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Students win money, school board rejects it; Issues create story planning activity


by John Bowen, MJE

Purpose of this activity’s project
All that and more are beginning points on how to build coverage depending on what reporters can make of it. It’s up to the teacher/media adviser and journalism students to decide what is and what is not credible, sustainable and essential in this multi-pathed activity based on a November 2023 situation.

Determining all this to find the contents and context for their best story means digging deeper. More interviews and research might lead to perspectives community members need to know. Providing context and content fulfills journalism’s obligation to roles of Theory of Social Responsibility and civic engagement.

Do any of the potential story threads deserve community attention?

By making decisions on important and relevant coverage, student journalists test their ethical decision making. As they do this, they help community members understand what they want to know, what they need to know and why journalism’s roles of skeptical knowing and contextual reporting are crucial to a expanding democracy.A

Skeptical knowing means not accepting information as needed or valid just because someone says it. Contextual reporting gives the audience the background and perspective to see more detailed pictures and how these fit together — or don’t.

All that is journalistic responsibility.

For example, students can role play varied journalism theories and ethical processes taught in j-classes by focusing on civic engagement and reporting sensitive stories.

And that brings us back to Lynchburg, Virginia’s dilemma. How can student news media report, or even should it, present relevant, localized reporting of society’s issues?

Your task will be to complete two activities for your students to study information from commercial media, one a local TV station and the other The Washington Post.

Links to the stories are below. Others may be available online:
LGBTQ+ teens won a grant for their school. Adults sent the money back
– Lynchburg city school board receives death threat after rejecting LGBTQ+ safe space grant

Two additional media outlets reported since the incident and are linked below:
VA: School board receives backlash over grant
A month after students win grant, Lynchburg school board leaves project win limbo

Questions/approaches for activity planning and execution:
1. Is this an important story? Should it be reported, and why or why not?
2. Who has an obligation to publish the story? Why and how? The how might be important if students use an alternative story form. If the student media was local? Or, maybe in any situation?
3. In this activity, you can focus on Lynchburg or adapt coverage for your community.
4. Read the stories first, then, briefly, decide which of the many angles would best serve the community. There might be a single angle or multiple angles. Perhaps the best delivery is from multiple formats.
5. Divide the class into groups with sizes of teacher choice. Each group will act separately.
6. Groups gathering other information is fine.

Activity 1: Story planning and development:
1. Critique the two articles, their use of journalistic technique and style. Students should also have notes from their groups. Did reporters find the best, more credible sources? If not, how would your students fix the problem? Who has an obligation to publish the story? All journalists or more specialized ones?
2. Report or not report? Would students report on this information? Which sets of info are best and add to the story? What distracts, misleads or is just plain incomplete? How would they report?
3. Next, list the best delivery style. Which format(s) would present information most effectively? Which format best delivers its information and nuance.
4. Discuss the writing, reporting sources used and other factors of the stories. Critique what info is included and what is not. What additional information maybe should have been considered?
5. Discuss student responses (Individually or as a whole class) to shape the value or lack of it in the published story. Are the stories coherent? How could reporters makes them more so? Is attribution appropriate? Credible sources? In context? Is conflicting information presented ethically?

Activity 2: The class focuses on the process of choosing the best angles, resources, information for the best coverage.
1. Instruct the class to prepare a planning outline for story angle, sources, context and complete content. Groups should be ready to identify why they made their decisions and how they would affect or correct other information.
2. Students will explain why they would tell or refuse to publish this information. Localize the story through discussion to make the info more relevant.
3. Prepare to provide comment on story development and planning. Students may add any other areas they can show are important.
4. Each group will outline a plan they would propose to report what they saw as key events and angles, localized with sources, background and more. Students should include their information choices, absence of some facts and importance of critiques on the team story approaches.
5. What are strengths and weaknesses of each of the group’s outline? Speak to different levels of journalistic qualities – lead, resources, quote use, enough content, context? What’s strongest about the coverage? Weakest? How can they make the content more effective and complete? What details can students explain that original stories omitted? Why did students choose it and how does it help?
6. Sourcing: do students propose the right kind, those most qualified? How many and why are they needed? Are there sources to avoid? How will students most effectively gather necessary information? Prepare several questions for each source (beyond just bio details). What are the most important information and angles students must obtain? Can the team brainstorm what is needed from live sources? Non-live sources? How will reporters decide when they have enough of the right information?
7. How will reporters present information? One story? Several stories? Sidebars? Multimedia? Visuals? Print and/or broadcast? Alternative story forms? One larger package or series format?
8. How will students determine story balance. Is it important? How will teams try to keep information neutral? How will they ensure it’s complete? Will be stories objectively presented? Is this important? Why or why not?
9. How will reporters decide there is enough to make the story publishable? What would criteria for that decision?
10. What are the potential story angles? Which are best? The weakest? Who make the best sources? Weakest? Can the weaknesses be fixed? How? Just articles or more? Infographics? Alternative story forms?
11. I omitted some potential ethical questions and issues. Students should, if they identify them, decide if or how to handle them. How much and what kinds of attribution will teams need to support their best reporting? Feel free to follow what seem to be minor or even non-angles.
12. Within each of the above steps, be as specific as possible, including names and position of the person or non-live sources. If reporters cannot be that specific, just refer to positions those sources hold.

Possible additional role:
Those who chose not to publish in the opening discussions have a special task in the two activities. Use reporter knowledge to question the decisions and process others in the team use.

If a reporter cannot convince others to change content or context you challenge their reasoning and background. This reporter will still work to publish.
• What are the main reasons students feel there is no story here? Or, is it possible the story is submerged? Or just requires more work? What are strengths and weaknesses of the story concept that makes it a no-go? Speak to different levels of journalistic qualities.
• Is it possible changing the presentation style, say from reporting to column, would be a better approach?
• If the story has shifted how will students ensure the path the group choose has knowledgeable sources with integrity and reliable information?
• Reporters usually identify sources. How will students determine story balance, if it is important? How will the students remain objective? Is this important? Why or why not?

Final discussion and evaluation of the activity:
What comes next? Up to teacher and students.

The teacher could apply a final, summary statement or reaction, what students learned and will use again. Or focus on an essential point, but not addressed in the original story.

And, if you like, share your work with us, on the SPRC site. Information included would be results and comments from student discussions, especially on the viability of similar exercises.

Our tip of the hat to Mary Stapp, an educator in Washington, DC, for bringing the story to our attention.

Photo by Bernd-Dittrich on Unsplash