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Outlining an ethical guide for journalistic responsibility and civic engagement by reporting issues, candidates and making endorsements

Return to Front cover Constitution Day 2020

Description

It’s election season again and people are especially drawn to the major issues separating the nation and the clear-cut national divisions between key candidates. There is little compromise, and some have said democracy’s future is at stake.

This lesson on election coverage moves students through critical-thinking and decision-making processes and prompts students to cover stories that meet their communities’ needs.

By applying reportorial procedures to important coverage, and on a deadline, students build guidelines for real decisions they will make. To learn to meet communities’ needs, the students must become involved in civic engagement with candidates, officials, voters and those outside the system.

Your staff ponders choices they face:
• To report the national race
• To report only on key races and people
• To ignore because it is too controversial
• To endorse candidates and issues.

Beyond the national, other elections can make or break national, regional, state city and local futures:
• local issues like school levies, school board candidates 
• City elections with income taxes and support for hospitals, libraries and more
• State issues as above but also like issues and referendums on constitutional change
• and then the ones that seem to draw the most attention – national level congressional and presidential ones affecting all citizens.

Which election, if any, to report, why to report and how to report?

Objectives
 • Students will, after research and discussion, choose which of the various elections have the most local impact this year for students, local communities and a democratic society.
• Students will investigate Best Practices of reporting elections, from local to national, and to choose the most important to their diverse audiences.
• Students will, as they gather information from their reporting, discuss and decide whether they want to/should endorse, oppose or abstain from opinion coverage in this election.Students will prepare reasons from their gathering and reporting and draft an editorial student media can use to endorse, or not.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2.Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.2.BDevelop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.

Length

Essentially 5 days

Variables: (Teacher and staff/class will have to tailor lessons to school schedule, location and pandemic status):
• 50 minutes daily
• 60 minutes daily
• 1:5-2hours every other day
• Other

• Remote home learning (students would likely have to, at some point, work in teams of one or more:
• Editors
• Text reporters (3-5)
• Visual reporters (2-3)
• Copy/headline design concepts editor
• All team members work on editing and design

Materials / resources
• Equipment consisting of: Smart phones, audio/video as available, computers for uploading, editing, Internet for interviewing, research, editing, contact and planning

Lesson 1: Should students cover elections this year, which elections and why?

Step 1 — Introduction (30 minutes) Introduce the assignment as a different way to cover elections that could model a new, more student centric, approach. (Teacher and/or medium editor could do so.) While reporting is news-based, it could involve news feature reporting, depth reporting, profiles and alternative story forms.

Choice of forms is up to students and should/could involved multiple form, except one. Do not, for now, include plans for viewpoint or editorials. Focus on leadership through information gathering.

Step 2 – Choices (30 minutes) Teacher or lead students will break the class into teams as noted, and will first discuss pros and cons in learning for the student staff and communities. What values are there in focusing first and primarily on objective coverage? What kind of reporting varieties make sense to show the diverse nature of this particular election. What are advantages and disadvantages of possible story forms? Which might be the most understandable? Which lend themselves to clearly showing issues? Keep a list of the discussions and of the decisions. 

Step 3 (30 minutes) Student team leaders should show reporting groups a list of possible types of elections that could be covered in your area:
• local issues like school levies, school board candidates 
• City elections with income taxes and support for hospitals, libraries and more
• State issues as above but also like issues and referendums on constitutional change
• and then the ones that seem to draw the most attention – national level congressional and presidential ones affecting all citizens.

In team or group discussion, the team leader should lead discussion focus on this type of questions about possible local election  coverage:

• Should student media cover elections as listed above? Yes, no and why?
• Answer-team leaders should look to include educating communities, being leaders in forming views, identifying community values, providing forums for discussion and providing diverse looks at how issues, people might affect students and citizens locally.
• What can we accomplish and aid potential voters?
• Should we endorse non-school candidates and issues?
• Should we endorse school candidates and issues? What arguments make either choice valuable? What is important to know about the issues
• Can students legally endorse or support all types of issues, candidates?
• What are pros and cons of each question and you might raise?
• Others raised by student readers.

During the discussions, keep notes for the final step It is likely each group might duplicate focal points, like focus on national elections.The teacher and team leaders should meet and decide what to do in that case. For example:

• Have decided on coin flips
• Allow groups to negotiate with the others
• Allow groups to do the same level of election coverage but with different focus
• Other

Assessment: Students will write a position statement of no more than 75 words on the process, its value and of the outcome to give to the instructor the next class.

Lesson 2: How should each election selected by the team be covered? 

Step 1 — Introduction (40 minutes) Team leaders will take a vote and then move ahead as team to work on interviewing, researching, story form planning assignment of story angles. It likely would be good to use as many approaches as possible, and as time allows.

Step 2 — Introduction (20 minutes) Team leaders lead discussion. Someone takes notes on the discussion and reasoning for the choices made. 

Assessment: statement on the choices, questions and plans due to instructorot end of class.

Lesson 3: Planning the coverage and building reporting guidelines 

Step 1 — Introduction by team leader (60 minutes) Team leaders will lead team members through the following:
• Each person’s story ideas and suggestions and why audiences would care
• Best platform to publish and why; will that require in terms of time, equipment, number of reporters;
• Who are the best sources? Why?  Are they local and credible? Can you talk with them live? How? Sources? Sidebars? Alternate story forms? Collaboration with other schools? Blends of four types of sources: experts, authorities, Knowledgeable and reactors.
• How will information be gathered?

 How will information like campaign charges and statements be verified? Will yours really Question Authority? Will reporters apply principles of  “skeptical knowing?” What will they do if they find a source running for office is lying knowingly?

Does your staff have ethical guidelines, separate from policy, that provide the framework for procedures like:
• Handling use of unnamed sources
• What to do if sources ask to review How to answer if a school official says student media cannot run political endorsements or edits on school levies?

If so, could this lesson expand to strengthen, through other lessons, how your students practice reporting and leadership? If not, could this lesson be the foundation for creating such Ethical Guidelines-Application process in the Scholastic Press Rights committee’s Quick Tips and Foundation approach to a unified and expanded staff manual?

Assessment would come as another student statement on reactions and questions about  the story and ethical planning in this session.

Lesson 4: Deadlines, types coverages needed, why

Step 1 — Introduction (20 minutes) The team will then set deadlines, checkpoints and decide the story format they think they will use. They would also set team meetings to finish their reporting, based on your media’s current schedules. This process can also change to adjust to changes. If students decide decide quickly, go to Lesson 5.

Lesson 5: Should involve op-ed pieces? Why? 

Step 1 — Introduction (10 minutes) The teacher should return all assessment statements to each student, giving students a chance to look over what they wrote.

Step 2 — Introduction (20 minutes) The teacher will then pose this question: Based on your experiences and planning for election stories, which of the types, including objective reporting or possible use of editorial/viewpoint, would you find most effective in covering an election?

Why? Which do you think various communities might react to that question? Discuss briefly. Should students take stands on school issuse and candidates in opinion pieces? There is no correct answer. What the teacher seeks is the thinking process and supporting of arguments.

Step 3 — Assessment (40 minutes) The teacher will assign students to outline the content of a 125-300 word opinion piece about what position they would take on one of the election stories. 

Some questions to use as guide in your thinking:
• Would they use content from the infogathering and reporting in their opinion statement? How? In their view, would the objective process be more, less or how important to audiences in terms of making an informed decision? 
• Which approach to story coverage, objective or opinion, would, in their view, be most informative for voters? Why?
• What advantage, if any, would subjective presentation have over objective presentation?

The teacher will collect at the end of the session or could make it due the next session if students needed additional time.

Students will continue their election reporting from this point.

Differentiation

This is meant to be a guideline of what the process and outcomes can be. It would be impossible to predict a scenario for every variable. Teachers and students can also best adapt this framework to fit time variables and even the place variables, particularly with a Covid-19 induced variety school schedule possibilities.

Hopefully, the lesson can be a springboard to additional lessons, like on formalizing procedures used in reporting topics similar – and different, in thinking about the power of op-ed pieces, or whether student media should endorse or oppose issues or candidates locally.

Substantial numbers say endorsing public officials and public issues is illegal by public school media because it is a misuse of public funds. Also substantial in numbers, others argue it is not and provide legal guidance from the Internal Revenue Service.

The value if this assignment is in its flexibility, its emphasis on collaboration, planning, critical thinking and time and energy it takes to localize important stories.

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