news in 2005, but it’s nearly impossible in 2017 when anyone can Snap, Tweet or FacebookLive an event as it happens.
As I discussed in my previous post, what brings value to good journalism — whether professional or scholastic — is context, depth and verification. This also provides a starting point for a discussion of “fake news.” The term gained prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign to describe the completely untrue stories that circulated on social media platforms and that some claimed greatly affected the outcome of the election (though a study conducted by researchers at Stanford and NYU suggests that this was not the case).
However, in the wake of Trump’s election and his avowed war with the media, this term has, Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers wrote on Feb. 9, “lost all meaning.” In this opinion piece, Borchers asserts that "conservatives — led by President Trump — have hijacked the term and sought to redefine it as, basically, any reporting they don't like. At the extreme end of absurdity, Trump actually asserted on Monday that 'any negative polls are fake news.’”
So should we stop even trying to talk about fake news with our students? No. But we do need to talk about it with more nuance.
In a recent essay for First Draft News, Claire Wardle writes, "By now we’ve all agreed the term 'fake news' is unhelpful, but without an alternative, we’re left awkwardly using air quotes whenever we utter the phrase. The reason we’re struggling with a replacement is because this is about more than news, it’s about the entire information ecosystem. And the term fake doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of the different types of misinformation (the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation (the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false)."
We must consider "the different types of content being created or shared, the motivations of those who created it and the ways that content is being disseminated,” she writes, in order to "understand the current information ecosystem”:
Claire Wardle’s infographic describes seven types of mis- and disinformation she sees in our current information ecosystem. According to the website, Wardle is leading strategy and research for First Draft News and is the former research director at the @TowCenter at Columbia J-School. To read her original article, go to http://tinyurl.com/gllx5m2
Her essay is complex and worth a careful read, so I’m not going to try to summarize it all here, but it left me thinking about how her analysis connects to Porter’s essay about journalism needing new values.
Let me be clear — I am in no way equating mistakes made by reputable journalists and then corrected as the kind of disinformation spread through fabricated articles. However, I do think that those older journalistic values of competition and individualism contribute to accidental misinformation that can have real world consequences.
Just think about how the desire to break the story first has contributed to reputable news outlets identifying terrorism suspects who turned out to be innocent, such as Richard Jewell, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Mark Hughes or Ryan Lanza.
Everyone makes mistakes, even journalists who work so hard to tell the truth. Student journalists are bound to make many, and that is all right. We learn the most when we make mistakes. But steering our students towards Porter's new values may help them to avoid the temptation to publish before verifying or to go it alone in order to be the first to print rather than seeking feedback that might prevent them from making a mistake.
Credibility is the most precious currency for journalists, especially in our current political climate. Porter’s essay was written 12 years ago, but it has never been more relevant than it is right now.
Are yearbooks “fake news”? Navigating sensitive issues and differing expectations for yearbook coverage
What is the purpose of a yearbook? Should it be a scrapbook of memories highlighting only the good times from the year, or should it reflect the full year’s story, including the rougher bits?
As a newspaper adviser, the answer seems simple: we tell the whole story, even when it’s not pretty. Only reporting on the positive isn’t journalism — it's PR. And as I argued in my previous post, our students need to learn the habits and purpose of authentic journalism in their schools if we want them to understand the role of the professional press as a watchdog over the powerful after they graduate.
True, a yearbook is not the same as a school paper. Many stories that work beautifully in the newspaper will not fit as well in a yearbook, But yearbooks are journalism, and yearbook staffers are journalists. If we treat our books as scrapbooks or collages, we miss an opportunity.
Sally Renaud, writing for the publisher Walsworth, hates hearing, "Our school doesn’t have journalism. I just advise the yearbook.” She writes, "The fundamentals of journalism involve telling the story of communities, and no one does this better than the school yearbook.”
Staffers need to understand basic news values — timeliness, proximity, prominence, impact and novelty — in order to determine what deserves a spread and what does not. They also need a solid foundation in journalistic skills: reporting, interviewing, writing, editing, graphic design and photojournalism, to name a few. Add to that a solid dose of journalistic ethics, and we have the recipe for a yearbook that tells the truth in a responsible and unique way.
Aaron Manfull argues that a yearbook’s role in a larger school media program should be to serve as a recapper for the year — as the “historical record of the school,” yearbooks should take a broader view. "While there is definitely a place in the book for profiles and features,” he writes, "event recap coverage in the yearbook can take a little extra time and include a little more perspective of how the event played into the year as a whole."
With that in mind, how should yearbooks recap sensitive topics? If we only include the positive — obfuscating the fact that the soccer team didn’t win a single game, for example — are we creating books that are, in essence, “fake news”? John Bowen, director of scholastic press rights for JEA and my current professor at Kent State University, posed this question to me recently, and it stopped me cold. I know that we should never lie in journalism, yet I am acutely aware of the pressure most independent school advisers feel to create a book that looks good on an admissions waiting area coffee table, a book that highlights everything positive about the school rather than focusing on the negative.
Is there a middle ground?
Walsworth’s protocol for covering sensitive issues offers some good suggestions, but it is also problematic. Should the students consider the relevance of the topic and whether it could potentially harm or endanger others? Absolutely. Should they be thoughtful and proactive in determining their approach? Definitely. But should they only publish what the community “accepts” and only tell the story if they can make it “hopeful”? Yikes.
This advice makes me think of Ross Szabo’s book Behind Happy Faces, which examines the complexity of mental health in teenagers. "It’s far too common for people to hide their true feelings, go through the motions and put on a happy face to make others think everything is OK,” he writes, but "emotions can only be hidden for so long before they come out in negative ways.... It’s time to stop hiding behind a happy face and start talking about these issues.”
Teenagers, and especially teenaged girls, are pressured to smile, be happy, buck up, little camper. I can’t help but feel that a yearbook that only highlights the positive reinforces this unhealthy message.
I think the way to address the tough stuff in a yearbook is to reframe the outcome. Walsworth suggests the students “look to tell a story with a hopeful angle. How can this story be told so that it makes the student body and school community feel good about themselves, despite the negative or tragic issue?” [emphasis mine] What if instead of forcing “hope” into a story that may not have much, we instead look at solutions journalism? Let’s rework that advice: “Look to tell a story with an informative angle. How can this story be told so that it makes the student body and school community see potential solutions, despite the negative or tragic issue?"
When they crack the spine open for the first time on distribution day, I want the yearbook to make our student body feel good — to smile and enjoy happy memories — but I don’t want them to be reading another form of fake news. We shouldn’t make the whole book a Debbie Downer, but it has to be all right to acknowledge the year had some bumps. I hope this is how we find a middle ground that honors both purposes of a yearbook: as a source for happy memories and an accurate historical record.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream