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Ungagging your reporting is essential for transparency, accountability

Posted by on Apr 14, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on Ungagging your reporting is essential for transparency, accountability


by Stan Zoller, MJE
Want to get your news consumers to read a story? Give them a good, no great, lede. A good lede will not only get them to read a story, but may very well captivate them as well. But this piece isn’t about lede writing.

It’s from the Society of Professional Journalists’ update to its ongoing project, “Gagged
” that meticulously details the issue of, as it says, “ Who’s allowed to talk to the press?

According to the First Amendment, in most cases the answer should be anyone. But the reality for many Americans, particularly those who are employed, is far more complicated.

The report, on the SPJ website, not only provides background, but also ways journalists can get involved. What the research team found: example of documents received from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and a sample FOIA requests.

It’s a superb collection of insights and tools. However, what makes it so valuable are not just the lessons and tools available, but the insights that journalists, including scholastic journalists should review and take into consideration when pursuing a story.

At issue, in general terms, are policies that limit employees and public officials from speaking to the media.

The report notes that “The silencing of employees is problematic for workers, journalists and the public for many reasons, and is especially troubling in the public sector, which is funded by taxpayers dollars and protected by the First Amendment.”

Call it gagging or restraint, the bottom line is that such policies block transparency by organizations and public bodies, such as city councils and school boards. Journalists should know an organization’s policies about speaking to the media and be prepared to work with them or, if need be, use tools such as the FOIA to get information.

How tricky can these policies be? According to the report, the “Palm Beach County, Florida, public schools states that principals can speak without permission and must merely “notify” the affairs office, but says nothing about other employees.”

Other school districts have policies that offer varying degrees of access to the media by employees. For example, researchers found that Escambia County, Florida’s public school system has nothing in its rulebook about news media communications. Savannah, Georgia’s public schools say media are “asked” to coordinate with public affairs on site visits but otherwise include no restrictive language.

So, what’s a reporter to do? As noted, make sure you understand a, in this case a school district’s policy. Look for potential loopholes.

For example, does the policy extend to school board members? Does the policy include full- and part-time teachers? Does it include no teaching personnel, like athletic coaches or co-curricular advisers? Know the breadth of a policy will enable you to look for additional sources and prepare questions that fit within the framework of guidelines. If you’re dealing with a policy like the one in place in the Savannah, Georgia schools, have an understanding of what coordination is with public affairs. There’s always a possibility they’ll want to review your questions ahead of time.

Avoid this if possible because there’s a strong likelihood you’ll get “canned answers” developed but the districts’PR Flaks. If you submit the answers by email, there’s a chance an email response that the public affairs folks may think will suffice.

If this happens, be transparent in your reporting and clearly note that an in-person interview was denied in favor of email response generated by the PR Flak or some other person or department. Be sure to name the individual and/or the department.

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From the SPRC vaults

Posted by on Mar 26, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on From the SPRC vaults


They commonly make news – for better or worse – as April Fools, Senior Wills and Senior Superlatives.

Their value often agitates some, incenses others. Others roll their eyes and sigh.

Sometimes reactions are more intense and spark highly charged reactions: prior review, prior restraint and more.

Before your student media choose to publish anything of similar style, student staffers should decide purpose, value and truth of what they are about to unleash.

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Tomorrow’s Nellie Bly may be working on student media today

Posted by on Mar 2, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on Tomorrow’s Nellie Bly may be working on student media today


Two high school students, participants in the Dow Jones News Fund workshop at Kent State University in 2001, interview each other for the first story they had to write. Getting an early start as a journalist was a big plus in for many women journalists, including Katie Couric, who interned at the all-news Washington, D.C. radio station WAVA when she was in high school. (photo by Candace Bowen)

by Candace Bowen, MJE

If one of journalism’s jobs is to give voice to the voiceless, we should pay close attention to women in the field, especially in March, which is Women’s History Month.

This is a good time, according to the special website of the Library of Congress and other entities in Washington, D.C., to “commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women….” 

What female journalists come to mind? Possibly historical figures like Nellie Bly, really named Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who broke the record of Jules Verne’s fictional character and went around the world in 72 (not 80) days. But she also wrote about issues no one spoke oft at the time: bad conditions for women in factories and abuse from male family members. Such subjects meant the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where she worked at the time, lost advertisers, so her editor let her only write about fashion and social events.  

She left Pittsburgh and eventually became a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. In the late 1880s, this meant she could cover more important – and sometimes sensational — issues. For instance, she went undercover in a mental institution, called the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and spent 10 days there to report on the abuse and neglect. Copies of some of her stories and what else she covered are accessible through the Library of Congress link. 

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SJW: Celebrate & rejuvenate

Posted by on Feb 19, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on SJW: Celebrate & rejuvenate


by John Bowen, MJE

Let the fireworks – figuratively or real – begin

For now is the time of JEA’s Student Journalism Week and all it can do to further democratic ideals.

For 100 years, JEA’s mission has been to support free and responsible scholastic journalism by providing resources and educational opportunities for students and advisers across the country. Although numerous things have changed since 1924, the goal remains.

Celebrate Scholastic Journalism Week. Photo by Anthony Roberts on Unsplash

On Meet the Press Feb. 18, host Kristen Welker showed a clip of Senator John McCain of Arizona talking about the absolute necessity of a free and, at times, aggressive press.

That point can be made about the importance of free and journalistically press in the nation’s schools. If students don’t see the working of free, student run student news media in schools, they won’t understand or practice journalism’s key roles.

As we can clearly see in events today, a society whose press, at any level, is not understood or trusted, often withers away into News Deserts, disinformation machines and stealthful liars, instead of centers of journalistic and social responsibility.

As we celebrate Scholastic Journalism Week and Scholastic Press Freedom Day, cheer and promote journalism as a life-changing education in democratic engagement. But also take time to look at issues and events that will require accurate, contextual and thorough reporting. And sometimes aggressive reporting.

Student journalists and communities can benefit from examining four key cornerstones that nurture, challenge and broaden journalism’s leadership for the future.

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Scholastic Journalism as the Fourth Estate

Posted by on Feb 4, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on Scholastic Journalism as the Fourth Estate

Student Journalists can play the role of District and Community Watchdogs
Copyright © 2008 Roger H. Goun Creative Commons License

by Tom McHale
New Jersey has launched multiple legislative initiatives designed to strengthen our democratic institutions. Consider the following bills signed into law in the last few years:

  • Civics Education Expansion to Middle Schools (7/23/21): “By deepening civics instruction in middle school and high school, we are giving students the tools they need to be more engaged and informed citizens,” said Governor Murphy.
  • New Voices of NJ (12/21/2021): The law protects the rights of student journalists in public high schools and colleges to editorial control of scholastic publications and protects advisers from retribution.
  • Student Representatives on School Board (1/22) – Requires a non-voting student representative to be appointed to each district school board that includes grades 9-12.
  • Information Literacy (1/4/23): Legislation directs the Department of Education to develop standards for Information and Media Literacy to address the “proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse.”
  • Civic Engagement (1/16/24): Allows students to take an excused absence from school to attend a civic event “sponsored by a government entity, a community-based organization, or a nonprofit” that includes” an element of “service learning and addresses a public issue or concern.”

These laws aim to address what is seen as a crisis in our democracy by attempting to develop students into informed, active citizens. While well-meaning, they operate independently from one another and often at the discretion of school administrators. A more effective approach would incorporate these initiatives into a system that requires students to practice citizenship and participate in democratic institutions.

The best way for students to learn to become active, ethical citizens is to play that role while in school with the guidance and encouragement of trained educators. Unfortunately, most public high schools don’t operate according to democratic principles and don’t promote student voice and choice. The small, private Free and Sudbury Schools provide an example public schools could learn from, but I don’t expect many to incorporate these structures any time soon. Nevertheless, showing this video to my students in a persuasive writing unit on school reform led to some interesting debates about personalized learning, student empowerment and responsibility.

Scholastic Journalists as District and Community Watchdogs

A robust and representative student government that brings the student body’s concerns to administrators and school board members can be an essential democratic learning tool. It’s important that the students feel their leaders are representing their concerns accurately and ethically. Information on how the student government operates and serves the student body is also essential. Scholastic journalism should work to keep its readers informed about its student government in the same way the local and national professional press does.  

But if student journalists are to truly mimic the role of the professional press, they must go beyond informing readers about their student government. They need to do the difficult but necessary work of covering the power structures and decision-makers at the school and district levels.

Become Familiar with Power Structures and the Decision-Making Process

Scholastic publications can make a school’s power structures more apparent and the decision-making process more transparent. However, in my experience, even the school staff often needs to be made aware of this information. So, how can advisers support and encourage students to do this work?

Teach students how to find the information they need. How do they find district policies on scholastic publications, student behavior, and discipline? Are these policies online? Are they easy to find? Have students practice finding policies on issues that matter to them and their audience.

What is the school and district hierarchy? Who does each administrator answer to? What areas are they responsible for? Create a giant flow chart to illustrate this that students have access to. This will help them identify the best person to interview for any issue, policy change, or decision. Then, invite as many of these people as possible to talk to the staff to discuss their jobs and how they make decisions.

Teach students how to read school board minutes and agendas. The business of school boards can be confusing, especially for teens. I suggest having someone who serves on the board come in and talk about the process, the board committees, the difference between agendas and minutes, how they are created, and what items on the agenda mean. Then, help students practice developing questions based on agenda items and minutes.

Have students attend or watch school board meetings. Require that students attend a board meeting and take notes on what they think would be newsworthy for their readers, along with questions they have. In many districts, board meetings are broadcast on TV and YouTube. Some are even recorded. Using video can make it easier to assign students sections of the meeting to focus

Reach out to organizations that play a significant role in a district. Teachers unions, principal and supervisor associations, and school board associations may agree to help educate students about what they do and how the system works. While working on New Voices legislation in New Jersey, I realized the power these organizations can wield and how their competing interests can sometimes interact. Allowing students a glimpse into this may help them deepen their understanding of the issues and politics involved in their district.  

Student journalists need to attend the meetings where decisions that affect their readers are made.

They need to research, prepare, and be allowed to ask questions of those making these decisions. Once they better understand the structures and processes in a school district, they will be better equipped to report on issues that matter to their audience. 

Hyperlocal = Unique and Relevant

I liked to remind my students that, like every other publication, they compete for an audience: Why would someone go to your publication to read about gun control when they can get the same content from a more credible source online? What are you offering that is unique? 

While students can certainly offer a teenage perspective on national issues, they better serve their audience by covering local events and issues. They are better equipped to report on this than anyone else due to their experiences and access to school or local sources. 

I recently talked to Katy Temple about this. She currently works as an aide to Governor Murphy in the Office of Appointments. Temple is a Columbia University graduate, a former Student Press Law Center Intern, and a former editor-in-chief of The Torch, Bergen County Community College’s newspaper. During her tenure at The Torch, Katy began to see the importance of focusing more coverage on school and the decision-making that impacted readers. 

 Student journalists often want to cover the stories they see in the national press.

“You know, you want to cover the big flashy stories,” Temple said. “You want to cover the midterm elections, and you want to cover gun violence and all of these things because that’s what you see in the bigger press outlets. But those aren’t the things that are most relevant or even the most important to our readership.” 

Temple’s advisers, Will Wheaton and Sue Toth, encouraged a shift in the newspaper’s coverage.

“And so I think shifting that focus was something that I first had to be made aware of, and then once I knew that that shift in content had to be made, then we were able to go and do it,” Temple said. “So I think it starts with advisers and making sure that advisers are also encouraging [student journalists] to do this.”

Temple realized this when she took on the role of editor-in-chief of The Torch. 

“I kind of came in like a tornado on it, in all honesty,” she said. “I wanted to make big changes. I wanted to get us back entering awards and winning things and doing things like that to kind of put us back on the map. But I think that that was more possible when I had an adviser who was also willing to make these radical changes, whether it be in coverage in editing, layout, whatever it may be.” 

Filling in the Gaps in Local News Coverage

Scholastic journalism is uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity for students. The more closely scholastic journalism mimics professional journalism’s role in our democratic society, the more students will benefit. In many communities, this means filling in to cover the school or local events and meetings that news outlets used to cover.  In the process, student journalists can learn the vital watchdog role that news organizations must play in our society – despite the criticism and ridicule they sometimes face.

Temple did a session on Student Journalism and Democracy at the Garden State Scholastic Press Association’s Fall Conference. She left the students and advisers with a final message to think about.

“We’ve all heard that democracy dies in darkness, but democracy actually dies without you being the student [journalists]. If we don’t have you filling in these gaps and doing the work that professional outlets used to do, then we don’t have a fully functioning democracy, or our democracy isn’t working the way that it should be,” she told students. 

“For advisers, I think it is to believe in the students the way that they should believe in themselves,” Temple said. “We often hear that students are young and they don’t know what they’re doing or their brains aren’t fully developed, right? But these students are going to go into the world that we have kind of created for them. And so not only should they be aware of what’s going on now before they get to fully participate in it, but with the proper encouragement and support.  They have the capabilities to do really good work and do the job of professional outlet, but you really have to foster that confidence and that belief system in them from the beginning.”

For more on how students are serving as local reporters serving communities in news deserts, see Candace Bowen’s series of posts. 
And don’t forget to check out the activities posted for Scholastic Journalism Week (2/19-2/23).

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