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Minors as subjects of sensitive topics


*Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of rotating columns by commission members to appear Wednesdays. Megan Fromm will present best practices for teaching ethics; Jeff Kocur will discuss common problems student leaders and advisers face and how to overcome them; Candace Perkins Bowen will examine journalistic ties to Common Core standards; Mark Goodman will write about current events and impact on law as it affects scholastic media and Marina Hendricks will address ethical issues and online journalism.

by Jeff Kocur

When my students told me they wanted to write a story about a transgender student, my first thought was. “Here we go again.”

After last year’s series of controversial topics such as fighting, teen pregnancy, hazing, race, and other issues that raised the ire of my admin, simply because of their topics, I was ready for at least one issue that didn’t push the envelope.

But that isn’t really journalism.

A student media program that strives to be relevant in its community will, no doubt, run into countless situations where the editors will need to confront difficult ethical questions, and working with minors as subjects only compounds those issues.

We’ve covered stories about gay students at our school before, and we have received minimal adverse reaction from the community, but a story about a transgender student would cross into a territory that I was a little nervous about.

Specifically: What is the boy’s relationship like with his parents? They can’t censor their son, but what environment might he face at home, and how will publishing this story affect that? What would the student body say about such a story? What about other transgender students at our school?

“Could we write it?” They asked me.

They should have known better. Of course we could write it. The right questions to ask were:

• Why should we write it? This could be an interesting story, but what value can we bring to the community by writing it?

• Who are the relevant players that we need to interview?  Does the student have any trusted teachers at the school who could help illustrate the issue?

• What are the potential consequences of doing the story? What good could come from it? What potential damage could printing the story do?

• What experts should you talk to?  Who in your community might help alert you to some issues you may not have thought about in covering this story?

Would it be acceptable to allow the subject to prior review the story? This is a sensitive topic, and it is almost entirely about him.

To give my students credit, they understood the sensitive nature of the story, and they obviously knew it needed special attention, but they hadn’t answered all the above questions.

My previous crew knew how to deal with these questions, but my new crew wasn’t yet equipped after just one week, so we slowed it down; asked the right questions; talked to the right people; put a trusted writer on the story.

In short, we came up against our biggest obstacle in creating an ethical environment for reporting: Time. With only one week in, I was too busy working on process, reporting, photography, design, editing, and all of the other nuts and bolts. But, I was reminded again the discussion of ethics cannot take a back seat to those other fundamentals.

The end result was a thoughtful, interesting, engaging story told by a compassionate writer who took care to tell one person’s story at our school as a means of helping our community understand the transgender issue a little better.

Does the story do everything right? No. It needs more expert sources, and it needs more research and context. But those are topics we’ll address for the next issue. I’ll consider this story a success because we went through a thoughtful and ethical process in reporting on a sensitive topic about a minor in our school.

Related information:
 Be consistent in getting consent where it is needed
Use anonymous sources with care
Reporting controversy requires establishing a sound process




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