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Determining – and practicing– journalism’s secret words

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by Stan Zoller
During his game show, “You Bet Your Life,” the late Groucho Marx would challenge his contestants to “say the secret word and win $100.”

Imagine what it would be like if Groucho had his show today and featured as his panelists, a high school administrator and high school journalist.

What would the secret word be?

There’s a good chance the journalists, fresh from the fall JEA conference and beaming with ideas and insights in to the First Amendment and press rights, might say “Openness,” “Trust” or “Fairness.”

The administrator, on the other hand, may say something like, “Positive” or “Review.” Odds are they’d say more, but remember, we’re talking one word here and administrators seldom explain anything in one word.

Perhaps, however, the one word that could emerge as the secret word came out of a conference held several years ago.  In “Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media,” funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s Civics Group, the overriding general premise was if administrators and those students, teachers and advisers involved in student media would practice protocol, there would hopefully be a better understanding of what each was trying to accomplish.

Conceptually, it’s a great idea.  Protocol relies on communication, trust and cooperation.

Unfortunately, the gatekeepers of schools and even school districts put personal agendas ahead of a free and open student media.  I’ve heard principals say they don’t care what’s in the student media as long as it is “positive.”  In other words, don’t rock the boat and you’ll be fine.

So what is positive news?  Is our student media to cover only the Homecoming Queen, pizza sales for after prom?  The news that impacts our – not just students’- -world is not always positive.  Student journalists everywhere wrote about the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school, and the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  It’s not positive news, but many student media raised questions about the safety of their school.  A valid story.

Some people say that news is information that authorities would rather the media not report.  In other words, it is not “positive.”

If schools fail to meet state standards, are student journalists to avoid writing about the results because they are not positive news?  I know of one adviser who had the principal talk to his journalism class during which the principal said how she likes to “leak” news stories to the student newspaper.

Leaks from the principal’s office?  That sounds more like controlling information the public needs to know.  It should also set off the yellow light in a student journalist’s mind, or any journalist for that matter, that there is a lack of transparency emanating from the administration.

There are no “high school journalists” — but journalists who are in high school.  They have the same rights as any other journalists.  Any administrator who deems it appropriate to “leak” the news is not leading an educational institution in the best interests of its students, let alone student journalists.

Stakeholders associated with student media extend beyond the schoolyard fence.  Parents, the public at large and alumni are all part of the potential audience for student media.  Like students, faculty and staff, they deserve a free and responsible student media steeped in trust and responsibility.

And those just might be the secret words.

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