by Megan Fromm
This weekend, JEA President Mark Newton, board member Stan Zoller and I all participated in the “Because News Matters” summit on news literacy in Chicago. Hosted by the McCormick Foundation, the Poynter Institute, and other partners, the summit was an opportunity to bring together key stakeholders interested in news literacy education.
As teachers, and as JEA board members, we wore some distinctive hats during the two-day summit. To begin, we wanted to represent the hundreds of high school journalism teachers who know that first-hand experience in media production is a tremendous way to teach important values of news literacy (assessing credible sources, fact-checking, and understanding bias). We also wanted to encourage those advocating for curricular and policy changes in our k-12 schools to recognize the unique role of scholastic media in developing engaged, critical thinkers.
While these issues admittedly go beyond how we teach law and ethics to our students, I want to share some ideas and themes that emerged:
First, a number of “best practice” demonstrations in teaching news literacy used BOTH news media content and social media content. This is a lesson we can take to heart with anything we teach—sometimes reaching students where they, whether we’re teaching libel, copyright, or ethical sources, means first using content that is highly relatable and relevant to them. For example, one teacher used a rap artist’s Twitter feed to help students begin to differentiate between news, opinion, and advertising content.
Second, participants at the summit recognized that what teachers really need (regardless of content) is twofold: time and resources. To that end, one of the next “projects” in the news literacy world will likely be continued compilation and promotion of materials and resources that you can use “off the shelf” with your students.
And finally, there was much debate regarding how news literacy fits in with other related literacies, including information, digital, and media literacy. To be frank, there was also significant conversation on whether journalism production and news literacy can (and/or should) be taught in tandem. Of course, as a former high school publications adviser, JEA news literacy curriculum leader and a board member, my answer was a resounding “YES!”
Is journalism and media production the only logical way to teach news literacy? No, but based on my eight-plus years of experience in the field, I believe it is the best way, and often the most engaging for our students. Incorporating news literacy in a journalism classroom takes concepts like “accuracy, fairness, bias, credibility, etc.,” and places them squarely in a project-based, student-led process. So much of what news literacy advocates is based on the basics of solid reporting, so why teach it in a bubble? Why not encourage our students to report while they fact-check, and then to publish information based on what they find? Why not teach our students the value of information in a democracy by also letting them see the effects of the printed word?
Given that a significant outcome for news literacy instruction is to implore students to engage in the democratic and civic process, creating published content is a natural fit. In doing so, students who are free to make creative and editorial decisions without administrative censorship will also learn the heavy responsibility that comes with exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.
To this end, news literacy and journalism education are the different sides of the same coin, and we can empower our students by letting them explore the role of journalism from all angles—both as producers and consumers.
by Mark Goodman
Funny how cheerleaders get all the attention.
It would have been difficult to miss the coverage this past week of the cheer squad at Kountze High School in Southeast Texas and their fight over free expression. From a high school of a little more than 400 students in a town of about 2,100 people, their story made national news.
The story in a nutshell, for those who did miss it: cheerleaders at Kountze emblazoned banners they displayed at football games with religious messages.
Student conduct in preparing controversial coverage spurred an attorney to change his mind and say he will work for a bill that protects both student journalists and their schools.
Don Austin, of a law firm that currently represents Puyallup, Washington, schools and was their counsel in the recent case involving Jagwire’s coverage of oral sex, said he would work for state legislation to guarantee student expression and still protect school systems, something he said he once opposed because he did not feel it gave schools enough immunity from lawsuits.
He said the cost of defending the lawsuit, nearly $250,000, the fact the jury found no invasion of privacy and no negligence on the part of the school system with students making content decisions, helped him see he should involve administrators in creating bulletproof immunity for schools – while still protecting students’ rights.
At one time, he said he did not believe students could successfully exercise control of publications.
“The kids convinced me,” he said of why his views had changed.
Austin said as part of the pre-trial briefings for the recent Jagwire case, he interviewed both adviser Kevin Smyth and his students.
“I went through and methodically evaluated his program,” Austin said. “I was impressed with the approach he and his students took” in regard to the process of reporting the oral sex stories. “Students acted as adults to do what they did.”
Austin said he wanted to “avoid future litigation” by working with school authorities and student expression supporters. He said those who have supported student free expression should know there is now a “different audience” to help work on this legislation.
The goal, he said, is to protect all parties.
Kathy Schrier, WJEA executive director, said Austin’s testimony favoring such legislation would be a huge help in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said she would like to see changes in language to protect all parties.
“Don Austin spoke against legislation last time,” First Amendment advocate and former Auburn High adviser Fern Valentine said, “but now realizes that is is the answer for both the students and school districts.”
Valentine said legislators will need to hear from school attorneys who support the legislation and can testify that a strong state law will not only insure students learn the most possible in their journalism classes but will also protect school districts from the expense of possible litigation.
WJEA president Vince DeMiero said he believes Austin is a convert.
“I truly believe if we nurture this relationship that it will be beneficial to both parties,” DeMiero said. “He’s busy, but he’s the first lawyer outside of the SPLC who I really think understands what we’re talking about. He’s incredibly focused and very intelligent. So, to have him on our side would be huge.”
Until legislation is again proposed, students in the Puyallup district and others around the state continue to fight against prior review and restraint. Check out information about the Puyallup student efforts, and about a new policy based on NEOLA standards at Seaholm High School. The NEOLA site, in a Webinar, talks about all four policy options referred to in the Seaholm article.
Those interested in a bit of real life government in action can follow the introduction of the Nebraska free expression legislation on Twitter at #LB898.
Follow along and see what is happening compared to legislation efforts in other states by comparing Nebraska’s bill with those of other states by using the SPLC library.
Nebraska’s bill can be seen at
http://www.netnebraska.org/publicmedia/capitol.html , hearing room #1525.
Student newspapers have two ways to avoid legal problems. Your students can never print anything controversial, creative or of interest to their readers, or you can teach your students how to write about controversy responsibly.
This responsibility begins long before the story is printed. Having your editors check the interview notes of the reporters can quickly reveal that the students haven’t talked to the all the right people to get a balanced story. It gives time to check out possible liability and to get permission to use quotes in place.
It also prevents procrastination, always a problem for all of us.
Students often only talk to their friends, or, worse yet, use the internet and don’t localize the story by talking to students, administrators or local sources. Brainstorming sources and questions can help get students off in the right directions.
Have your editors negotiate reasonable individual story deadlines for these notes and stick to them. Extending deadlines needs to be done ahead of time and in extreme cases only. If a student isn’t “dead” for missing a deadline, deadlines don’t mean a thing.
Interview skills are a sellable skill and one that journalism classes teach well. You might remind your administrators that, although they might prefer not to answer students’ questions about controversial topics, the students are really learning important skills that will help them in all sorts of situations throughout their lives.
Role playing interview situations with beginners can teach those skills and can be loads of fun as well.
Adding “interview notes” to the list of deadlines can help get things moving early and make sure that stories are well balanced and have the important information that will avoid legal problems when the story is published.
Fern Valentine, MJE