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Obstacles and criticism can inspire

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by Lindsay Coppens, adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Being a scholastic journalist or publication adviser isn’t always easy. Sure, there are days when everything falls into place and journalists are thanked and congratulated for their hard work. However, if each print issue or online post was easy to produce and received with nothing but smiles, your days would be smoother but you likely would not be doing all you can to fulfill your publication’s important social role.

Good, hard-hitting journalism can make people uncomfortable. It illuminates hardship, gives voice to the voiceless, questions the status quo, and encourages people to find solutions to problems. It can be challenging to secure important interviews for stories that pursue challenging topics. Those who agree to an interview may not want to answer all your questions. Editorials that question and challenge policy, procedures, and those in power may be accused of having a political agenda.

However, if you adhere to strong journalistic procedure and ethics, these obstacles and criticisms can, in fact, help your journalism become even stronger. 

When gathering facts and trying to secure interviews, if you hit what seems to be a wall of “no’s,” look at these obstacles not as stop points but as opportunities for growth, problem-solving, and empowerment.

When gathering facts and trying to secure interviews, if you hit what seems to be a wall of “no’s,” look at these obstacles not as stop points but as opportunities for growth, problem-solving, and empowerment.

As advisers we must help our students see that “no” is not always the end, but can be the beginning of moving in a different, perhaps even better, direction to get where they want to go. For example, if an administrator refuses to share public information, have students research your state’s public records laws and find out how to make an official request in writing. Have them also look into what to do if that written request is rejected.

If an interview is denied, brainstorm other sources, perhaps even your desired source’s superior. The principal won’t grant an interview on a given topic? Contact the superintendent or other relevant district administrator for an interview. If an essential source refuses to comment, say so in your article. Often that statement will speak louder than any quote.

When a published piece is criticized, take time to listen to the criticism and reflect on its merit. Was the reporting thorough? Was there unintended bias in the reporting or selection of sources? If there was bias or the reporting was lacking, consider reporting on the topic again, from another angle with different sources.

Perhaps this can be the beginning of a series of articles. Were there factual errors? If you did make a mistake, own it and learn from it. Thoroughly and transparently identify what went wrong and promptly make a correction. Become a stronger publication by developing protocol to avoid similar errors in the future.

If there is a negative response to your publication’s news coverage or opinion pieces but you know your journalism is thorough, don’t be intimidated by critics. Instead, consider the conversation you provoked a step toward possible change. Excellent high school journalism doesn’t just report on and celebrate the good that happens in your school and community — it promotes discussion and debate.

Called the epithet “Fake News” in a Twitter tirade that says scholastic newspapers shouldn’t express opinion? Maybe you need to work to educate your readers helping them understand the difference between news reporting and opinion pieces.

Be sure all columns, editorials, reviews, and analyses are clearly labeled. Fact-check opinion pieces and all quotes in news articles. Encourage student critics to join your publication’s staff, submit a guest column, or write a Letter to the Editor

Be sure all columns, editorials, reviews, and analyses are clearly labeled. Fact-check opinion pieces and all quotes in news articles. Encourage student critics to join your publication’s staff, submit a guest column, or write a Letter to the Editor (You’ll likely find many won’t make the effort or are not brave enough to put their opinions in print).

Celebrate that your publication is being read and promoting debate! Take heart in joining the echelons of prestigious publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post that are frequently called “Fake News” by those they critique and those they make uncomfortable.

If you shy away from challenging topics, you may be safer but you are not better.

Yes, use your publication to recognize achievements, but also investigate hard-hitting topics and community concerns through incisive reporting, columns, and editorials. Journalists help readers see the truth and understand multiple sides so citizens can make educated judgments for themselves.

Good journalism can make people uncomfortable and angry, but it will also start important conversations and perhaps even effect change.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article, Lindsay.

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