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An activity for a dose of skepticism

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by Lindsay Coppens, The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, Mass.

Scholastic journalists, like all journalists, need to be skeptical. Not only of news they read and of sources they interview, but of themselves.

Journalists should question everything, including each other. 

If student journalists aren’t willing to take a hard look with a discerning eye at the journalism they produce, they will put themselves at more risk of criticism, and possibly condemnation, from others.

And while we all work to question and to think critically, I’ve found when a mid or late-year lull hits, my editors and reporters tend to get soft in their skepticism. They stop questioning as much. They are more likely to simply accept what they’re told, what they hear or what they read, even when editing each others’ work.

This easy acceptance can lead to articles that don’t report as incisively and thoroughly as they should. It can also result in “clerkism,” what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel define in their book Blur as “the practice of uncritically accepting the official version of things.”

If you find your staff hitting one of those skeptical lulls where they may not be digging for facts, verifying news or questioning each other’s reporting as thoroughly as they should, pausing to look back at previous reporting with a critical eye could help them get reenergized and refocused.

Here’s an activity that could be done in a class period or staff meeting. It could even become part of regular routines:

First have the editors-in-chief lead a discussion about why skepticism is important, for both news consumers and reporters. Then they should discuss questions such as these: When have readers been skeptical of your publication? When have you been skeptical as reporters and editors? Are there times you realized after the fact, whether from reader criticism or from your own reflection, that the reporting you published was not as incisive or as accurate as it should have been?

Perhaps even have them read and discuss pages 26-34 of Blur, which focus on the importance of skepticism and verification.

Then spend some time looking at their publication’s coverage in the past months with a skeptical eye. Encourage them to question critically and agree they won’t take it personally if a piece they worked on is identified as falling short. The goal is to become stronger as individuals and as a group while practicing skeptical thinking.

Have they accepted and reported what those in power have stated without questioning or verifying? Have they played into any particular interest groups without realizing it? Are there places where now, with hindsight, they see they got the story wrong or didn’t dig deep enough to ask questions and get the full truth?

Look closely at the publication’s coverage as a whole and at individual articles, especially those on complex topics and those that involve administrative decisions and actions. Have they simply affirmed what readers already know and were told thorough announcements, meetings and emails? Have they accepted and reported what those in power have stated without questioning or verifying? Have they played into any particular interest groups without realizing it? Are there places where now, with hindsight, they see they got the story wrong or didn’t dig deep enough to ask questions and get the full truth?

After skeptically analyzing and discussing, as a group identify ways reporting and coverage could be improved. What should reporters do to be sure they move beyond clerkism? How should editors question skeptically as part of the feedback process? Are there any topics they should follow up on to provide more thorough coverage? 

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