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Asking questions never goes out of style

Posted by on Sep 3, 2018 in Blog, Legal issues, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Stan Zoller, MJE
A Chicago TV station has the call letters WMAQ. Its origins go back to the 1922 when The Chicago Daily News started the station. Its call letters were known to mean “We Must Ask Questions,” which today would not only be known as solid journalism, but also fact checking.

The Daily News sold the station to NBC in 1931, but the legacy of the call letters continues. Whether it was the intention of William Quinn, publisher of The Chicago Daily News when it started WMAQ to promote good journalism or people just assigned those words to WMAQ, one thing remains constant — asking questions remains a vital part of journalism today.

When journalists – whether students or professional — have even the faintest inkling about something, they need to ask questions. This is true when covering a speech, doing an interview, attending a press conference or a school board meeting.

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Illinois civics law reinforces
value of journalism education

Posted by on Sep 18, 2015 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


sprclogoby Stan Zoller, MJE
The successful passage and subsequent signing by Illinois governor Bruce Rauner of legislation that mandates a one-semester civic education course for high school students provides more than ‘just another’ social science course.

It re-enforces the importance of journalism education.

Throughout the process, The Illinois Task Force on Civic Education cited the need for citizens to be civic literate. One way to achieve that? News literacy.

The task force noted that:

“Responsible citizens include individuals who are informed and thoughtful. They have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy; have and understand the importance of news literacy; have an understanding and awareness of issues impacting their communities; have a capacity to think critically; and have a willingness to enter into dialogue with others about different points of view and to respect diverse perspectives.”

[pullquote]Quite simply, the skill that is paramount is the ability to critically think the contents of news reports no matter how they are delivered.[/pullquote]

The impact on journalism educators is simple: informed and engaged news consumers need to receive news reports that are independent, free of bias and provide information that is not only accurate, but also verifiable and transparent. The task force noted that a civics education course needs to offer students more than content; its needs to include skills, especially those related to news literacy.

Quite simply, the skill that is paramount is the ability to critically think the contents of news reports no matter how they are delivered.

Does this validate the need for a journalism course? Not solely, but it is a message that administrators need to hear. Ethically produced journalism that embellishes the basic fundamentals of news literacy has a new goal – at least in Illinois – to provide news consumers, as Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach note in “The Elements of Journalism” information that people need to live their lives and to also understand the world. They also write that it needs to be “meaningful, relevant and engaging.”

To achieve this, the need for student reporting to be ethical and adhere to media laws is at a new high. That’s because students, like other news consumers, are no longer just looking to be entertained, but informed so they can become not only active at school, but also in the civic process as well.

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Transparency needs to be crystal clear
– at all levels

Posted by on Apr 1, 2015 in Blog, Legal issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


sprclogoby Stan Zoller
In an effort to enhance transparency and public access to some records, legislators in two states are sending a message to some schools – show us your privates.

Sort of.

Bills are pending in the Texas and Illinois state houses would require police departments or campus safety departments at private colleges and universities to comply with the Freedom of Information Act in those states.

According to the Student Press Law Center, the bill pending in Texas “…would clarify that a private college’s police department is a “governmental body with respect to information relating to law enforcement activities,” eliminating its ability to withhold some law enforcement records from the public.”

The Illinois bill carries essentially the same language. The SPLC reports the Illinois bill is actually “A proposed amendment to the Private College Campus Police Act would require campus police departments at private universities… to publicly disclose any information that other law enforcement agencies are required to provide under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.”

[pullquote]Both bills represent an effort in two states to ensure that information regarding public safety is not masked by a private school. What lies ahead depends on what lawmakers in both states do with their respective bills.[/pullquote]

So why are these bills important to scholastic journalism teachers and their student journalists?

Because both bills represent an effort in two states to ensure that information regarding public safety is not masked by a private school. What lies ahead depends on what lawmakers in both states do with their respective bills.

Hopefully both bills will pass and the public, not to mention lawmakers will realize an informed citizenry can make solid decisions based on well balanced media reports.

Transparency and access to public records is not college thing, nor is it just for the professional press. Scholastic journalists have the same rights to accessing public records and should be able to do so without fear of repercussion from teachers, department chairs or administrators.

Information available through the FOIA is public and Journalism educators should encourage their students to use their state’s FOIA to ensure that they have solid background information about public matters – whether it is an action by a school board, or transaction by a school district.

Journalism educators need to be well versed in their state’s FOIA so they can, obviously, advise their students on not only what is available via the FOIA, but the process involved in accessing public information.

Information obtained from the FOIA can be enlightening. Media teachers and advisers need to carefully work with their students about how information will be used. Some information, especially from police reports, can be detailed and appear sensitive.

Some administrators will claim it’s “personal information and you can’t use that.”

Hardly. It’s public information and yes, it can be used.

As previously noted, however, it may need to be used judiciously. If so, it’s imperative  the reporter and media clearly note that the information was obtained by using the FOIA. No matter if information used in a media report or not, it does provide student journalists with outstanding background information. Obviously, it’s an excellent example of a direct source that adds depth to a story.

While administrators may decry its use, what that can’t decry is that a student journalist has done his or her homework and is practicing quintessential transparency.

And if they can’t accept transparency, they shouldn’t be an administrator.

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Illinois paper calls for public discussion of issues at Stevenson High

Posted by on Dec 3, 2009 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


The Pioneer press, local paper for Lincolnshire, Illinois, today editorially called for public discussion of the issues surrounding censorship of The Statesman at Stevenson High School.

Last spring, the paper had editorialized against the students.

Now is the time for Stevenson administrators, faculty and students to share their opinions and hear from people with diverse views about issues upon which the Stevenson controversies have touched: Should reporters use anonymous sources — especially if those sources accuse other people of breaking the law? How do administrators keep oversight of a school newspaper from turning into an extension of a school’s public relations department? How do professional journalists respond to potential conflicts of interest, and what should student journalists and educators do when they face conflicts?” the paper stated in today’s editorial.

You can read the entire editorial here.

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Students forced to publish censored paper

Posted by on Nov 24, 2009 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Turkeys in the news tomorrow may not be just on people’s plates.

Lately, some have been dressed as administrators at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

First, school officials’ objections held up the paper’s initial release. Then they forced journalism students to remove  several stories and several pages from the latest issue.

Next, administrators demanded the issue run despite student objections. According to information in the Daily Herald and Chicago Tribune, administrators wouldn’t allow students to remove their bylines from the stories and threatened to fail the student journalists if they did not do as told.

Prior review, administrators said last year when a previous dispute occurred, would only last a short time.

They were right about one thing. Review is now prior restraint of the least educationally defensible kind.

Executive director of the Student Press Law center, Frank LoMonte, called administrative actions a confession that they had lied.

Stevenson’s conduct today is a confession that its administrators lied when they claimed in a press release last week that they had problems with only one story in the Statesman,” he said. “We trust that the school board will immediately investigate the source of this intentionally false public statement and will remove any employee who played a role in distributing it.

LoMonte also praised student editors.

“Student editors have dealt with Stevenson in an honest, professional and restrained manner, attempting to work out a peaceful resolution. Their reward for it was a sucker-punch in the gut. To threaten the highest-achieving students in the school with flunking journalism, potentially endangering their college careers, simply confirms that Stevenson puts its image ahead of the well-being of its students. When a school tries this hard to silence student journalism, the public should start asking hard questions about what is going on at Stevenson High School that its administrators are so desperate to conceal.”

This Thanksgiving the communities that send their students to Stevenson definitely may want to be thinking of ways to deal with these leftover turkeys.

For related reporting and coverage, go here, here, here and here.

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