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Make it matter: Scholastic journalism
must do more than give facts QT45

Posted by on Jan 22, 2018 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

by Kristin Taylor
How can student journalists keep their publications relevant when information spreads faster than they can report it?

Professional journalists have struggled with this problem for years. Before the advent of the internet and social media, news producers — whether newspaper, radio or broadcast — were citizens’ primary source of information. News consumers found out about terrorists attacks and new government policies when they opened the morning paper or turned on the evening news.

In modern times, however, those gatekeepers have lost control. Now people have more information than they know what to do with. This flood of data creates a number of problems — especially in terms of helping people separate fact from fiction — but I want to focus today on the issue it creates in terms of engagement.

If news consumers have the facts about an event — or at least think they do — why should they care when the paper publishes a story about it? We hope they care because they trust traditional news sources to have a vetting process for their stories; unlike Tweets at 2 a.m., these stories have been fact-checked and include a variety of primary and expert sources to ensure truthfulness in a holistic sense. News literate consumers know the value of good journalism, we hope, and will therefore seek it out.

Beyond getting the facts right, good journalism has a larger responsibility to serve as sense-maker. “When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what’s happening — whether that’s the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots,” Ken Doctor writes. “No, they don’t want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole.”

This is what sets major news sources such as the New York Times apart from local news sources, Doctor argues. “It’s authority,” he writes. “You read the Times to understand. Sometimes it does a better job of that than others, but its great success in reader revenue shows us its audience gets that part of the value equation. Yes, readers can get the facts of the Gaza War free in so many places, but they can’t get a volume of rich, contextual stories from both sides of the conflict elsewhere every day.”

In his essay “Journalism’s Moral Responsibility: Three Questions,” Bill Mitchell argues journalism has a moral obligation to cover important stories and help readers understand their importance. He poses three crucial questions:

  1. Do news organizations help citizens and communities, including political leaders, identify and respond to the most significant threats to well-being?
  2. Do news organizations pursue a well-grounded definition of what constitutes substantive coverage?
  3. Do news organizations take responsibility for how their work is pursued and how it is received?

The key, he argues, is to make important news salient. “In moral journalism, salient is more than important, interesting, or relevant. It’s more than selling a story that no one would otherwise read, or dumping it on an ignorant world with the righteous justification that it ought to be read. For journalists, Salient is a moral term, not a marketing one,” he writes. “Our moral responsibility is to cover significant threats to well-being, substantively, in such a way that our coverage leaps out, protrudes, and is strikingly and conspicuously prominent. So that it sears the conscience of our fellow citizens.”

He points to Laurel Leff’s research on the Times’ coverage of the Holocaust during 1939-1945. Leff found the Times did cover the Holocaust, but coverage tended to be on inside pages and was missing in editorial commentary and summaries of important news. In her report,

Leff writes, “Despite the detailed, credible information that was available, the American public actually did not know about the Holocaust while it was happening because mainstream American newspapers never presented the story of the extermination of the Jews in a way that highlighted its importance.” In other words, Mitchell concludes, “the Times had the story. It just didn’t make it salient.”

Mitchell’s essay aims at national and global news sources and news events on a much larger scale than those typical at a high school, clearly, but I believe this raises important questions for the moral responsibilities of scholastic journalists. If they want their reporting to matter — if they want their peers to read more than the humor columns or resta

Here are my suggestions for reworking Mitchell’s three questions for a scholastic journalism staff:

  1. Do you help members of the school community, including school and local leaders, identify and respond to the most significant problems affecting the community?
  2. Do you pursue a well-grounded definition of what constitutes substantive coverage, going beyond the who, what and where to explore how and why?
  3. Do you take responsibility for how your work is pursued

Although these questions are not a complete solution, they are a starting point for creating greater engagement without abandoning the most important stories.

Guideline:

Journalists should present relevant information in context so the audience has adequate information on which to base decisions. Context is just as important as factual accuracy and can help readers fully understand an issue and its relevance to their daily lives.

Social Media Post/Topic:

How can student journalists keep their publications relevant when information spreads faster than they can report it? Make it salient.

Reasoning/suggestions:

Staff members should not only fact-check their information but should also ask themselves questions such as “What does this story mean to my readers?” and “What do I want my readers to take away from this information?” This means gathering not only the 5Ws and H but also connecting dots for readers by helping them see related ideas, important relationships or significant background information. By assuming a topic is new to readers, editors can revise from the perspective of the audience and look for any holes that might be present.

Suggestions

  • Reporters should address all 5Ws and H. Training materials and checklists in the staff manual also should address helping readers understand what the information means and why it’s significant.
  • Part of the process may including asking members with no prior knowledge of a story to give feedback before publication or airing on whether the information provided is clear and paints a full picture of what is happening.
  • The staff manual should include material about how to solicit feedback from readers about what kinds of stories, details or information they need in order to better understand current events and make content salient.
  • Student media staffs should label analysis and opinion content so readers understand these are not objective news pieces.

 

Resources:

Good stories provide context, American Press Institute

Informing the news: The need for knowledge-based reporting, Journalists’ Resource

The newsonomics of how and why, Nieman Lab

Journalism’s Moral Responsibility: Three Questions, Poynter

10 essential principles from The Elements of Journalism, American Press Institute

“Context” is the new flavor for journalism, The Pomo Blog

Fast-Paced Journalism’s Neglect of Nuance and Context, Nieman Report

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