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

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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.

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