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How to seek truth from power

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By Marina Hendricks
At the recent JEA/NSPA Fall National Convention in San Antonio, members of the Scholastic Press Rights Commission conducted open forums for students and advisers to discuss issues they are having with prior review and restraint.

One discussion yielded a gratifying display of peer mentoring, with students who freely practice journalism in their schools counseling others on how to build sounder journalistic relationships with their administrators. Reflecting on it later, I was reminded of how important it is for student journalists to develop the habit of questioning authority – not as rebels, but as reporters.

“When journalists don’t fully understand how power shapes language to serve its own ends, they inevitably become pawns to those who do. Power then takes the wheel of society, and drives it where it will,” writes Doug McGill, a veteran reporter and author of The McGill Report media blog.

The following lesson plan is designed to help student journalists become more comfortable with interviewing and holding sources accountable – particularly the sources who are considered “authority figures.”

Goals for Understanding: 

Essential question:
How can we conduct effective interviews, especially with authority figures?

Critical engagement questions:
• How can we go beyond face value with our sources?

• How can we respectfully push for the information we need?

• When we don’t understand something a source says, how can we ask for explanations or elaborations?

Overviews and Timeline:

Activity 1 (one 50-minute class)
Students will read A Syllabus for a Moral Journalism.” In small groups, they will review stories from the school publication (chosen in advance by the instructor and the editor) to identify cases where sources could have been more thoroughly interviewed. Groups will consider what information is missing, what information is not adequately explained, what terms are not defined, what points of view are not included, and so forth. For homework, students will read “Handling Tough Interviewees” and “Avoiding the Suits.”

Activity 2 (one 50-minute class)
Groups will present the results of their content reviews. Led by the editor, students will discuss how they would report the stories in light of the three readings in Activity 1. The editor will note key strategies on a board or flip chart, then will use those to create an interview tip sheet.

Activity 3 (one 50-minute class, plus advance preparation time)
The instructor will invite an “authority figure” from the school community to participate in an interview with the class. The editor will moderate the interview, and will work with students in advance to help them develop questions. The instructor may want to record the interview for future reference.

Assessment (one 50-minute class)
Led by the editor, students will discuss the interview with the authority figure. They will review the tip sheet from Activity 2 and update it based on their experience. Grading will be based on participation in group and class discussions, and demonstrated ability to analyze situations in a mature, logical fashion.

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