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Building a climate of trust can ease prior review

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The newspaper staff of a small school sought me out at a national journalism conference a few years ago. Despite an informal of publishing  with just the consultation of the adviser, the school’s principal now wanted to review the paper before it went to bed.

Although I didn’t agree with the principal’s decision, I knew why she put the new policy in place. I had already heard the story through the journalism teachers’ grapevine, but I had the students tell me their version.

“She said she doesn’t trust us any more.”

Fifth in a series

The post on building a climate of trust is the fifth in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, private school journalism, prior review and Making a Difference. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.

There was a trail of bad decisions on the part of the staff. The editors knew the package they were creating was around a hot-button issue (It doesn’t matter if it was about student drinking, smoking pot or engaging in unsafe sex — it’s all the same to some adults.), but instead of writing a fact-checked, balanced story, the editors decided to deliberately skew the student poll to make student engagement worse in the activity look worse than it actually was.

In large graphs. On the front page. Above the fold.

Their reasoning: “We knew there was a problem, and we wanted to get the word out. It seemed like a good idea.”

The staff broke some of the cardinal rules of journalism — what I call the ABCs; Be Accurate, Be Balanced, Be Clear.

In breaking those rules, the editors didn’t just break their trust with their principal but with their readers. Every story now looked suspect. Was the author “just trying to get a point across,” or was he accurately telling the truth in a balanced manner?

There was little balm I could offer the staff. Loss of trust is a big wound, and it takes time to heal. The staff would have to be extra diligent in its coverage from this time forward. All staffers wouldn’t just have to get their facts straight, but their spelling, grammar and syntax would have to be flawless.

I encouraged the staff to continue to take on important stories and show it had the skills and the good judgment to cover hard stories responsibly. The goal would be to these stories to rebuild trust with the administration and readers.

Then in six months, they could go back to the principal and show her proof that the staff was deserving of trust. If that didn’t work, then they should try it again in a year, in 18 months — as long as it took.

“Make it your mission,” I said. “Provide responsible journalism with no prior review. Be prepared that it may take time, but make it your legacy — even if it doesn’t happen this year.”

Should students be allowed to make mistakes? Certainly. Does the coach go on the field with a football player during the game to “make sure” he doesn’t drop the ball? Never.  But the fact is, private schools and schools in Hazelwood states face a higher scrutiny.

With a strong foundation of trust and thoughtful storytelling, staffs and administrators can build a win-win policy. Together.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re attending a private or religious school or one in a Hazelwood state — you can have a publication with high-quality journalism that speaks to your students. In a future post, we’ll talk about strategies you can use when your principal or board digs in its heels in because it wants to “protect” the community.

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