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Journalists as professional skeptics

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by Kristin Taylor

Title:

Journalists as Professional Skeptics

Description
The first lesson explores ethical decision-making about what to publish and the importance of verification in that process. It is a case study that puts students in the role of an editor as they walk through a hypothetical story pitch and consequences of publishing an unverified story. The activity ends with a class reflection about best practices for verification and accountability. This lesson works best after teachers have already discussed how their schools are affected by state and federal laws (see SPLC First Amendment rights diagram) so students are familiar with their First Amendment rights as student journalists.
The second lesson builds on the activity from the day before by discussing the purpose of skepticism during the reporting process by looking at a real-life situation where a professional journalist was duped. It also examines the balance between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to explain the role of the editor as coach and explore how an editor can coach reporters during the reporting process.
  • Students will be able to identify red flags during the reporting process that suggest questionable sourcing and a need to verify information.
  • Students will be able to describe the importance of verifying information before publishing a story through participating in a hypothetical role play surrounding an unverified news story.
  • Students will be able to describe why it is important for journalists to be skeptical by reading and discussing a Rolling Stone article about a rape victim; the article turned out to be inaccurate.
  • Students will be able to employ strategies for fact-checking and determining when a source has a fact wrong or lied.
  • Students will reflect on how this may impact their own journalistic practice.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.C Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Length

60 minutes

Materials / Resources

Whiteboard and markers

Teacher laptop and digital projector

Slideshow: “If You Were the Editor” (See the bottom of this lesson)

Lesson step-by-step

Step 1 — Warm Up (5 minutes)

As students enter the classroom, the first slide from the PowerPoint “If you were the editor” projected on the board. Read the prompt and have them journal for five minutes:

SLIDE 1: “Sometimes students want to report on some really tough subjects. How should an editor respond to a story likely to cause community outrage or unrest? Why or why not? Journal for five minutes and then we will share our thoughts.”

Step 2: — Class Discussion (5 minutes)

Allow students to share their initial thoughts and then advance to the next slide. Ask a student to read the question and respond: “Why might editors be tempted to avoid certain stories?” Discuss briefly as a class. (Possible answers: fear of “getting in trouble,” complaints from parents, too controversial. Teacher may want to introduce two types of censorship: external, where someone outside of the staff censors, and self-censorship where the reporters themselves decide not to pursue a story out of fear of the consequences. This is not the same as using good news judgment to determine whether or not a story is worth covering.)

Step 3 — Small Group Activity (15 minutes)

Advance to the next slide, which lays out the case study. Have a student read it out loud and then break the class into groups of 4-5. Students have 10 minutes to discuss this scenario, using the discussion questions below.

SLIDE 2: The situation: You are an editor. One of your student reporters wants to do an article on a student who has been expelled from school. That expelled student is alleging misconduct on the part of one of the school administrators and claims she was expelled just to cover up what the administrator did. However, the administration says that, due to confidentiality agreements, they cannot comment on the situation at all.

Discuss these questions with your group, using your staff manual for guidance.

  • Do you have any initial concerns about this story? Do you see any red flags? What questions would you initially ask the reporter about the story? (Possible discussion/responses: Is a student being expelled newsworthy when it’s primarily a private event? How can they verify this expulsion given that administrators cannot legally comment on confidential situations like this one? How can they verify the student’s allegation of misconduct? Are there public records or multiple reliable sources willing to go on the record? If not, students should be concerned about libel law.)
  • Who are the stakeholders in this story? How will a story like this affect them? The school as a whole? Why is that important to consider? (Possible answers: the expelled student and his/her family, the school’s reputation)
  • Would you feel tempted to not pursue this story? What information/sources would the reporter need and what steps would she need to take in order for you to feel comfortable with this story being written?

Step 4 — Class Discussion/Role Play (15 minutes)

After 10 minutes or once all groups have completed their initial discussion, advance to the next slide. Remind them that they are playing the role of the adviser. You can complete this part of the lesson through discussion or role play, with the student taking on the role of the editor and the adviser pretending to be the student reporter who is determined to write the story.

SLIDE 3: Questions to consider: How would you coach the reporter during

the process if …

  • The reporter is persistent and tenacious but still can’t get any comment from any administrator about the expulsion? (These school leaders are unable to comment on personal information like this by lie, so they don’t really have a choice about commenting. You may want to tease out why this is so problematic — we will definitely only be getting one side of the story.)
  • The reporter cannot verify that any misconduct took place, though the expelled student maintains it did? (Not being able to verify should stop good reporters and editors in their tracks. This scenario should be setting off lots of warning bells, but don’t give this away yet; the teacher will reveal consequences in the next slide.)
  • Despite these problems, the reporter wants to publish the story? She promises she will frame any claims the expelled student makes with “allegedly” and make it clear she reached out for comment and administrators declines, citing confidentiality agreements. (While it’s good that the student would include a disclosure statement, students may not know that simply adding the word “allegedly” does not protect them from liability if they publish harmful, false information. This scenario should be setting off lots of warning bells, but don’t give this away yet; the teacher will reveal consequences in the next slide.)

Before advancing to the next slide, tell students that, ultimately, the editorial board DID decide to go ahead and publish. Ask them how they feel and if they have any predictions about the outcome.

Step 5 — Assessment (20 minutes)

Advance to the next slide and have a student read what happens next:

Slide 4: Aftermath: The reporter publishes her story, and the administration is very upset. The administrator accused of misconduct contacts the adviser and you as the editor and says it was irresponsible for you to let it be published, as it is one-sided and libelous. She says she is considering shutting down the paper entirely given this situation.

Another source comes forward and tells you that she heard the expelled student made the entire story about the misconduct up. Upon further questioning, the expelled student admits it was a lie.

  1. What processes along the way could have prevented this from happening? (Potential responses: Looking for any kind of firsthand verification of the misconduct beyond the initial source; doing follow-up interviews with the source and asking for some kind of evidence of these accusations; stopping the story when verification became impossible.)
  2. Who should respond to these developments, and how should that person or persons respond? How do you rebuild public trust? (Potential Responses: If students have an error correction policy established, they should look at now to see what steps they need to follow. Since this is such an extreme case and could cause a libel lawsuit, students should also consider more public responses, such as writing a letter to the community with a transparent accounting of what happened. Reading this blog about how one staff dealt with a recent editorial mistake might also be helpful.)

Either in small groups or as a whole class, discuss how students feel about this situation and brainstorm responses to the two questions.

Advance to the final slide (SLIDE 5) and ask students to write an individual email to you describing what they learned from the activity and how they better understand the importance of verification before publishing a story.

Differentiation

Students with writing challenges could talk to the teacher in person rather than send an email describing what they learned.

Additional Resources:

Ask these 10 questions to make good ethical decisions

SPLC First Amendment rights diagram

They need the freedom to make mistakes, too,” Lindsay Coppens, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Day 2

Length

60 minutes

Materials:

Whiteboard and markers

Teacher laptop and digital projector

Student laptops

Paper slips with story scenario

Columbia School of Journalism report on Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus’

How a teacher prepared her students to take on the adults and win.”

Lesson step-by-step

Step 1 — Warm up (5 minutes)

Projected on the board:

skeptic |ˈskeptik| noun: a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.

Given the “You be the editor” activity we did last class, why do you think some say a journalist’s primary job is to be a professional skeptic?

Students share thoughts on this warm-up question. Potential follow-up questions:

  • How would yesterday’s activity have gone differently if the student journalist and editors had been more skeptical? (Possible answers: Students would have seen red flags such as lack of verification and stopped the story if it couldn’t be verified; students wouldn’t have been as likely to believe the accusing student.)
  • Why is it dangerous to trust sources without verifying, even if you think there are trustworthy? (Possible answers: Sources lie sometimes because they are embarrassed or worried about getting in trouble, but even if they aren’t purposefully lying, they may be incorrect. They may not know the real story even if they think they do, or they may misremember something.)
  • What would you do if you suspected a source was lying to you? (Possible answers: Attempt to verify the source’s story through other credible sources; discuss the situation with the editors and adviser; depending on the situation, the reporter might confront the source. If verification isn’t possible, do not use the information.)
  • Is it possible to become too skeptical? What might the consequence of that be? (Possible answers: reporters may become cynical and think everyone is a liar rather than remembering the purpose of their work; reporters may continue to doubt even after reliable verification.)

Say, “Today we are going to be looking at a couple of cases where journalists either were or were not skeptical and the consequence of their choices.”

Step 2 — Small group activity (20 minutes)

Break students into groups of three or four and hand out a slip of paper with the following on it:

You are a reporter for a professional publication and have heard about how a nearby university is one of 86 schools under federal investigation due to being suspected of denying students their equal right to education by inadequately handling sexual-violence complaints. After doing some initial research, you find a student who says she was gang-raped by a group of male students at a fraternity party; she’s willing to be the subject of your story, but only if you change her name and don’t reveal her identity. She claims the university is trying to sweep the allegations under the rug, which fits the picture painted by what you have learned about the federal investigation. The school and the fraternity deny this student’s claims.

  1. Before you begin, do you have any personal biases you need to be aware of?
  2. How will you check out this source’s story? What evidence will you need to feel confident it’s accurate and honest?
  3. If you do find enough evidence, will you grant the source’s request to change her name to hide her identity? Look at your staff manual guidelines for using unnamed sources and be ready to justify why you would or would not be willing to proceed.
  4. Ethically, who else do you need to talk to before writing this story?
  5. What, if anything, would make you decide to not use this source?

Step 3 — Class discussion (35 minutes)

After 20 minutes of discussions, each group presents and compares its responses to the four questions. The teacher will then say, “This scenario you were working on was based on a real situation. In 2014, a reporter from Rolling Stone wrote a 9,000-word story about a rape victim she called “Jackie” at the University of Virginia, which was indeed being federally investigated. The problem? The story ended up being untrue. Other publications such as the Washington Post debunked “Jackie’s” story, and the reporter and Rolling Stone publisher later lost a multimillion dollar defamation suit brought by a UVA administrator. So let’s talk about what went wrong and the consequences of this situation.”

The class will go around the room reading one graf each until finished with this article: “Columbia School of Journalism report on Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus’

Discussion questions:

  1. What went wrong? What mistakes did this reporter make? (Possible answers: Main issue: The reporter relied on a single source. Reporter never got in touch with “Jackie’s” friends to verify her story; Reporter didn’t speak directly to “Randall/Ryan” to verify his statement; Editors did not disclose that reporter could not verify the existence of “Drew” and had not spoken to him; the reporter did not give the fraternity enough information about the story she was working on for them to adequately respond.)
  2. Who was harmed by this false story? (Possible answers: the members of the fraternity, the school administrator accused of not taking the allegation seriously, the reputation of Greek organizations, UVA administration and general reputation, Rolling Stone’s reputation, the reporter herself, students who really have been raped)
  3. What other consequences might this story have beyond the defamation lawsuit the reporter lost? (Make sure students talk about the damage to real rape victims and how much more difficult it will be to report a similar story in the future.)  

Assessment: As a ticket-to-leave, students share a takeaway from this lesson; how will it impact their reporting in the future?

Extension: Now let’s look at a situation where reporters were skeptical despite a lot of pressure. Read this article and come prepared to discuss tomorrow: “How a teacher prepared her students to take on the adults and win.”

Additional Resources

Skeptical Knowing presentation

Using anonymous sources with care

Quick Hit: Using unnamed sources

Slideshow: If you were the editor

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