Pages Navigation Menu

Try P-R-O active measures
to avoid charges of ‘questionable’ reporting

Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

by Stan Zoller
In his 1935 classic, “It Can’t Happen Here,” the late Sinclair Lewis wrote about a small-town newspaper editor, who, struggles with the efforts of a fascist leader’s administration censor his paper and ends up in a concentration camp. After escaping from the camp, he ends up in Canada, before leading a resistance movement in the United States.

And you thought your principal was annoying.

Like the thought that the United States would never have a fascist dictator, scholastic journalism educators should not be naïve that because their principal is a wonderful person or they’ve been teaching for decades, that it “can’t happen here.”

It can. It has. It will.

That’s just the nature of the beast.

No matter how many awards your students have won, honors you have received, as many advisers have found out, a change in administrators, a “questionable” story, or even the arrival of new adviser with limited experience can foster changes that lead to prior review and prior restraint.

There a plethora of resources for advisers who suddenly find their program facing prior review. Among the best (obviously) are those at JEASPRC.ORG, including the ‘Panic Button’ that gives you support from the Scholastic Press Rights Commission and the Student Press Law Center.

But is there a way to avoid prior review? Maybe. Obviously, there are administrators and even journalism educators who have their own agendas, so no whatever you try to do will not make a difference.

You can, however, take some steps that may counter concerns of district or building administrators.

The first, quite obviously, is to practice solid and fundamental journalism. Obviously.

Make sure your students (and we’re not talking rocket science here) have multiple sources who are accountable. Make sure all information is verifiable and that sources, no matter if they are experts in a specific area, teachers, staff or community leaders, are free of bias. Make sure your reporting is transparent and that you explain who your sources are or what organization or person is behind a specific web site. If your students tried to contact someone who did not return phone calls or email requests for interviews, make sure that is indicated in an article.

Make sure your students (and we’re not talking rocket science here) have multiple sources who are accountable. Make sure all information is verifiable and that sources, no matter if they are experts in a specific area, teachers, staff or community leaders, are free of bias. Make sure your reporting is transparent and that you explain who your sources are or what organization or person is behind a specific web site. If your students tried to contact someone who did not return phone calls or email requests for interviews, make sure that is indicated in an article.

Again, this isn’t rocket science, but simple steps that could fall through the cracks, especially if a student does not meet all prescribed deadlines.

Another way to hopefully avoid the pain of prior review is to practice protocol. Randy Swikle, the godfather of protocol, put together an outstanding guide for stakeholders of student media. “Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media” was an offshoot of a conference by the same name in 2010. The book is available as a .PDF at Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media.

You’ll find that at the root of effective protocol is regular communication between your student media and the other stakeholders in your district and building. Don’t wait until there’s a “controversial story” that may appear in your media. Administrators don’t like surprises. Like any news consumer, administrators expect quality journalism with stories that are verifiable, independent and accountable.

The challenge is when there’s a story they “don’t like” because, as someone once told me, journalism is reporting about something that people don’t want people to know. It’s disturbing to hear more advisers say their principal expects student media to be a “PR piece” for the school, or worse, for the principal’s or superintendent’s personal agenda.

The key? Try Protocol…and remember the first three letters – P-R-O – as in proactive.

Read More

Determining – and practicing– journalism’s secret words

Posted by on Dec 9, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

by Stan Zoller
During his game show, “You Bet Your Life,” the late Groucho Marx would challenge his contestants to “say the secret word and win $100.”

Imagine what it would be like if Groucho had his show today and featured as his panelists, a high school administrator and high school journalist.

What would the secret word be?

There’s a good chance the journalists, fresh from the fall JEA conference and beaming with ideas and insights in to the First Amendment and press rights, might say “Openness,” “Trust” or “Fairness.”

The administrator, on the other hand, may say something like, “Positive” or “Review.” Odds are they’d say more, but remember, we’re talking one word here and administrators seldom explain anything in one word.

Perhaps, however, the one word that could emerge as the secret word came out of a conference held several years ago.  In “Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media,” funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s Civics Group, the overriding general premise was if administrators and those students, teachers and advisers involved in student media would practice protocol, there would hopefully be a better understanding of what each was trying to accomplish.

Conceptually, it’s a great idea.  Protocol relies on communication, trust and cooperation.

Unfortunately, the gatekeepers of schools and even school districts put personal agendas ahead of a free and open student media.  I’ve heard principals say they don’t care what’s in the student media as long as it is “positive.”  In other words, don’t rock the boat and you’ll be fine.

So what is positive news?  Is our student media to cover only the Homecoming Queen, pizza sales for after prom?  The news that impacts our – not just students’- -world is not always positive.  Student journalists everywhere wrote about the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school, and the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  It’s not positive news, but many student media raised questions about the safety of their school.  A valid story.

Some people say that news is information that authorities would rather the media not report.  In other words, it is not “positive.”

If schools fail to meet state standards, are student journalists to avoid writing about the results because they are not positive news?  I know of one adviser who had the principal talk to his journalism class during which the principal said how she likes to “leak” news stories to the student newspaper.

Leaks from the principal’s office?  That sounds more like controlling information the public needs to know.  It should also set off the yellow light in a student journalist’s mind, or any journalist for that matter, that there is a lack of transparency emanating from the administration.

There are no “high school journalists” — but journalists who are in high school.  They have the same rights as any other journalists.  Any administrator who deems it appropriate to “leak” the news is not leading an educational institution in the best interests of its students, let alone student journalists.

Stakeholders associated with student media extend beyond the schoolyard fence.  Parents, the public at large and alumni are all part of the potential audience for student media.  Like students, faculty and staff, they deserve a free and responsible student media steeped in trust and responsibility.

And those just might be the secret words.

Read More

Establishing protocol terminology

Posted by on Feb 9, 2010 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

How do you handle disagreement with administrators, especially if prior review or restraint are involved?

One way might be to establish a protocol, a process of discussing the situation with all stakeholders.

An early step in developing that a meaningful processw is to agree on definitions. We think the following terms need to be defined, and hopefully agreed on:

Responsibility. This would include responsibility for students, for advisers and for administrators. It most definitely must include journalistic responsibility.
• Journalism. Although this seems to be obvious, a common understanding of the process could address early demands for prior review. For example, is the process that follow prior review journalism? Is it public relations? Is it something else, and would defining terms before there are issues make a difference?
• Prior review. Maybe this needs definition just to find out what it is not. At any rate, what all parties think is review and what is not should be quite clear to all.
• Forum for student expression. Under which forum do your students operate?  Are all stakeholders aware of the types and the differences? Do they agree?

So, if you would, help us get a better picture of how you, as advisers, and your students, and even your administrators, define those terms. Post your comments here for others to see and share.

If can establish common ground, then perhaps we can move toward a workable protocol to avoid censorship.

Read More