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It’s the real thing: journalists at all levels
need to take the lead in offsetting secrecy

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

In 1968, Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye teamed up on a hit song, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.”

While the romantic lyrics may tug at a person’s heartstrings, the message is a good one for journalism educators – there’s nothing like the real thing, baby.

Real journalism. Real reporting. Real information.

Unfortunately, real information has emerged as one of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge for journalists today, whether professional, collegiate, or scholastic. The shrouding of secrecy by public bodies appears to have escalated to the point that recent discussions about a national health care bill were done by Senate Republicans behind closed doors.

Transparency be damned, the American public was left in the dark until GOP leaders announced their latest effort.

So how does this impact scholastic journalism educators? They need to work with their students on being vigilant in keeping track of discussions and decisions made by public bodies that impact their school district or school. These can include city councils, village boards, park districts, and. Of course, school boards.

Many school boards have an unsavory reputation of being little more than rubber stamps for decisions made by district or school administrators. A lack of transparency does not serve constituents well, nor does it give the media, at any level, the opportunity to provide news consumers bias-free and independent information.

Many school boards have an unsavory reputation of being little more than rubber stamps for decisions made by district or school administrators. A lack of transparency does not serve constituents well, nor does it give the media, at any level, the opportunity to provide news consumers bias-free and independent information.

As their professional and collegiate counterparts, scholastic journalists need to take the lead in getting access to and reporting public information. Advisers can facilitate this by making sure students know how to access public information while being kept up-to-date on the actions of the School Board. Teachers and advisers should, for example, make sure their students:

  • Receive all packets of information issued to the public and media by a school board. These should include, but not be limited to, agendas, meeting minutes, committee meeting schedule, committee meeting minutes and all notifications of any school board or board related committee. Students not familiar with these procedures should check with their state’s attorney general to learn about the state’s open meeting laws and sunshine laws.
  • Understand how a meeting works. Most states are specific as to what can be discussed in executive (also called closed) sessions. It’s fairly common for an agency to reveal the nature of the topic being discussed. Public agencies in most states cannot merely say they are going to meet in closed session. They must stipulate why. For example, a board president needs to say that the board is going into closed sessions to discuss personnel matters, or litigation. They do not have to reveal the name of individuals involved, but open meetings laws prohibit public agencies from deviating from the announced topic. After an executive session, a board needs to vote on the actions, albeit in generic terms, taken in closed session.
  • Understand Freedom of Information laws. FOI laws are not limited to adults or the media; student journalists can file requests for public information using a state’s or federal Freedom of Information Act. Laws vary from state, so teachers and advisers should work with students on getting a copy of their state’s FOI Act. This too should be available from the state’s Attorney General.
  • Know how to use the FOIA. Local advocacy groups as well as the Student Press Law Center offer excellent resources as well as FOIA-request letter generators.

Important steps? Yes, they are. That’s because high school journalism educators have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure their students practice the real thing – journalism that not only informs, but engages news consumers. Awards, staff bonding and designing T-shirts are important to students. But so too is the need for a student media that is the watchdog and voice of the school.

There are advisers who say if students publish or post something a principal or superintendent doesn’t like; they may get mad at them.

If it’s “the real thing” – well reported, verified and independent journalism – there should not be anything to fear.

Besides, if you’re worried about getting someone mad at you because of good media coverage – maybe you shouldn’t be teaching journalism.

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