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They need the freedom
to make mistakes, too

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by Lindsay Coppens, adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Scholastic press freedom is a big responsibility, and true freedom comes when young journalists aren’t just free to do great journalism but also are free to make journalistic mistakes and learn from them.

As teachers and advisers, we work hard to teach our student journalists the principles, skills and ethics they need while fostering their abilities to problem solve and communicate.

We need to continually remember, though, that it is the students’ publication, and while it can be tempting to continually hold their hands or catch them before they fall, the most powerful lessons can come from failures. My new editorial board recently had one of these learning-from-failure experiences, and I am confident they are stronger journalists because of it.

We need to continually remember, though, that it is the students’ publication, and while it can be tempting to continually hold their hands or catch them before they fall, the most powerful lessons can come from failures.

Like many publications, at our paper a new editorial board begins its work in the spring. The new editors take the reins continuing established traditions, figuring out how to make their own mark, and tackling the behemoth task of organizing and creating social media posts, daily online updates and a final print issue of the year.

This year’s new group of 15 editors did a particularly great job putting together an ambitious 24-page print issue two weeks before school let out for summer. They set a goal (and met it) of pushing their page design in a more creative direction while taking on issues of substance.

They took a stand by writing an editorial which reprimanded the graduating class and others of recent years for destructive pranks and behaviors at celebratory school events, encouraging future seniors to have fun while being less harmful to others. They did all of this working as a team for the first time while I, their adviser who is normally there for most of the long after school “press week” hours, was largely absent due to a family medical emergency.

As I told the editors, my absence during their first issue was a true test of their skills and will. I hadn’t read about half the published pieces until the print issue hit the stands, and while I saw many of the pages pre-publication (mainly through pictures editors texted me asking for feedback) and gave some suggestions, this was the most hands-off I’ve been with any issue since I started advising eight years ago. I was incredibly proud of what they accomplished.

Then a few hours after the paper was distributed, I received an email from a senior class adviser who was angry about the editorial. She listed at least four key facts she claimed they got wrong, and while she recognized it was an opinion piece, she was “very disappointed with the wild inaccuracy of the article.”

Immediately my heart sank. What had happened? Was she right or were the kids?

I briefly replied, thanking her for the feedback, affirming that accuracy is of the utmost importance and letting her know I was forwarding her concerns to the student editors-in-chief who would be in touch with her soon.

I wanted the communication to be directly between her and the editors, but I also respect my relationship with my colleague. After meeting with the editors who looked physically ill when they realized their mistake in reporting rumors which they had not fact checked, I sent her one more follow up email the same afternoon:

“I just wanted you to know that the kids are having an editorial board meeting right now, and the biggest topic is the editorial–what went right, what went wrong (and how & why). They are picking apart their process and how they do or don’t fact-check, and what to do when mistakes are made. Anyhow, it sounds as if the process fell apart and they forgot about being skeptical reporters and that opinions need to be based on verified facts. The editors should be in touch with you soon to talk.”

 “‘Thanks for following up with me and hopefully this can be a good real-life learning experience for our budding journalists. :-)’”

She wrapped up her reply to me on an understanding note, which reaffirmed that much of our community understands the school paper isn’t just a product but an educational process: “Thanks for following up with me and hopefully this can be a good real-life learning experience for our budding journalists. :-)”

Meanwhile, at their lengthy meeting the editors identified every single fact that needed to be verified (and should have been before publication), and they put a plan into action that two editors would spearhead a fact-checking mission and write a completely new editorial to be published online.

This editorial would be honest in recognizing their mistakes and emphasize transparency in an attempt to not only set the record straight but also regain the trust of readers.

They also realized that the editorial was not a mistake of only one person, but illuminated a weakness and breakdown in their collective process: they had all read and approved of the piece, but not one had questioned the details beyond phrasing, word choices and grammar.

As a group they agreed they needed to be more skeptical and rigorous in their reading, even and perhaps especially of each other’s work. They also recognized the need to establish a clear fact-check protocol for every published piece.

In the end the editors formally interviewed seven sources, informally spoke with many others, and attempted to interview additional key players, all while preparing for and taking their final exams. As a result, they wrote and published an editorial, “Be skeptical of rumors, thoroughly check facts,” that I am incredibly proud of.

The piece begins candidly: “We made a mistake because we listened to rumors instead of skeptically stopping and checking the facts.”

The editorial continues by revealing and apologizing for their mistakes, sharing their process of determining the facts and affirming their commitment to their readers. Their work clearly demonstrates humility, transparency and dedication to being good journalists.

Yes, they stumbled and briefly fell, but my team learned more than I could have taught them in a classroom lesson. They are stronger journalists for the experience.

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