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Principals, presidents and getting along

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by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

The Washington Post headline asked, “Is media coverage of Trump too negative? You’re asking the wrong question.”

That’s when I realized this could much more than a political statement. What if you replace the president’s name with the name of your school? Does that sound like something you may have heard before?

Student media often receive the complaint: “Your stories are all negative. Good things happen at this school, so why don’t you report them?” But are your administrators maybe asking the wrong question, too?

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, said President Trump was like Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” She cited a Harvard study that looked at news reports in print (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post), main newscasts (CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC) and three European news outlets (The UK’s Financial Times and BBC, and Germany’s ARD). From these, the researchers concluded in Trump’s first 100 days about 80 percent of mainstream press coverage reflected negatively on the new president.

But the president of the United States and the principal of any public high school should not be enemies of their respective media. Sullivan said what politicians should look for in coverage – and I maintain this is true for school administrators, too – is “fairness, focus and overkill.”

  • Sullivan asks if news organizations “acknowledge and correct quickly” when they get something wrong. My question: Do student media? Admittedly sometimes things are wrong because someone didn’t answer a student journalist’s questions, but that might be a good starting point for discussion on the importance of communication. If student reporters have the facts, their stories are vastly better.
  • She further asks if journalists allow the president and his administration to respond to criticism. My question: Do YOUR reporters ask for responses, especially when the administrators are upset? That’s hard sometimes, but it’s another important part of communication. A consistent, ongoing dialogue is much better than seeing each other only when some problem arises.
  • Finally, Sullivan writes, “Do news sites give serious, sustained attention to policy issues as well as publishing innumerable hot takes about the ­personality-driven dust-up of the moment?” I’m not so sure student media have “hot takes” that are “personality driven,” but I’ll bet most staffs would admit they may not be digging into policy issues like they could. If students are complaining about cafeteria food, what have they explored and reported about current cost increases of everyday staples, lack of government foodstuffs that used to be available, higher salaries for kitchen personnel due to union issues? In other words, complaints usually have costs or explanations. That costly Astroturf may have come from a generous donor, not funds that could go for textbooks. The guidance counselor who took so long to send a letter of recommendation to colleges might have twice as many advisees as the American School Counselor Association says. Digging deeper would show that.

The president and commercial media will have to sort things out on their own. Making sure both administrators and student journalists know the questions to ask – and the answers to have – is up to us and could go a long way toward eliminating problems.

Want lesson plans about fake news, misinformation or sourcing challenges? Curriculum will be available from JEA by the time you start back to school.

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