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Free Speech Week:


Which journalistic change can best enhance free expression,
ensure essential information and restore trust?

by John Bowen, MJE

The past two years brought concepts previously unfamiliar to scholastic journalism: asynchronous, hybrid and Covid. Students and advisers practiced new techniques: Zoom, safe distance, remote interviews and more created individually in schools nationwide.

For some journalism programs it was a time of implementing creative change. Others scrambled to publish at all, but creatively attempted to fill gaps caused caused by limited school programs. Some faced bans dictated by community or school rules on publishing photos of school figures without masks, to showing too many students within a six foot space. Teachers and administrators danced swiftly to discuss legally and ethically sound solutions.

Because participants in the long season of change developed new methods or gathered gumption to tackle issues again, and they could have a multitude of issues to tackle.

All just in time for Free Speech Week, Oct. 18-24.

What better way to recognize and show the value of scholastic journalism than tackling, now or in coming weeks, issues fit to be discussed in a week of free speech? 
Can scholastic media learn new content and delivery concepts that build trust, practice ethical and journalistically responsible reporting? Or, will the same-old, same-old mantra of tired sequentialism in journalism education prevail? 
Take advantage of 2021-22 by reimagining, rethinking and restoring principles of national Free Speech Week to scholastic media programs and classless production first programs. 

“Free Speech Week (FSW) is a yearly event to raise public awareness of the importance of freedom of speech and of the press in our democracy- and to celebrate that freedom,” according to its website. “As freedom of speech and of the press are rights all Americans share, this non-partisan, non-ideological event is intended to be a unifying celebration.”

As the last two years of journalistic chaos sometimes showed us, the ability to pivot our practice in non-previously articulated ways can be a year saver.

FIRST, how can individuals, organizations and educators take part in FSW? FSW literature makes these suggestions:

• Raise free speech awareness by informing other people about speech and press freedoms about how these freedoms affect people’s lives
• Students can speak out on issues of importance to them or with those groups or individuals historically without a voice
• Educators can devote class time to teach the history of free expression. FSW also has links to lesson plans here. Journalism educators could urge students to create coverage of any of the following. societal issues or concepts using methods involving journalism change.

SECOND, build on ideas from suggestions and resources available from the FSW website and pair them with one or more of the journalistic changes affecting society and listed below:

Current attitudes toward verification of information Given the divide between liberal-conservative and what iarethe “extremes,” how can student media approach key issues of the day: wearing masks destroys liberties, taking a Covid vaccine gives you__________ and who is being truthful, and more. Also from The Elements of Journalism, chapter 2, the authors say, “authority must come from how [journalism] authenticates its facts.” Fairness, for example, is challenged in Elements. “Fairness, in turn, can also be misunderstood if it is seen to be a goal unto itself. Fairness should mean that the journalist is being fair to the facts and a citizen’s understanding of the facts.”

Importance of source credibility Who is the source and do they have an agenda? How do you tell and what is the best way to bring the public truth as best you can find it? In Elements, the authors say balancing stories with multiple points of view, since they are techniques, not principles, can lead false equivalency. Can an idea be so defined others offer no real alternative?

• Transparency How should your staff handle sources who deliberately lie or misinform? In the Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in chapter 2, “Transparency comes closer to conveying the original meaning of objectivity in news,” and “Transparency is the way an organization creates credibility.”

What does the changing face of objectivity mean? If journalists are to make a case for journalistic accuracy and truth telling, they must understand the principles and methods of first getting the facts right and they must reveal that method to the public, Kovach and Rosenstiel wrote in chapter 2 of The Elements of Journalism. If Sen. Joe McCarthy were to brandish his lists of card-carrying communists today and reporters to simply say that, the results would not be objective. They would be, at best, misinformation. At worst, lying and doing so deliberately. What this may mean is we have to led student reporters and their audiences to an understanding of objectivity that helps with accuracy and trust.

Limitations on content These would include prior review, prior restraint, who makes final decisions of content… more. Local student media should increase and highlight practices and decisions that affect published content and context. Local student media should also inform their communities about decisions that limit what school and community perceive as accurate and make important decisions on that info. To do that, media might also have to revise their Mission/Policy/Ethics/Procedures for consistency thought, meaning and coherence.

Consider building on some of the information and ideas of changes presented in The Elements of Journalism, 4th edition, combining its principles with the public affirmation of Free Speech Week.

“Fighting misinformation and disinformation is not a problem like a leaky pipe that you simply seal and have fixed,” Elements authors write […] “for the bad guys will keep adapting, too, and the job is never really done.”

THIRD Resources

Transparency is the new objectivity

It’s time for journalism educators to rethink ‘objectivity’ and teach more about context

Journalism needs to practice transparency in a different way to rebuild credibility

Journalistic ‘objectivity’ is being weaponized to silence oppressed people

Objectivity in journalism: Should we be skeptical?

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