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Riding out the storm should involve future planning

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Scholastic media have important information to convey, this year probably more than ever. In far too many communities, school media are the only source of such information in a news desert created when local and sometimes even larger newspapers have folded in recent years. As we work our way through the storm that is 2020, student-run journalism should learn to anticipate what’s coming next, and how to avoid negative impact.

Part 2 of multiple parts

by John Bowen, MJE

For most high schools, school looms in the coming weeks when students – and advisers – face more of what 2020 can throw at them. Already this fall, journalism programs have faced unforeseen challenges.

• In a state with freedom of expression legislation, student journalists withstood threats demanding prior review, which is often not prohibited by state legislation. The school’s superintendent came to the students’ defense, explaining protection for student free expression.

• In a state trying to pass free expression legislation, school officials made even stronger threats of prior review when students and community members publicized school actions.

• In another state, student photographers were suspended for taking photos of students crowded in a hallway. Most students pictured did not wear masks. Within a week the school faced increasing numbers of those testing positive. School officials also lifted two students’ suspensions for taking the photos.

• During protests earlier this summer, student journalists found themselves targets of police and federal agents as they attempted to cover national events for local perspectives.

Such challenges will continue.

To stay ahead of problems, students can learn to anticipate plan to avoid problems. Such preventative decision-making and problem-solving builds ethical fitness.

Issues student journalists likely will focus around these:

• As the numbers affected by virus continue remain news, scholastic journalists will face questions about how they report it and related local issues:

        –How will HIPAA and FERPA affect reporting of Covid-19 related student issues? Should student-run media try to identify those who tested positive?

–How will journalists handle sources’ requests concerning privacy? How much will your students inform their communities about journalism and privacy?

–What are student rights and responsibilities concerning visual reporting of those involved in massless participation in music, sports event and more.   Think photography in crowded hallways.

–What will your audiences need to know about the virus and its effects on education issues, stories your students can do better than anyone else.

–Who speaks most authoritatively on Covid-19 and fallout that surrounds it?

• Election reporting and student media:

          –Will your students run political candidate or issue ads, nationally and locally? Some administrators claim student media cannot to that. Research and determine the staff’s view on endorsements and their legality. Check out SPLC’s guidance. Perhaps students don’t want to deal with endorsement. What are pros-cons of that choice? 

How will your students report the national election, one on which, some say, will determine the future of democracy in the United States? Should they emphasize the locally important issues? Focus on what voters need to know and the myriad questions that can follow? Would they run only viewpoint pieces?

Questions to help anticipate potential areas of conflict in this time of change

           –How would your students explain choosing not to run such ads?

      –How will your students report the national election, one on which, some say, will determine the future of democracy in the United States? Should they emphasize the locally important issues? Focus on what voters need to know and the myriad questions that can follow? Would they run only viewpoint pieces?

–How can, or should they factcheck candidates’ claims? What is your obligation to the truth? What is the obligation to call out lies?

–How far will student media go to expose source and information falsity? Is it ethical to plainly call a source a liar?

–What roles, if any, will objectivity, verification, credibility, integrity and knowledge play. Oh, and those are for reporter, columnist and editors as well as sources.

What ethical planning might student journalists have to make for visual reporting standards when reporting on BLM and protests, police reform and more? For example, should ethical guidelines be changed when identifying protestors, or other participants, to protect their identities.

–How do you determine whose information to cite? Do you have a process to do that? Which student staffers have final say on publishing questionable materials? How do you define questionable? This and this and this and this.

What is the context of information gathered/received from sources; and about sources themselves; do they have conflicts of interest about the topic?

— How good is this story? Professor William Taylor drilled this motto into us in journalism classes: “It isn’t right until it is right.” Who decides what right entails? Right for whom? What’s right: facts, context, implication, perspectives?

–Can voters count on the information to be complete and cohesive enough to cast an informed vote (and we will share more about this in another blog when we look at prior review and restraint and the roe of administrators concerning student media.

Can/should high school media do this kind of reporting? Why and how? And this.

• Reporting the truth as best you can find it:

–How do you define “responsible?” What is “Responsible Journalism” and who sets the meaning? It is quite common to find a variety of definitions, and that can cause problems. because the term has become a buzzword for control and censorship.

Is objectivity the gold standard for news journalism? What does it mean; what does it mean in the school setting? Could a photographer also be a “cheerleader,” supporting the team while performing news functions from the sidelines? Is it possible, and this and this.

–How do student journalists choose terminology accurate about other cultures, the economy, education, religion? When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

Using language of authority, from police to elections; from medicine to the economy; from global issues to environmental issues? (can reporters be objective in talking about criminal charges, terrorist, etc) .

Should viewpoint coverage be clearly labeled? Some studies say some audiences cannot tell the differences. Whose responsibility is it to know how to tell the difference?

–To what degree can prior review and restraint alter the truth and accuracy of information? Do voters receive accurate, factual, complete and coherent information upon which to make intelligent, informed decisions? 

–What does censorship teach students and adults about whether what they learn about civic engagement, petition and duty is different from reality? What do they do about that new fact?

What are journalists’ roles now and in the future? How do we help student media be prepared for the changing journalism landscape?

The first piece of this series on preparing student journalists to face change affecting how they complete their obligations and mission. we referred to the “perfect storm” mixing in to a “seething atmosphere of political unease” to go with the virus, protests and the election.

This blog, second in the series, Riding out the storm, is designed to raise questions about additional ethical training student media need. Student journalists can become more adept at anticipating changes to scholastic media and communities it serves, and and in creating alternatives to. 

Communities, student and adult, can then take the information they need to factually engage and build desirable futures.

Alone, each of these issues could deeply stress scholastic journalism’s ethical framework. Together, engaging issues and alternatives, we can craft a path to ultimately unify scholastic journalism’s foundation: mission statement, editorial policy, ethical guidelines and application process.

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