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The scary truth about our own confidence

Posted by on Oct 29, 2014 in Blog, Ethical Issues, News, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments


By Megan Fromm, CJE

With Halloween just days away, ghost hunters and spooky pranksters are out in full force. But for journalists, there’s still something scarier than a grim reaper or a bad Miley Cyrus costume: errors in fact.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Dawn Ellner, used with Creative Commons license.

And while fact-checking is a common and methodical way to ensure accuracy in reporting, experts are now pointing to a more personal attribute that often stands in the way of truth. Simply put, researchers have found that each of us has the propensity to be a “confident idiot,” meaning we often overestimate our expertise on any given subject. 

Instead of admitting to our own ignorance, we can be duped into thinking we know things we don’t, or that we have knowledge that actually exceeds our current understanding of a topic or concept.

For many journalists, acknowledging this Achille’s heal is an important step in becoming adept, truth-seeking reporters—when we stop assuming we know so much, we start looking for better and more specific information. After all, what good is a five-step fact-checking process if we’re unlikely to believe we could get something wrong in the first place?

Named the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” this common inability for humans to recognize our own ineptitude has serious implications for journalists and for news media consumers.

As a journalist, understanding this phenomenon means that I will be slightly more skeptical of how “authoritative” my sources seems. It means that I’ll delve more critically into their own claims of fact and be sure to investigate my source’s background to determine his/her real level of expertise.

For student journalists, this is especially vital. How many times have students overstated knowledge of a certain event or situation? Our students want to trust their peers, and their peers are likely to exaggerate connections. Knowing this, and taking steps to mitigate it, keeps journalistic integrity intact.
[pullquote]Ask your student journalists to brainstorm a list of “experts” on different topics at your school. Then, compile a master list, “vetting” those experts by getting as much background information as possible.[/pullquote]

As news and media consumers, we must first acknowledge our own propensity to be “confident idiots.” (Here’s a touch of irony: I even vastly overestimated my ability to write this post in the time I had allotted myself. Turns out the researchers were right!).

This means I should be willing to evaluate my own knowledge base before assuming others are (or are not) experts. I might ask myself what experience or education is most relevant to the news and information I receive, and I would try to be honest about my personal deficits, filling in the gaps as necessary.

While it’s scary to think we might be so out of touch with our own intelligence, a little due diligence (and sometimes a light-hearted reality check) can go a long way.

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Linking news literacy and scholastic journalism

Posted by on Sep 16, 2014 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Megan Fromm
This weekend, JEA President Mark Newton, board member Stan Zoller and I all participated in the “Because News Matters” summit on news literacy in Chicago. Hosted by the McCormick Foundation, the Poynter Institute, and other partners, the summit was an opportunity to bring together key stakeholders interested in news literacy education.

As teachers, and as JEA board members, we wore some distinctive hats during the two-day summit. To begin, we wanted to represent the hundreds of high school journalism teachers who know that first-hand experience in media production is a tremendous way to teach important values of news literacy (assessing credible sources, fact-checking, and understanding bias). We also wanted to encourage those advocating for curricular and policy changes in our k-12 schools to recognize the unique role of scholastic media in developing engaged, critical thinkers.

While these issues admittedly go beyond how we teach law and ethics to our students, I want to share some ideas and themes that emerged:

First, a number of “best practice” demonstrations in teaching news literacy used BOTH news media content and social media content. This is a lesson we can take to heart with anything we teach—sometimes reaching students where they, whether we’re teaching libel, copyright, or ethical sources, means first using content that is highly relatable and relevant to them. For example, one teacher used a rap artist’s Twitter feed to help students begin to differentiate between news, opinion, and advertising content.

Second, participants at the summit recognized that what teachers really need (regardless of content) is twofold: time and resources. To that end, one of the next “projects” in the news literacy world will likely be continued compilation and promotion of materials and resources that you can use “off the shelf” with your students.

And finally, there was much debate regarding how news literacy fits in with other related literacies, including information, digital, and media literacy. To be frank, there was also significant conversation on whether journalism production and news literacy can (and/or should) be taught in tandem. Of course, as a former high school publications adviser, JEA news literacy curriculum leader and a board member, my answer was a resounding “YES!”

Is journalism and media production the only logical way to teach news literacy? No, but based on my eight-plus years of experience in the field, I believe it is the best way, and often the most engaging for our students. Incorporating news literacy in a journalism classroom takes concepts like “accuracy, fairness, bias, credibility, etc.,” and places them squarely in a project-based, student-led process. So much of what news literacy advocates is based on the basics of solid reporting, so why teach it in a bubble? Why not encourage our students to report while they fact-check, and then to publish information based on what they find? Why not teach our students the value of information in a democracy by also letting them see the effects of the printed word?

Given that a significant outcome for news literacy instruction is to implore students to engage in the democratic and civic process, creating published content is a natural fit. In doing so, students who are free to make creative and editorial decisions without administrative censorship will also learn the heavy responsibility that comes with exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

To this end, news literacy and journalism education are the different sides of the same coin, and we can empower our students by letting them explore the role of journalism from all angles—both as producers and consumers.

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Read my lips: Students should exercise caution when producing lip sync videos

Posted by on Apr 29, 2014 in Blog, Broadcast, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching, Uncategorized, Visual Reporting, Yearbook | 0 comments


By Megan Fromm
Sometimes, pop culture and reality align to provide the perfect anecdote for our weekly SPRC posts. This week, the timing of Jimmy Fallon and Emma Stone’s heated lip sync battle on the Tonight Show couldn’t have come at a better time. Earlier this week, the celebrities dueled over who could best move their mouth to a famous pop or rap segment, emulating thousands of videos already online in which people — often teens — attempt to look just like the musicians who originally released a song.

And while fans may have crowned Emma the lip sync queen, anyone concerned with copyright infringement should take this example to heart: When a person publishes a video — even if it’s only seconds long — of his/herself miming along to copyright music, that person could be violating copyright.

Need a refresher of copyright law? Visit the Student Press Law Center at or check out their Student Media Guide to Copyright.

Take, for instance, the case against Vimeo, a popular video sharing website. In an ongoing lawsuit that started in 2009, Capitol Records is suing the website, accusing Vimeo of posting videos that violated hundreds of the record company’s copyrights.

What makes music copyright especially complicated is that compositions may exist under several copyrights — one for the lyrics and musical arrangement, one for any particular production of the composition, and often one for the arts or imagery that accompany a musical record. Strictly speaking, without permission from the copyright holder, others cannot legally reproduce or redistribute the work in question.

Students initiating school-wide lip dubs is becoming increasingly common (for example, students in both Pennsylvania and Indiana produced their own), but simply calling it an “educational activity” because it happens on

So, students and teachers beware. And more importantly, be safe, legal and respectful by obtaining written permission before producing and publishing lip syncs as part of your student media program.


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The Changing Internet: Why you should talk Net Neutrality with your students

Posted by on Jan 21, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments


By Megan Fromm, CJE

Between deadlines, snow days and standardized testing, we all know there isn’t much time for “extra.” Those extra lessons you wish you had time to teach, those extra teachable moments you wish you had time to organize. But this week, carve out 20 extra minutes to sit with your students and talk about what is arguably the most major change to the Internet since its very invention.

What change is that, you ask? In a phrase: The slow death of Net Neutrality.

Chances are good that your students know little about this concept, but a court decision last week has put the wheels in motion to re-imagine the Internet as they know it today.

In short, net neutrality requires that Internet service providers, or ISPs, treat all content equally. The FCC recommendations regarding net neutrality (which were deemed inapplicable last week) were designed to keep ISPs from charging more for certain kinds of content or for faster access. Essentially, the concept of net neutrality is what keeps our Internet from looking like subscription cable television.

But the 2010 FCC order for net neutrality was not a law, and in this most recent case heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Verizon successfully argued that the FCC has no authority to issue such orders.

This decision has the potential for grave consequences for freedom of speech and our rights to access information. Our students, as journalists, media consumers, and engaged citizens, must be aware of how drastically different the Internet could become under this new ruling.

So, here are a few readings to get the discussion started:

1. A basic introduction to net neutrality

2. A video explanation of net neutrality

3. A user-generated chart on what the end of net neutrality might look like

4. A great article that explains the court’s decision

5. The actual court ruling

Then, ask your students to consider how these changes might affect them:

  • What if some people can’t afford to pay for news, or social media, or entertainment?
  • Why might it be important to preserve net neutrality?
  • What happens if your ISP (say, Comcast) decides to block any and all information about its competitors?
  • How could all of this affect student media?
  • What’s next?
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All the photos fit to print: What a “selfie” can’t convey

Posted by on Dec 12, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments


By Megan Fromm

It was the selfie seen ’round the world: President Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, leaning in for a quick click during a national memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Almost immediately, both mainstream and alternative media began analyzing the photo ad nauseam, criticizing everything from the act itself to the First Lady’s apparently stern reaction in the background.

In many ways, the selfie controversy out-shadowed the event itself, and all context was lost in the scuffle. While it’s easy to indulge knee-jerk reactions about how inappropriate this gesture may have been, critical news consumers would do well to consider a few questions before passing judgement.

For instance:

These questions all point back to an ethical mandate for context and photo selection. Visual literacy, and understanding the power of images, requires journalists to exercise as much caution in the selection and publication of images as they do in the selection and publication of facts.

The photographer who captured the selfie was quick to clarify the image after the fact, but what obligation is there to provide such context up front, at the moment the photo is distributed? Imagine, for a moment, that the information we have now—days post-selfie—was published in sync with the release of the photo. Would there even be a story? Probably. But it would be likely an entirely different narrative.

As your students curate the hundreds of photos they capture in the creation of scholastic media, take some time to engage in a critical analysis of what stories those images actually convey.

Try this exercise in visual literacy with your whole staff:

  1. Using a smartboard, display all photos related to a news event—one by one—for your class. (Don’t go into detail about the event).
  2. Each student in the class must pick two photos: the photo they believe best tells the story of the event, and the photo they believe will be most appealing to viewers.
  3. Now, discuss: are the two photos the same? If not, why? Which photo would they actually publish, and why? What are the ethical ramifications?
  4. Finally, have the journalist or photographer who covered the event give more detail about what happened: context, atmosphere, discussions, etc. They should give their perspective on which photo most accurately conveys the event, and therefore, is most suitable for publication.
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