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."
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.
One of the biggest challenges I face as a journalism adviser is convincing my students that email interviews need to be a last resort rather than their go-to.
I get it — emails are quick and easy. Write a few questions, get responses in complete sentences back. No need to transcribe or deal with awkward verbal phrasings. Seems like a no-brainer. In a 2003 Poynter article, Jonathan Dube outlined some of the benefits of email interviews, then a relatively new journalistic tool: saving time, being efficient, creating a written record, providing time for the source to think and prepare, and working with people in different time zones or who write English better than they speak it.
But he also pointed out potential pitfalls: not knowing who is replying (is this actually the superintendent, or did she just hand it off to an assistant?), not being able to follow up with more questions based on the direction of the interview, losing control of the interview transcript, missing out on body language and verbal cues that might provide more insight, and — ultimately — ending up with an interview that is unlikely to provide revealing or new information.
These last reasons are especially important for interviews where students are doing more than just “covering” (providing info the community likely already knows) — if they want to uncover information, they will be best served by face-to-face interviews. You can find out what the soccer game score was or verify the spelling of a name in an email. If you want to dig deeper, though, you need to have a conversation.
I think back to when I wrote a profile of yearbook adviser guru H.L. Hall’s contributions to the ASNE Reynolds summer journalism workshops. I could have sent Hall a list of questions, and I’m sure he would have sent me thoughtful answers back, but I wouldn’t have heard him describe the perfect winter morning or sing the first song he and his wife ever danced to (“It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards). I wouldn’t have been able to ask about why he walks every morning before the sun comes up, even on the coldest Missouri winter mornings, or how these early-morning walks contribute to his boundless energy in adviser workshops. I wouldn’t have the sense of him as a person that I did by the end of that hour. These kinds of conversations bring life and vitality to profiles.
Face-to-face interviews are also invaluable in situations when student journalists are conducting investigations. Gordana Igric’s 2010 "Tips for successful investigative journalism” outlines many suggestions, including the vital importance of conducting thoughtful, thorough research before talking with a source, but she’s very clear about interview formats: "Interviews in person are always preferable. If that's not possible, then speaking by phone is also fine but never — unless there is no other option — interview by email. If you do, make clear in the copy that any quotes you use were obtained by email."
This tip is especially important when interviewing sources who might want to obfuscate the truth. "Schedule interviews with potentially hostile or evasive subjects for near the end of your research as you will be better prepared to question and challenge their remarks,” Igric writes. Journalists may be left with nothing more than talking points or inaccurate assertions if they rely solely on email.
For all these reasons, I make my students’ lives harder — but their reporting better — by “just saying no” to email interviews. If journalism’s social role in a democratic society is to uncover truth, journalists must take the time to seek that truth in person.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream