by Randy Swikle
Retired Student Newspaper Adviser
Johnsburg High School, Johnsburg, Ill.
In 2002, my principal at Johnsburg High School, Chuck Dill, was JEA’s Administrator of the Year. He was an exemplary facilitator who involved local stakeholders of scholastic journalism in a partnership that guarded student autonomy, that balanced student press rights with ethics and pedagogical responsibilities and that nurtured First Amendment education, appreciation and application.
Students were empowered but not emancipated; educators were authoritative but not authoritarian; and the school culture was collaborative and not autocratic. It was an ideal balance of responsibilities that cultivated democratic learning and inspired engaged citizenship.
One Labor Day weekend, our principal was arrested and charged with operating a motorboat while under the influence. He put the school mission above his personal vulnerability and supported the right of student reporters to cover the story on Page 1 of their Johnsburg Weekly News publication. The principal contested the charge, and a judge later exonerated him. That story was covered on Page 1, too.
In the 25 years I advised the JWN, no administrator ever threatened censorship or required prior review of the paper. Controversy was a staple, as it is in any authentic American newspaper. Rather than fear contention, the Johnsburg school community embraced diverse perspectives as an innate feature of a free society. And when journalistic mistakes were made, stakeholders did not point fingers but rather joined hands to problem-solve and inspire remedies.
Principal Dill was a proponent of partnership. I once asked him to list his expectations for the partner who advises the newspaper staff — me! His response serves as a model for nurturing scholastic journalism and the school mission:
No. 10: Understand the peripheral aspects of your job. It is more than teaching journalism. It’s also being an advocate, a problem-solver, a diplomat, a counselor, a personal mentor, a friend, a businessman, a facilitator, a spokesman and a hundred other things.
No. 9: Communicate effectively and ethically. Use strategies of dissemination and persuasion to make a profound difference on the side of what’s right. Focus on issues and maintain the courage to prioritize principle above personal vulnerability.
Marina Hendricks, a member of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, has developed a “Social Media Toolbox” for use by student journalists and their advisers. The toolbox, available at hendricksproject.wordpress.com, features 16 lessons on social media plus related resources. The lessons can be used as a unit or individually, depending on the needs of students, advisers and school publication programs.
As a unit, the lessons are designed to help student journalists and their advisers navigate the transition into using social media as part of their publication programs. The unit starts with ethical decision-making to help guide students through the process. It continues with exploration of reasons for using social media, consideration of how social media tools are employed by journalists, and evaluation of the school community’s use of social media through a survey.
Lessons abound following the death this morning – and premature reports of it – of Penn State football legend Joe Paterno.
We raised the ethical question of print first versus verify first in October with our Ethical Guidelines for scholastic media, prepared in conjunction with JEA’s Digitial Media Committee.
Is it better to break news and correct as needed, or verify first and be sure of what you report?
Monday, when classes restart, we can only hope there will be significant discussion on all the ethical issues, as well of those of the available technology that bring those issues to the forefront.
For that class discussion, we would recommend the following links:
• How false reports of Joe Paterno’s death were spread and debunked
• False paterno death reports highlight journalists’ hunger for glory
• College news site that misreported Jo Paterno death heralded as future of student media
• What happened last night
• The Paterno story: what went wrong
• Onward State Facebook page
• The news and retractions of Joe Paterno’s death told through Storify
Whether we talk of the ethical or technological issues first, it should be abundantly clear we must also discuss the social responsibility role of the media with this story.
If we of scholastic media learn from those in commercial or citizen media, what we learn – and practice – must go beyond the how to include the why.
The last question of our current series.
Do you have others you would raise?
• What does a free press contribute to our democratic society? What are its advantages and disadvantages? Who benefits from a free press? Now repeat the questions for scholastic media? Are there any differences? What and why?
Here’s another question in our series. Appropriate for Constitution Day?
• What if any issues or topics should be “untouchable” by student journalists? Why?
Is it the topic or the process that might lead to censorship problems?