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The scary truth about our own confidence

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By Megan Fromm, CJE

With Halloween just days away, ghost hunters and spooky pranksters are out in full force. But for journalists, there’s still something scarier than a grim reaper or a bad Miley Cyrus costume: errors in fact.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

And while fact-checking is a common and methodical way to ensure accuracy in reporting, experts are now pointing to a more personal attribute that often stands in the way of truth. Simply put, researchers have found that each of us has the propensity to be a “confident idiot,” meaning we often overestimate our expertise on any given subject. 

Instead of admitting to our own ignorance, we can be duped into thinking we know things we don’t, or that we have knowledge that actually exceeds our current understanding of a topic or concept.

For many journalists, acknowledging this Achille’s heal is an important step in becoming adept, truth-seeking reporters—when we stop assuming we know so much, we start looking for better and more specific information. After all, what good is a five-step fact-checking process if we’re unlikely to believe we could get something wrong in the first place?

Named the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” this common inability for humans to recognize our own ineptitude has serious implications for journalists and for news media consumers.

As a journalist, understanding this phenomenon means that I will be slightly more skeptical of how “authoritative” my sources seems. It means that I’ll delve more critically into their own claims of fact and be sure to investigate my source’s background to determine his/her real level of expertise.

For student journalists, this is especially vital. How many times have students overstated knowledge of a certain event or situation? Our students want to trust their peers, and their peers are likely to exaggerate connections. Knowing this, and taking steps to mitigate it, keeps journalistic integrity intact.

Ask your student journalists to brainstorm a list of “experts” on different topics at your school. Then, compile a master list, “vetting” those experts by getting as much background information as possible.

As news and media consumers, we must first acknowledge our own propensity to be “confident idiots.” (Here’s a touch of irony: I even vastly overestimated my ability to write this post in the time I had allotted myself. Turns out the researchers were right!).

This means I should be willing to evaluate my own knowledge base before assuming others are (or are not) experts. I might ask myself what experience or education is most relevant to the news and information I receive, and I would try to be honest about my personal deficits, filling in the gaps as necessary.

While it’s scary to think we might be so out of touch with our own intelligence, a little due diligence (and sometimes a light-hearted reality check) can go a long way.

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Who has your back?

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Practicing ethics can help make sense of coverage

by Stan Zoller
Prior restraint. Censorship.

They are things all media advisers dread.

Imagine what it would be like if your principal started telling you what your kids could and could not cover in their media.

Many advisers don’t even think about it because their  principal is “really nice” and understands journalism.

Now suppose, just suppose,  a gubernatorial candidate went to your principal and objected to something scheduled to be covered.

Nonsense.

That’s probably what Dave McKinney, Springfield Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times probably thought.

Surprise.

In one of the most bizarre tales of the Illinois gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Bruce Rauner allegedly went to the publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times to block a story McKinney, along with WMAQ reporter Carol Marin and producer Don Moseley were working on because Rauner and his staff took exception to it.

Briefly, while the Sun-Times brass stood behind McKinney, when all was said and done, he had to take some time off, was told his byline would not be on upcoming stories and was offered other positions at the paper which, he said in his resignation letter, he considered demotions. In the midst of all this, the Sun-Times endorsed Rauner for governor.

Oct. 23, McKinney resigned and said, among other things in his resignation letter, that “I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.” His resignation ether can be read here.

So what does a professional reporter with 20 years of experience have to do with scholastic journalism?

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Embattled editors tell
their powerful stories at SPLC dinner

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Sometimes it’s the bad things in life that help a person find a cause, a passion or a pathway. From a Pulitzer Prize-winner who sued his principal in the ‘70s to two teens, still closely involved in censorship issues at their own schools, those at the Student Press Law Center’s 40th anniversary dinner Oct. 16 heard stories every teen journalist and adviser should hear.

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19 journalism groups urge
administrator organizations to disavow
Neshaminy board punishment of paper, adviser and editor

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sprclogoOct. 13, 1987 marked the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier arguments that ultimately granted administrators the right to control content of high school media in limited situations.

Oct. 13, 2014 marks a time when 19 journalism organizations joined together to urge national groups of administrators and school boards to openly disavow actions of the Neshaminy (Pa.) Board of Education that even went beyond the constraints of Hazelwood in controlling content and punishing student journalists.

“In what we hope will be a watershed event in curing America of the worst excesses of the Hazelwood era,” SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte wrote to the Advisory Committee of the SPLC,  “19 of the nation’s leading journalism organizations — including SPJ, JEA, CMA and the American Society of News Editors — co-signed an SPLC-authored letter distributed today to the nation’s leading school-administrator organizations, urging them to distance themselves from and to publicly disavow the retaliatory behavior of school administrators in Neshaminy, Pa., who are punishing student journalists for refusing to use the offensive name of the schools’ mascot.”

The joint statement can be read here.

Part of the statement pointed directly to the Hazelwood decision’s involvement: “This is a level of authority even beyond the outermost limit the Supreme Court recognized in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, to say nothing of the fact that Pennsylvania law repudiates the Hazelwood standard.”

JEA’a Press Rights Committee and the SPLC had paired on a statement earlier this month condemning Neshaminy board actions punishing the student paper, the adviser and editor.

JEA also commented on the joint statement.

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