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After 234 years, Hamilton’s words remain spot on

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers in 1787, odds are more than pretty good that scholastic journalism wasn’t on their minds. 

two black skeleton keys on an old paper
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Safe bet.

In one of the 51 essays he wrote, Hamilton noted that “…A government continually at a distance and out of sight can hardly be expected to interest the sensations of the people.”

His point is simple – government needs to be visible and accountable to the people. Pronounced 234 years ago, the point still rings true today and it has obviously been a challenge for the media to be the watchdog of governments, large and small, national and local.

It’s not just the job of the professional media, to hold governments and elected officials accountable; it’s the job of the media whether large or small, national or local.

And this includes scholastic media.

As the Spring elections approach, many school districts will be holding elections for school board candidates. No doubt, the welfare of our schools should be front and center. Beyond being fiscal watchdogs, school board candidates, whether incumbents or first-time candidates, need to be transparent about their plans for the district.

This includes the student media. There are candidates who appear to take the posture that student journalists should be seen and not heard and the student media – whether newspaper, broadcast or yearbook – should focus on school activities and make sure they report on Muffy and Chip who were homecoming king and queen. They would probably prefer that student journalists not cover school board, city councils, building and district administrations, yet they would advocate for students to be civically active.

School board candidates who are proponents for the schools must look at not only, as stated, the budget, but also the curriculum and extracurricular activities. The combination of the latter two helps students not only learn, but also practice an activity of special interest to them whether it’s playing the cello, playing soccer or contributing to student media. 

It’s common sense. Unfortunately, some school board members establish themselves as the experts in everything and think they have the final say on all matters related to the aforementioned curriculum and activities.

Take for example a school board candidate in suburban Chicago who took exception to an opinion piece written by a student staff member of a school’s student newspaper.

The student voiced his opinion ethically and directly about two candidates in the upcoming April 6 school board election. The piece, which was approved by the adviser as the paper is part of a journalism course, was posted on the paper’s website and everything was fine. Or so it seemed.

One candidate, however, took exception to the piece. 

Instead of contacting the adviser or student, the candidate went directly to the principal. 

Two things resulted.

The first is the following paragraph was developed and posted at the start of the student’s column: *Note: Three of the final paragraphs of the original version of this opinion piece, which discussed [the candidate], have been removed from the article. [The student media] did not fully or properly contextualize the nature of the article when reaching out to [the candidate] for comment, and we didn’t have sufficient information to warrant the claims made about him. We apologize for not upholding our journalistic integrity in this instance, and we plan to do better in the future. 

While my sources say it was developed by the students and adviser, skepticism remains about who actually wrote it and what role the principal had in drafting and approving it.

And, as the saying goes, but wait—there’s more.

A note that said pretty much the same thing as the editor’s note was posted in the candidate’s Facebook page. The difference here is that it is signed by the student journalist. And while that may be a true and noble thing to do, the reality is the student did not write it, nor did he know about it. 

I ran the situation past an ethics expert who works with the Chicago chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  His take?

“I don’t see anything unethical about the piece,” he said, “as long as it is factually correct in the way it describes [the candidate] and his ideas and actions.” 

In regard to the posting on Facebook, he noted “…you say the letter of apology was signed by the student, although he didn’t see it or know about it. Seems to me that attaching a person’s name without his knowledge is not only unethical but also illegal. It’s fraud.”

Two things emerge here. First, the sheer act of posting something that seemingly defames a student is reprehensible. Period. It’s equally inexcusable for such an action to come from a potential school board member.

Which is why student journalists need to be vigilant about holding school board members – and potential members – accountable as well as being civically engaged.

Taking Hamilton’s analogy that “A government continually at a distance and out of sight can hardly be expected to interest the sensations of the people” a step further, the fact that a school board candidate and in this case, an administrator as well, seek to control student media, raises the bar for student journalists to be vigilant in their pursuit of keeping government in sight and transparent which should be an expectation and not an exception.

The tagline for the Chicago Headline Club, the largest SPJ chapter in the country, is “Defending the public’s right to know.”

It’s a truism that is more important than ever before.

And it’s one that goes back to 1787.

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