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Student journalists can tackle current, key issues to bring


by John Bowen, MJE

For 19 days now, Ohioans anywhere near East Palestine, a town with close to 4,700 residents near the Pennsylvania state line, tried to grasp the Norfolk Southern train’s derailment impact on their futures and those of their town.

Today, Feb. 22, Northern Ohioans and others in the proximity of railroad tracks, might have reason to ask the same questions.

Feb. 19, news broke the train had traveled from Toledo through Cleveland before turning south with its load of toxic materials. Although we do not know the exact path yet, one route could take this train 2.2 miles from our house, slightly north of the city of Kent and through Ravenna, the county seat of Portage County.

Our estimate of a probable railroad journey south, based on the Norfolk Southern’s route map, goes from Cleveland up north, through Hudson, Ravenna and then east through Alliance. East Palestine is after Sebring, right about when the tracks cross the Pennsylvania border (the yellow line on a map).That itinerary was plotted by our high school grandson who knows railroads, trains and how they cross the state.

2.2 miles.

Now, all those who live and work and shop and enjoy the outdoors along railroad trucks, have reason to join 4,700 people in East Palestine, Ohio, concerned, and seeking answers.

The specter of billowing black clouds broken by rising flames is close enough for scholastic journalists to share concerns of families across the nation. Concerns about how government, business and industries plan to explore the many possibilities, from good to less good, and with long- and short-term consequences for their futures.

Campbell Robertson and Emily Cochrane wrote in the New York Times Feb. 15, “Experts have warned that understanding the causes and consequences could require a more comprehensive investigation than what has taken place so far.”

National Scholastic Journalism Week is the perfect time for student reporters to join other journalists, as they tackle current, essential issues:

Monday, Feb. 20: Truth in reporting
Tuesday, Feb. 21: Balanced reporting
Wednesday, Feb. 22: Inclusive reporting
Thursday, Feb. 23: Student Press Freedom Day
Friday, Feb. 24: In-depth reporting

Just a scraping the surface of story ideas that explore reporting categories above, and more
• What solutions should this wreck spur railroad and government to prioritize?
• Should hazardous materials travel through populated areas? What alternatives exist to protect people?• Where locally can people with chemical poisoning or symptoms from any hazardous material go for assistance?
• If there is a hazardous materials accident, how long will it take for any dangers to dissipate? How do people protect themselves? Family? Pets and animals? Safety of locally grown food?
• If you have train companies locally or that pass through your town, ask their officials what requirements for safe operation are and what do they do to monitor equipment safety?
• Have individuals or teams assisted others who face problems like train derailments, hurricane damage or other potential life or death situations?
• Do students know where to volunteer to help people in need? What training, if any, might be required?

Potential story ideas for empowering social responsibility:
• Can teen reporters set ethical and professional models for reporting stories using social media? Where, and what, story forms would be best?
• Can students organize broad packages that best report large issues like environment, racism, education, health and safety using effective multiple platforms where they learn to work as a team? • Can students promote civic engagement through contextual, transparent and ethical reporting of issues communities face?
• Can students demonstrate effective models of journalistic responsibility that include advocacy journalism, solutions journalism and journalistic activism?
• Can students provide visual reporting across platforms, to assist community members to better see and change causes, events and impact of major issues facing society?
• Can students provide voices from all views, a true forum function, so communities have access to diverse positions and alternatives?
• Can students gather enough information to spark communities, individually and societally, to empower themselves?

Student journalists already publish examples of such action and insight.

Among resources focused on journalistic principles is The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Among the book’s key principles is Skeptical Knowing. At its heart is finding truth, with loyalty to citizens and independence from faction.

Among tools journalists use to apply those principles are verification, contextualization, accuracy and completeness.

Student journalists will strive to showcase the principles and apply the tools, but not randomly toss their unsupported views about.

National Scholastic Journalism Week 2023 and its theme,”More to the story,” is the time and place to grow the impact of student decided content.