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Asking the right questions

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The list of double-meaning words and “phrases to avoid” in student publications is growing by the minute. No doubt these additions and casual definitions shared come from advisers hoping to inform and protect. Nobody wants to see an adviser pulled in by the principal, harassed with parent phone calls or accused of being anything less than professional.
Some are asking, “What does this word mean?” while others suggest, “Could we create a shared list of these words and phrases to keep out of our publications?”
Valid questions, of course, but maybe we’re missing the point. I think we’re asking the wrong questions.
Instead of asking our kids, “Does that refer to sex or drugs?” let’s start a larger dialogue. Let’s involve the full staff, not just editors or copy editors, and bring on the big questions. We should ask: “How do you want to be received by your readers?” “What kind of reputation do you want to have?” “How can you gain your audience’s respect?”
When we make a point of periodic, systematic full-staff discussion for strengthening the journalism staff culture and talking through ethical situations, student journalists get it. More often than not, they do the right thing.
Instead of asking our kids, “Does that have a double meaning?” we can ask them, “Are you happy with the message this headline/story/issue sends to your readers?”
When we coach our editors about the power of true leadership, it shifts the responsibility from us to them. It helps them take ownership of and responsibility for their publication. They might not pick up on every double-entendre or piece of street slang — but it means they’ll be the ones asking the questions.
Sarah Nichols, MJE

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