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Questioning Authority:

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Journalists must no longer share just the what. We must provide the WHY

by Candace Bowen, MJE

It’s not just what we tell people. It’s more than ever the WHYords are powerful. And teachable moments are a gift. No one knows that better than journalism teachers. So, when crowds descended on the Capitol Wednesday (note the words I used here), I wasn’t the only one thinking about how to discuss this with my reporting students. But exactly how can I best do that?by Candace Bowen, MJE

Words are powerful. And teachable moments are a gift. No one knows that better than journalism teachers. So, when crowds descended on the Capitol Wednesday (note the words I used here), I wasn’t the only one thinking about how to discuss this with my reporting students. But exactly how can I best do that?

Kaitlin Edgerton, journalism teacher and media adviser in Michigan, was wondering, too, and posed what seemed like a simple question to the Facebook private group – Journalism Teachers. (NOTE: Because this is a closed group, I have her permission to use her words and those of any others I quote directly in this blog post.)

How DO we help students understand it? What would we want them to think about coverage? What part do the words journalists choose play in the effect? And what
about our own biases?

“How are you planning on having a conversation with your students about the act of terrorism that took place in the U.S. capitol today?” Edgerton wrote.

Sounded about like what had been running through my mind all day and others agreed. But minutes later the strand had a new spin on it: Was she showing her bias by calling it terrorism? What are the facts? 

Quickly, instead of looking at how to talk about and write about the situation, bias and objectivity took center stage, especially with frequent comments from one group member who disagreed with many other posts. Eventually Edgerton closed down the comment option, noting that the post would stay because “there’s some great advice here by people I respect as educators.” 

So, what have those educators and others in the media said over the last few days since the event occurred? How DO we help students understand it? What would we want them to think about coverage? What part do the words journalists choose play in the effect? And what about our own biases?

Is it possible or even advisable for journalists to question their sources and not simply take their words as the truth? 

Shortly after Edgerton asked her question, I posted a summary of my recent discussion with my freshman reporting students at Kent State. I told them, by being merely stenographers – writing down and publishing whatever their sources said – journalists aren’t helping their audiences understand the news. 

They may even be somewhat culpable for the division in our country today by not digging deeper and looking harder for context and the truth. “Both sides” doesn’t tell it – every story has lots of sides, and it’s up to journalists to find as many as possible.

Bradley Wilson, JEA’s “Communication: Journalism Education Today” editor and Midwestern State University associate professor, took it one step further: “You know what? It’s time that we start speaking out for what’s right. Yes, what’s right is biased. Some arguments don’t have two sides.”

By being merely stenographers – writing down and publishing whatever their sources said – journalists aren’t helping their audiences understand the news.

While some insisted teachers should not let their opinions be known to their students, others pointed out the need, especially in a journalism class, to teach about democracy and the importance of media and its role in preserving that.

“If our democracy is to survive, we have to take part in it and demand change. You’re right, maybe the classroom isn’t the place to do that, but we can coach our students to learn about what has happened, why and come up with their own opinions,” Wilson said. 

Do we need to be careful of how we do that? Definitely. The first principle of the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists is “seek truth and report it.” That means going beyond the first canned response of a news source, be that the secretary of student council, the school principal or the president of the United States. 

As one of my favorite pins says: “Question authority.” Repeatedly, if necessary, firmly, politely, but do it to get the real story. 

Also report it accurately. Some of the Facebook strand discussion revolved around the words: Was it an act of terrorism? Was it a “crowd,” the neutral word I used in my first paragraph, or was it a mob? Was this insurrection? What do those words mean? And do we have proof that this is what happened?

The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty member Al Tompkins answered those questions in his Jan. 6 post: “What words should we use to describe what happened in the Capitol?” The second deck: “Mob? Riot? Revolt? Words matter.”

He pointed out that The Associated Press Stylebook last fall not only changed the meaning of the words “riot, unrest, protest, demonstration, uprising, revolt,” but included a clearer definition. “Use care in determining which term best applies: A riot is a wild or violent disturbance of the peace involving a group of people. The term riot suggests uncontrolled chaos and pandemonium.” 

On the other hand, “protest and demonstration refer to specific actions such as marches, sit-ins, rallies or other nations meant to register dissent.”

Some of what went on Wednesday near the Capitol Building may have included sincere, peaceful protestors. However, as Tompkins writes, “What unfolded at the Capitol, for me, meets all of the criteria for a ‘riot.’ One person was shot. People sprayed Mace at police. One person tried to break into the House chamber only to be met with police pistols. It was wild, it was violent and it was uncontrolled.” 

“What unfolded at the Capitol, for me, meets all of the criteria for a ‘riot.’ One person was shot. People sprayed Mace at police. One person tried to break into the House chamber only to be met with police pistols. It was wild, it was violent and it was uncontrolled.”
–Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute 

Since then, we’ve seen photos and video of more destruction and learned that five people lost their lives. Do we have proof of what happened? Thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone, we definitely do.

Back to the original question: What does this mean for journalism teachers? What kind of conversations will we have with our students, now, and probably in the weeks to come?

Adviser and journalism teacher Logan Aimone from Chicago, in his post to the Journalism Teachers Facebook group, said, “Educators — especially journalism educators — serve a compass for young people whose brains are developing and are unable to anticipate consequences and have less ability for reason and logic.”

And the recent events in Washington, D.C., give us a chance to use this sad, but teachable moment to talk to our students about how to go about seeking truth, how important words are to do that, and, perhaps, even how to make a difference in our democracy. 

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