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Scholastic journalism aid regrowing news desert communities by reporting education issues, info


Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students: Part 4/4

My original blog idea started as a simple little suggestion to encourage high school student journalists to cover school board meetings and educational topics in communities without commercial media – those rural and urban areas considered news deserts. But it’s grown much bigger than that. These will be the weekly installments.

Reporting school news challenges newsroom pros, students

Part 1: We’ll explore what happened when a student reporter offered a story about her school to a local “news and digital marketing platform.” It was posted – and then….

Part 2: What do those involved with student media legal issues say about this? We’ll talk to the Student Press Law Center about what rights such young journalists have.

Part 3: How do the hyperlocal web outlets see their role when working with students – or do they see that as a possibility at all? 

Part 4:  Are there ways we – advisers and journalism teachers – can help students and communities get vital information, especially about local education? How can we educate those who might be working with student journalists but have no background in scholastic media and student rights and responsibilities

a sunflower field at sunset

The News Desert

‘If no one writes about what’s happening in their meetings, no one questions their plans and proposals and how they spend tax dollars, how will anyone know if they should remain in office – or step aside for those with better ideas?’ Photo by Jesús Esteban San José on

by Candace Bowen, MJE

This 4-part blog’s premise: Student journalists may be able to help communities in news deserts – places that have no local media coverage and thus no good insight into local government and nothing to help them make important decisions at the polls. 

Education seems like a natural coverage area for student journalists. School boards in particular make decisions that will impact a community for years to come, but if no one writes about what’s happening in their meetings, no one questions their plans and proposals and how they spend tax dollars, how will anyone know if they should remain in office – or step aside for those with better ideas?

One way is to cover more about school board decisions and other local government issues that impact the teen audience in our student media. That can be a plus – and blog content later in the year will cover some ideas about how to do that more effectively – and safely.

Having students intern or write for local community news sites, many of them grant-supported, is another way. The plus with this is the news gets to all the community. It also gives students another venue for their reporting But, with the background from the first three parts of this blog, it’s clear this won’t be easy. The question now is: How can we do — those who understand what student journalists want and need to be effective —to help the editors they might work with on these websites.

What things might such an editor need to know about a potential “employee” who’s 16 years old:

  • Just tossing them into [writing news] just doesn’t work,” said Rachel Dissell, a former student journalist and award-winning reporter with Signal Cleveland. She’s working now with 10 students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and she knows they need foundational skills first.
  • For Dissell, that means first some lessons in civics and government. “Students need to understand the decision-making process.” She shows her students a video of a government meeting, and they discuss how to know who’s there, how to spell their names, how to attribute quotes or to paraphrase, and how to summarize what happened.
  • Ben Wolford, editor of the Portager, hopes to find students in each high school in Portage County to cover educational issues. He said he knows it will take coaching students from the inception of the story to who to talk to and what questions to ask. “They haven’t had a lot of experience dealing with the subtleties of sourcing like what to do if they say it’s off the record,” he said. Yes, that will be a lot of work, but he said that’s how he and others like him learned. 
  • Sourcing is a big challenge for anyone working with teen journalists. Dissell helps her students learn about attribution and paraphrasing and also about accessing data and using databases to support their meeting coverage.
  • Some other things we educators know, but the newsroom pros might not:
  • Teens are certainly capable, but sometimes, out of necessity have spread themselves too thin. Jobs, classes (AP or an extra load), home responsibilities, often with younger siblings, sports, clubs…..)
    • Some really top students have not had grammar and punctuation training the editors might expect.
    • Some really top students have not had the government and history background the editors might expect.
  • And then there’s the “long arm” of the school. As reported in Part 1 of this blog, not all editors would know students have First Amendment rights. “If students are going to be engaging in a total third-party activity in reference to the school district, if it is off campus, not using any sort of campus equipment, not during school hours,” as SPLC lawyer Jonathan Gaston-Falk said, the school can’t censor or regulate their speech.

This may be the biggest a-HA moment those just starting to work with teens should know. No matter if the principal makes the school look bad, no matter if he or she finds an article awkward or embarrassing.

Bottom line: Is it true?