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Class activities, lesson plan  for Student Press Freedom Day

Posted by on Jan 8, 2024 in Blog | Comments Off on Class activities, lesson plan  for Student Press Freedom Day


by Candace Bowen, MJE

With little more than a month to plan, it’s time to think of the best way to celebrate Student Press Freedom Day, Feb. 22, 2024. For this sixth annual event, the Student Press Law Center announced its theme as “Powerfully Persistent.”

Who best embodies that description?  And, yet,  who is most likely to have that action squashed? Yes, both answers are “student journalists.”

This also coincides with JEA’s Scholastic Journalism Week (#SJW2024) (Feb. 19 – 24) so there’s plenty of reason to put the focus on what is so important.

Let’s explore some ways to support these young journalists and help them achieve their potential. Let’s also show the world – or at least our local communities – why they are so important.

The SPLC website brings up three important issues to consider during that week – and on into the future:

Know Your Rights

Depending on how much your students know about their rights, consider the linked item – Legal Topics for Student Journalists — as an assessment of what they know about their rights and responsibilities already or as a teaching tool your students use to find the answers.

Tell Your Community’s Truth

Students know more about the impact of their schools and communities on local youth than anyone does. Plan and beginning researching and writing about some of these important news topics: 

* Protests (Israel and Hamas): What is happening where you live?

* Candidates for office (state and local will have impact….but don’t forget school board. If you have new members there, what are their stands on textbooks, gender issues like use of pronouns and bathrooms?

 * Bus safety: winter issues concerning icy roads and warm shelters for waiting, lack of drivers, seatbelt requirements – good or bad?

 * Lack of doctors: medical personnel leaving your state because of changing laws, esp. for OBGYNs? 

Promote Accountability & Transparency

If administrators are censoring student media, they may be keeping stories out because they “make the school look bad.” But would exploring them in depth with experts, maybe even adopting a solutions journalism approach, help make things better and not, to use an old cliché, sweep them under the rug? Think about where to get good, credible, local sources for the story suggestions in the previous category.

Students care and want to make a difference. Let’s help them and ensure they can be Powerfully Persistent!

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Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students

Posted by on Oct 15, 2023 in Blog | Comments Off on Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students


Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students: Part 3/4

My original blog idea started as a simple little suggestion to encourage high school student journalists to cover school board meetings and educational topics in communities without commercial media – those rural and urban areas considered news deserts. But it’s grown much bigger than that. These will be the weekly installments.

Content this week: Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students

Part 1: We’ll explore what happened when a student reporter offered a story about her school to a local “news and digital marketing platform.” It was posted – and then….

Part 2: What do those involved with student media legal issues say about this? We’ll talk to the Student Press Law Center about what rights such young journalists have.

Part 3: How do the hyperlocal web outlets see their role when working with students – or do they see that as a possibility at all? 

Part 4:  Are there ways we – advisers and journalism teachers – can help students and communities get vital information, especially about local education? How can we educate those who might be working with student journalists but have no background in scholastic media and student rights and responsibiliti

wittered tree on a dessert

“They’re getting a grounding in government,”

and building civic muscle. It’s an

exercise in democracy and getting them closer

to writing the whole story.”

Rachel Dissell, journalist

Photo by Pixabay on

Overcoming News Deserts

Content by Candace Bowen, MJE •Pullquote from Rachel Dissell, Cleveland journalist

Getting information about school boards and other educational issues to communities without local media has been a growing challenge. Living in such news deserts makes it hard for voters to be accurately informed about levies, school board elections and much more.

The idea of student journalists contributing local reporting isn’t new, but making it really work isn’t easy. 

Parts 1 and 2 for this blog series looked at what happened when a well-meaning high school junior tried to use a local news website to inform her community about what her school was doing to protect students from gun violence, then what happened when a district official intervened, and what a lawyer at the Student Press Law Center thinks of that.

Parts 1 and 2 for this blog series looked at what happened when a well-meaning high school junior tried to use a local news website to inform her community about what her school was doing to protect students from gun violence, then what happened when a district official intervened, and what a lawyer at the Student Press Law Center thinks of that.

But what do other editors and CEOs of a growing number of community-based and usually web-based news organizations think about working with students? Local set-ups can vary from media that is supported by advertising to those that are non-profits and sometimes have healthy grants, but they’re all working to counteract news deserts.

Training student reporters is like an extra job

No matter their set-up, the challenge is the same. How experienced are the students who would work for them? What do those students need to learn to be effective reporters? And, maybe more important sometimes, what do the professionals working with them need to know, especially about legal and ethical issues, to make the set-up work.

“You have to understand this isn’t like running a temp agency,” Ben Wolford, editor-in-chief of the online Portager, serving mostly rural Portage County in northeast Ohio since 2020. “In the early days, the bulk of our reporting came from journalism students at Kent State. We probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without them,” he said in a phone interview.

But Wolford understands even those students were not seasoned journalists, and high school students have even less experience. They aren’t ready for some of the intricacies of local politics, don’t know how to question if someone is telling them the truth or has an agenda, aren’t sure what “off the record” means.

The editors of media outlets with student journalists “have an extra job  – intern coordinator, editor, mentor to these people,” Wolford said. “If you think you’re going to get free labor out of those kids, you’re assuming the job of all those people who helped you when you were beginning. The students may be getting a few bucks, but I’m paying them with a lot of my time.”

It’s a big investment, but Wolford plans to grow a cadre of student high school reporters from as many area high schools he can attract so they can provide content for The Portager

Rachel Dissell is an award-winning reporter and Community and Special Projects editor for Signal Cleveland, “an independent, community-led, non-profit news startup,” according to its website.

 It’s also home to Cleveland Documenters, a program that started in Chicago and has grown to Detroit and Cleveland and eventually to other cities. These are adult residents who are trained and paid to cover public meetings in their communities.

Dissell said she uses the same training approach with the 10 Cleveland Metropolitan School District students she work with that is used with the adult Documenters. Before they write stories, she makes sure they are “getting the grounding to become watchdogs of local government.”  

Grounding students as watchdogs of local democracy

They use a template to see what interests them. It includes places to put three summary points of the meeting, follow-up questions, what didn’t make sense to them, what they didn’t understand. 

“It’s a little different than writing a full story at this stage. They cover a meeting, taking notes and crafting follow-up questions,” Dissell said. Currently, her students cover public safety meetings, learning what to listen for, how to use attribution, direct quotes and paraphrasing. Students in this program are paid, as are the adult Documenters.

“They’re getting a grounding in government,” Dissell said, “and building civic muscle. It’s an exercise in democracy and getting them closer to writing the whole story.”

Editor Sue Zake of the soon-to-be-publishing nonprofit news outlet Signal Ohio,had plenty of experience working with college journalists. Previously, she was student media adviser for Kent State University.  She said she would welcome student reporters, especially for education-related stories.

If someone complained about a story – no matter who wrote it – she said she would say, “Tell me what you think isn’t correct – what didn’t we do right?” Just because it doesn’t make the school look good doesn’t make it wrong, she said.

Those who spend public funds have to be accountable“Covering public venues like schools is important,” Zake said. “They are spending taxpayer dollars, so they need to be held accountable.” 

Mike Shapiro is CEO of TAPinto, a network of “more than 90 independently owned and operated local news and digital marketing platforms,” according to the company’s website. The Flemington/Rariton outlet where Emma’s story ran briefly is one such franchise.

The company’s website also says, “More than 2,000 towns in the U.S. have no local newspaper or local news site. As a result, there is a lack of local news reporting in our towns, less information available, and democracy suffers.”

a person walking in the middle of the hot desert

The company’s (website TAPinto) also says, 

“More than 2,000 towns in the U.S. have no

local newspaper or local news site. As a result,

there is a lack of local news reporting in our

towns, less information available, and

democracy suffers.”

Photo by Amine M’siouri on

The “marketing” part of the company’s description may be concerning to some. Journalists are taught about the importance of the “separation of church and state” –  keeping the advertising and news functions of media totally separate.

Shapiro said his media outlets are “advertising-based, enabling local businesses to tell their stories to the audience.” 

Could that be a conflict of interest, mixing news and promotion? Not in the 15 years since Shapiro started the company, he said. “When advertisers write about themselves, It’s labeled ‘sponsored content.’ We’ve never had any issues,” he said.

“If it’s newsworthy, advertisers we’re going to cover it if they’re an advertiser or not,” he said. The franchises in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida “must follow SPJ ethics and must run at least one original news story a day,” Shapiro said. Shapiro said he didn’t know about Emma’s situation “until many months later” when her former journalism teacher told him.

 “We don’t censor our own reporters, and, when students write for us, we consider them our reporters,” Shapiro said.

TAPinto doesn’t censor employees, wouldn’t limit student

He just submitted a grant proposal to the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium to enable TAPINTO to hire a program director to help train student journalists in New Jersey. His plan, he said, is to “start with 10 students in 25 programs across the state, especially those in economically distressed areas.”

Shapiro foresees three kinds of situations. Some schools may already have a program, and those would be able to have their publication hosted on the local TAPinto site. This is already happening with The Highlander from Governor Livingston High School on the Berkeley Heights site. 

Other appropriate support and training would be provided to schools that have an adviser or a journalism program but no publication or to students in a school with no program, he said.

In each case, Shapiro said, he will work with administrators to ensure they know they will have no prior review of student submissions. He hopes to “build a pipeline of reporters for New Jersey with these students.” 

Although they won’t get paid – he pointed out that would be hard with about 250 students per year – each will receive a certificate and a graduation a gift card “from someplace like Starbucks” at the end of the year and attend a banquet with a well-known speaker, encouraging them to go into journalism.

Most of those interviewed have even more ideas of how to train student journalists to cover the tough local stories that should be included.

Building civic muscle

 The fourth and final part of this blog will explore what these students need to learn to be successful, some ways they may be able to best gain that knowledge and what we, as journalism educators, can do to help them. What we don’t want is students covering only car wash fundraisers and winning football teams.

Of course, those won’t be censored or pulled down from a website, but they wouldn’t be serving the purpose of “building civic muscle” for the student journalists or getting vital information about a school district out to local voters.

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Bringing help to news deserts: Lesson Plan

Posted by on Sep 16, 2023 in Blog | Comments Off on Bringing help to news deserts: Lesson Plan



The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at University of North Carolina first reported on the “news desert” phenomenon in 2016. And the picture only became more dire. Today, the Center’s definition is “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

Think about it: If voters don’t know what’s going on in government, how can they make informed decisions in the voting booth? How can they choose the right leaders if all they hear is hype from one side or even conflicting information from several sides? As far as schools go, how can they decide who should be on the school board, the group that makes important decisions about curriculum, administrators and policies that impact everyone?

In a news desert that doesn’t have trained journalists seeking truth and expert opinions about education in its community, students can help fill that void. What can students do to ensure factual and useful information gets to voters before they go to the polls? How can they help their families and neighbors and still learn a lot as they do so?

That’s where this lesson plan can get the process started.


  • Students will acknowledge that local news media are missing important stories about education in their community. 
  • Students will recognize how information about certain topics make a difference in how voters will react.
  • Students will be practice news coverage that is well-sourced and fairly balanced.
  • Students will set up a plan to start filling the holes in educational news coverage in their communities.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid, and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account. 
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper). 
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. 


Two or more class periods – to introduce and set up the possibilities. (Four days between to give students time to use the graphic organizers for their “research.”

Materials / resources

Day 1 step-by-step

  1. Bell-ringer: Ask students to write on a slip of paper where they and their family get their news. Tell them to be specific – which websites, newspapers, magazines, television, social media, friends, etc.
  2. Then zero in by asking them where they get their information about what’s going on in their school district? What kinds of stories do they see or hear about local schools and education? (NOTE: If students consume little media, give them time to hunt for local stories online and see what they can find. You might start by listing some possible categories: school board decisions, school board meetings, school district hiring/firing, curriculum content/books, topics, etc., activities in classes, sports scores and game coverage, sports coaching, sports equipment, building conditions/maintenance, extra-curricular activities — clubs, debate, student government etc.) Is that information important to voters? Is it available to them?
  3. If they are in an educational news desert, this may be difficult, so stop the process when students start complaining they are finding nothing. You’ve made your point.
  4. Share with them the definition of a news desert. (See pulled quote halfway down this page) 
  5. Discuss if students think they are in a news desert, specifically about their local schools. Why or why not? List on the board the stories of things going on in their school district that community members should know about. Help students separate rumor from reportable information.
  6. On their own computers or one the teacher uses to project, look at the “Do you live in a news desert?” map and explanation. Also use the pull-down below it to look at your state. What are you learning?
  7. Distribute the two graphic organizers and discuss keeping track over the next four days what they find in local media about their schools and what they believe from being in the schools SHOULD be reported.

Five days later step by step

  1. First discuss the findings of education coverage in your community. How extensive is it? What stories are being told? Who is telling them? Do they seem accurate and thorough?
  2. Then discuss what is missing. Make a list on the board of the stories students think the community should know and why they should know this.
  3. When most stories are listed, then go back and fill in who could/should be sources for reporters trying to tell these stories.
  4. Finally – and this might take several days to work through – what ways could this class/staff get the important information out to the community? Things go consider:
    1. Who would do the reporting? Whom would they interview?
    1. What media outlets could they use?
      1. Student news website?
      1. Student print media?
      1. Instagram?
      1. Twitter?
      1. Facebook?
      1. Any other potential outlets?
    1. How would be promote this and let the community know it is for them?
    1. What are the pros and cons of trying to do this?

Teacher notes: 

Clearly, this is an ongoing commitment. Students would have to see the value and what would be gained by doing this. And they can’t turn into local community reporters overnight. But even if just two or three important stories get out that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, it’s a way to help the community, the students, the faculty, and, in essence, democracy.

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Turn that mic back on!

Posted by on Feb 13, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Turn that mic back on!


by Candace Bowen, MJE

Having a principal censor a student media article is bad, but there’s something worse.

It may start with an administrator’s polite suggestions to reporters not to “make the school look bad.” It may involve only slightly veiled threats about not being about to write an editor’s college recommendation letters.

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Creating inquiring minds or censoring them?

Posted by on Jan 13, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Creating inquiring minds or censoring them?


A divided nation faces book and curriculum censorship, plus moves to prohibit discussion of anti-racist ideas in schools

by Candace Bowen, MJE

Can you teach controversial books in your class?

I always warn my students how dangerous question leads are and how a wrong answer can scare a reader away. But the question you just read is now my abiding concern – and should be yours, too, if you think students need to be challenged to think and to expand their minds.

A New York Times article announcing readers’ choices of the best 25 books in the last 125 years sparked a discussion on my Facebook page recently that should be a warning to everyone. The books ranged from “Charlotte’s Web” to “1984,” and “The Grapes of Wrath” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Not many comments into the strand, an English and journalism teacher, Sandy Cato, from the Northwest, wrote, “This list is interesting to me because of how few of these we would ever be able to get approved for use in school classrooms.”

“They are problematic,” she explained further, “and so many districts have become subtle censors by simply not approving or refusing to purchase important texts. Districts seem to choose to placate rather than educate if it risks conflict.”

Others added concerns related to similar issues – especially books that cover anything about race, sex/gender or politics. Some teachers had even been threatened or told flat out not to teach certain books. Now that more and more parents and community members are attending school board meetings, the battles about what to teach – and what NOT to teach – have even made headlines. The Intellectual Freedom Blog of the American Library Association covered more than 20 like these in its Jan. 7, 2022, posting:

  • The Atlanta Journalism-Constitution reported a member of the Georgia General Assembly is writing legislation to “shield children from age-inappropriate materials,” such as transgender issues, even though a national survey showed 20 percent of transgender and nonbinary youths reported attempting suicide in the previous year.
  • The Mississippi Free Press wrote about its state auditor supporting possible legislation to “ban educators from teaching ‘anti-racist’ ideas in schools.” This he posted on Facebook. 
  • NBC News focused its online article about a Texas school district that had pulled two award-winning graphic novels by Black author and illustrator Jerry Craft, one of many Black authors whose books are being banned, parents claiming they teach critical race theory.

The current “This American Life” podcast for Jan. 7, 2022, is “Talking While Black,” with Act Two devoted to an interview with Jerry Craft, who is really amazed that his “New Kid” graphic novel was so controversial. From a transcript, Chana Joffe-Walt, who interviewed him said, “What’s so interesting to me about this book in particular being kind of drawn into this CRT battle that’s supposedly about history. But your book is not a history book. This is literally just you writing down the story of your life.

Jerry Craft replies, “Right, yeah. It literally is based on what I actually see. There’s nothing that I haven’t lived myself.”

Now that more and more parents and community members are attending school board meetings, the battles about what to teach – and what NOT to teach – have even made headlines. The Intellectual Freedom Blog of the American Library Association covered more than 20 like these in its Jan. 7, 2022, posting.

The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week annually points out the harm of limiting student access to books and supports students’ right to explore and learn. About last year’s theme – “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us” —  the ALA website pointed out, “Sharing stories important to us means sharing a part of ourselves. Books reach across boundaries and build connections between readers. Censorship, on the other hand, creates barriers.”

For 2022, Banned Books Week is Sept. 18-24.

There is hope, though. Further down in my Facebook post, Jenna Bates, journalism and English teacher at Bio-Med Science Academy in northeast Ohio, said, “It may help a bit to know that it’s not all districts. Where I teach, I — and I alone — decide the curriculum for my ELA course. I’m starting ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ next week (only one student requested an alternate book), and we’ll do ‘The Hate U Give’ later this year. I’m lucky, but I do share your concerns about the profession and what it means to the future.”

When I taught high school English in Illinois, I must admit feeling a certain personal satisfaction when teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book the librarian removed from my high school library in Des Moines, Iowa, but one that has such important messages to deliver.

Today, I think one step further and wonder if some of our leaders would have been better off if they had read and taken to heart Atticus’s advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Books can teach us a lot about each other we might now learn any other way.

For information about teaching controversial books

Want to teach a controversial book but aren’t sure where to start? The Harvard Graduate School of Education has a website called “Usable Knowledge: Relevant research for today’s educators.” A Jan. 9, 2019 post by Jill Anderson, “Bringing Controversial Books into the Classroom,” has a list of six tips and explanations to help.

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