who are more than note-takers
by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE
“Question authority” is my favorite button, something I have worn proudly on my jacket, a message to both students and administrators. True, questioning in a snarky or defiant way isn’t a good idea. My approach is more like “Make sure authority isn’t leaving out information we need to know.”
But that isn’t very catchy and definitely wouldn’t fit on a button.
Still, it’s important — for reporters and others. To me, there’s nothing much worse than reading an article with huge holes in it because the reporter didn’t ask enough questions. Who approved the money for the Astroturf? How does the administration check out applicants for a position? Why did the school board decide to ban that textbook? Who said it was a bad book? Who said it was good?
Plugging up those holes just makes a more thorough story, getting to the “why” and the “how” that an audience needs to know to really understand a situation.
But when students learn to just nod and smile and politely take notes, when they accept everything the principal or school board member tells them and parrot it back in their articles, they may be missing some important information.
They may be accepting at face value something that has more nuances and maybe an angle that changes the whole meaning. A source might even have ulterior motives.
Using good examples like these two is one way to discuss this issue with students. The first one is simple and short, but a great lesson about not letting a source take advantage of you. From Chip Scanlan on the Poynter Institute website in 2003: “If Your Mother Says She Loves You: A Reporter’s Cautionary Tale.”
A more elaborate scheme — and a longer read — is the focus of a Vanity Fair article detailing what happened to an award-winning television producer when she didn’t ask enough questions or seek out a variety of sources. “The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money, and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer” is an engaging piece that should make reporters, editors and advisers cringe as they see where the situation is headed. Its author also digs to find the info the original journalist overlooked.
Teaching reporters to be more than note-takers, more than recorders who can just accurately write down what a source says, is one of an adviser’s toughest but most important jobs. This is true critical thinking education is supposed to include. Teaching students to question authority in a professional, polite way, to dig for the details, to ask others and corroborate “facts” helps them develop better stories now and keeps them from settling for holes in their information later, whether they are journalists or insurance agents, doctors, lawyers, teachers or parents.