It’s often tough, that’s for sure, but keeping the lines of communication open with your principal is vital. It may mean the difference between the sudden imposition of prior review or having the chance to explain how your students weighed the pros and cons before deciding to run that controversial article.
There’s probably no better time to start the dialogue than the beginning of the school year. Everyone is optimistic about what’s to come, full of ideas and possibilities. Sometimes the principal is even new to the building and needs to know what you and your students are all about.
With that in mind, participants at each year’s ASNE High School Journalism Institute at Kent State have written letters to take back to their principals — or to have me, as Institute director, send along with one of my own. It offers them a chance to share what they have learned in their two-week workshop and to show their administrators the value of allowing students to make the content decisions.
This year’s group included a teacher who isn’t going back to a classroom this fall. Megan Fromm, a journalism teacher and media adviser in Maryland up until this fall, was moving and wouldn’t have a staff of her own or a principal to understand the process. But Megan understands it — an alum of an award-winning newspaper program in Colorado, a new addition to the JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission and a top-notch teacher. So…her letter for this Institute assignment is for YOU. It’s designed to be something you can tweak and adapt, if need be, or simply fill in the blanks and use for your own principal.
Thanks for the useful letter, Megan, and good luck to all who use it.
Dear [Mr./Mrs./Dr.__insert principal name here______],
With a fresh school year upon us, I wanted to take a few moments to share my vision for [INSERT PROPER NAME/DESCRIPTION] department this year. The start of each fall brings a rush of enthusiasm from students and faculty, and I’m excited to capitalize on that momentum and take our program to even greater heights.
I believe strongly that journalism, as a discipline, embodies so many of the skills we seek to impart to our students across the curriculum. Research, writing, editing, clarity, accuracy, and critical thinking are just a few of the skills journalism emphasizes. This year, I’d like to highlight an equally important aspect of journalism—and I think you could be a tremendous resource. As educators, we all seek to provide our students the awareness, understanding and healthy skepticism necessary to compete and succeed in a democratic society. What’s more, we all hope that our students will move beyond awareness and develop a desire for civic responsiveness. That’s where you come in.
This year, I’d like to push my journalism students to think beyond the walls of the classroom. I’d like for them not only to learn critical thinking skills but also to master ethical decision-making practices they can take with them into adulthood. To do this, they’ll need to stretch their comfort levels in many ways. They’ll need to rethink what topics they cover in the student newspaper, how they approach their sources, and how they present information to our student body. They’ll need to take off their student hats more often and pick up their reporter’s notebooks, looking for stories around every corner and stopping only when they have the best, most accurate information to share.
This won’t be easy, and it won’t happen without a few stumbles along the way. But if you think this sounds like a worthwhile pursuit, I’d love to talk more about my specific ideas and the support structures I’ll have in place to make it happen in a way that is best for the students. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to working with you for another great year.
Note: Teachers, please feel free to modify this letter as you see fit. It should reflect a tone and intent you would feel comfortable using with your principal. Also, if your school mission reflects some of the ideas presented above, adding some phrases verbatim could also be helpful in beginning a thoughtful discussion with your administration.
Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication will host the Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop Thursday, Sept. 16, available as streaming video as well as live.
The event also will be available to viewers on mobile devices. All participants can contribute to the workshop discussions and ask questions of speakers via Twitter.
Workshop information is posted at the Next Ethics site now. Your and your students can access the streaming video at the same site Thursday.
Participants include Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, Adrian Holovaty, developer of EveryBlock, Paul Steiger of Pro Publica and others.
Questions for discussion and lesson plans for scholastic journalism programs will be available starting Wednesday. There are also links to similar programs from the last two years. Additional lesson plans will be available next week and will be based on workshop sessions.
Event coordinator and assistant professor Jan Leach said scholastic journalists can benefit from participating no matter what media they use now, or might in the future.
When members of the Churchill County Education Association in Fallon, Nev. thought an article in the high school student newspaper made a teacher look bad, their reaction wasn’t very educationally sound: They wanted administrators to censor the publication.
Lauren MacLean’s article in The Flash covered a controversy over audition tapes for the state honor choir and parental concern with the music teacher who, they claim, was to have sent them. Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State, who wrote about this in the Center for Scholastic Journalism blog, has seen the article and reports, “It is student journalism at its best: fact-based, not inflammatory, insightful, relevant. It simply gives readers the facts and lets them reach their own conclusions.”
Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada and former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, also expressed his concern. On the Web site for the Reno Gazette-Journal, Ceppos suggested the teachers’ union needed the colorful, two-story-tall banner now hanging in his school with the 45 words in the First Amendment sewn into it.
Luckily, no one censored anything. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, MacLean’s article was to run Friday. Its editorial concluded, “But in the little town of Fallon, a welcome spark of freedom now shines. Taking the more courageous and principled course, Mr. Lords (the principal) and Ms. Ross (the superintendent) — and young Lauren MacLean — did well.”
Should we be bothered that the superintendent told Ceppos both she and the principal read the article before publication? Maybe that’s material for another blog.
What skills will citizens need in a future that requires deciphering information and communicating effectively? How can schools and their attitude towards the use of new and social media make a difference?
As the journalism concepts we teach expand to include new and social media, will our “fourth estate” guidelines maintain a foothold in the new communications “fifth estate”?
Can we trust new media to keep democracy vibrant and vital?
“What Values,” a live and online conference sponsored recently at Kent State University by several groups including The Poynter Institute and Online News Association, raised these and other questions about commercial media.
In one session, Poynter ethics group leader Kelly McBride highlighted recent findings of their Sense-Makers Project: Media credibility is at an all-time low; people feel that bias exists throughout the media and that media fairness and accuracy are at an all-time low. The study also noted trust in the media improves with important stories.
Questions this study raise apply also to scholastic journalism because new and social media are starting to appear in classrooms. Meanwhile, school officials are attempting more than ever to control student expression in new and social media they use outside the schoolhouse gate.
Questions for those of us in scholastic media, based on issues McBride raised, include:
• Do schools fail if they do not help teach students how to evaluate what they hear and see – before they repeat it using newly found social media? Can new and social media help educate students and increase their understanding of media and the communications process?
• How can we help schools embrace the strengths and weaknesses of new media to educate students? Can we avoid shutting down these venues as administrators often do with filters and Internet use?
• Can it be said student journalism/media involve life skills? How can we, as educators, help students effectively disseminate reliable information and question that which is not? Should life skills include “media literacy or crap detecting” as well as information verification?
• Can teaching students to make thoughtful use of social media help define the role journalism plays in a democracy? Will better educated students mean more questioning and aware citizens?
• Should we continue to place value in”objective-based” reporting or re-build the historical model of point-of-view media so readers choose what they want to hear? What does this do to our concept of democracy? Will relying on information people want to hear rebuild trust in media or begin the fracturing of democracy? Will it re-energize civility? Or…will no one notice?
• What does a lack of trust in the media mean for the role of journalism at the scholastic level? If there is a lack of trust in scholastic media, why does it exist and how can it be fixed?
• How can schools best provide new skill sets for students to better participate in a democracy?
We need to quickly develop answers and approaches to these and other questions to best help our students in a changing media world.
We continue to raise the question, borrowed partially from a recent ethics workshop at Kent State University: What Values?
What value is there in prior review by anyone outside the student media staff? Even if administrators can claim some sort of legal allowance stating they can, what are the ethical and educational values indicating they should? Who gains? Who is harmed? What elements of the school mission are fulfilled? How does the action serve truth and accuracy?
Along this line is a relatively new upshot on prior review (maybe not new, but certainly new to this timeframe): The superintendent as publisher; the principal as editor and the adviser as assistant adviser.
The students: certainly not getting a journalism education.
We would again ask: What is the educational value? How does this address the greater good? Who benefits? Who is harmed? What are students learning about the values of a school system that removes them from the process of critical thinking and decision making – and also puts their teacher and principal in legal harm’s way?
What values – educational or otherwise – are at play?
Speaking of What Values, those teachers interested in lesson plans to address journalism ethics and discussions on online ethics have a free source.
The plans are available for high schools to supplement Kent State-Poynter What Values? workshop Sept. 17. Download materials at the workshop site by scrolling down to the lesson plan button. You can also follow the discussions on online journalism ethics from the workshop.