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Ask, don’t assume, to build trust

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

Building trust between student editors and school administrators goes a long way toward having a good year and a publication where students are empowered. 

Yes, part of scholastic journalists’ role is to question those in power and the decisions they make, and it’s essential reporters and editors are skeptical. However, it’s also helpful for student editors and administrators to have a good working relationship. I’ve found that the better the working relationship the more the students feel empowered.

So how do students and administrators build trust? By not making assumptions, by asking questions, by being candid in answers and by being transparent: all elements of good journalism.

So how do students and administrators build trust? By not making assumptions, by asking questions, by being candid in answers and by being transparent: all elements of good journalism.

With a new building principal, my student editors were on guard against potential attempts to limit their expression rights. They often took the administrator’s decisions regarding interviews and critical responses to their coverage personally. Each time an interview was cancelled they saw it as avoidance. They read her criticism as a lack of trust in their journalistic capabilities. Tension grew and the relationship between the editors and administration suffered. 

When the principal requested they no longer record her interviews they assumed she was trying to make their lives more difficult. When she then requested they no longer type at laptops but take notes by hand while interviewing her, they assumed she was striking again, building walls and making them jump through unnecessary hoops. 

They were frustrated. They grumbled. They were angry.

That is, until they asked the simple question, “Why?”

The editors in chief decided to set up a meeting with the principal to share their frustrations and find out why she put these conditions on her interviews.

Although the conversation began tense, it quickly developed into a great one. She listened. She apologized for multiple last minute cancellations and acknowledged she didn’t realize just how much her note-taking stipulations made their jobs more challenging and made them more afraid of misquoting.

When they asked why she kept changing her interview rules, the answers she gave surprised them. They made sense and they had nothing to do with building walls. She did, however, admit she hoped to make them jump through some hoops, but for a reason they hadn’t considered. 

Because she felt misunderstood in previous interviews and misrepresented (not misquoted) in some articles, she wanted to slow down the interview process. She hoped having reporters take notes more slowly and by hand would encourage them to ask for clarification. She wanted to be asked to repeat herself to make sure they not only got the words but also the meaning of what she said right. She explained she set those conditions because she wanted to feel less like she was being transcribed and more like she was heard.

The editors shared their belief recording interviews helped ensure their quotes were accurate, but her candid explanation helped them understand not only where she was coming from but also that sometimes getting the quote literally right doesn’t always mean its context and meaning are right. They apologized for any inadvertent misrepresentation and assured her they would share the reasons behind her conditions with the publications’ staff. They now saw them as reasonable.

A meeting that began with tension ended with smiles. Simply asking “why” and having a candid conversation led to more understanding, more respect and more trust.

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