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Seeking journalistic truth

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Helping student journalists to seek the truth

by Kristin Taylor

What does it mean to be truthful? Is truthfulness accurate numbers and statistics? Multiple points of view? Context to help the reader understand the time and place and other circumstances? All of the above?

Journalistic truth “means much more than mere accuracy,” according the seminal text “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel. “It is a sorting-out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers and journalists.”

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Another 45 essential words

Posted by on Jan 14, 2018 in Blog, Hazelwood, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments



by John Bowen, MJE
In building a journalism program around the 45 words below, no journalist should be limited by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which impacts society in a variety of ways, some not immediately visible.

Student journalists need: 

  • Truthseeking
  • Truthtelling
  • Accuracy
  • Honesty
  • Completeness
  • Context
  • Credibility
  • Reliability
  • Ethical fitness
  • Independence
  • Transparency
  • Diversity of ideas

Student journalists need to:

  • Question Authority
  • Witness
  • Verify
  • Be role models
  • Offer public forums
  • Have no prior review
  • Make final decisions
  • Encourage empowerment
  • Offer leadership
  • Inspire trust

Journalists and their audiences received an unfortunate lesson in Hazelwood:  governments of all types should control the spread of information. Audiences have learned not to trust the news media because they often see scholastic media limited in what it can do. The limitations are numerous.

Hazelwood’s lesson has lasted 30 years.

Starting Jan. 13, 1988, we experienced nightmares of misinformation, misguided thought control and fake news, sugar-coated as guidance, leadership and education, all through prior review and restraint.

It’s time to bring us all from the Hazelwood nightmare. It’s time to Cure Hazelwood. Censored news is fake news.

[pullquote]“Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” –Justice Hugo Black[/pullquote]

To do that, we can think about, and then apply, what Justice Hugo Black wrote in the New York Times Co. v. United States (the Pentagon Papers) decision in 1971.

Black’s statement is an important part in the film The Post:  “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Student media must be able to fulfill that role, too.

To learn about ways to fulfill that role, check out our materials on this site and especially information about the New Voices program and other Student Press Law Center Day of Action initiative.

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When sources don’t respond QT35

Posted by on Dec 4, 2017 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments



The publication staff will provide every reasonable opportunity for sources to respond to a request for an interview. Students must first attempt to contact the source in person or through an administrative assistant. If the person is not available, they should attempt calling and leaving a message with a request for an in-person interview. If, after 24 hours, the source does not respond to the telephone call, staffers should send an email requesting an in-person interview with a clear deadline by which the staffer will include the line “the source did not respond to an interview request.”

Social media post/question:

What to do when a source does not respond?


Publication staffs must make all reasonable attempts to secure an interview, and if they cannot get a response from a source, they must develop their credibility and show the reader they made an attempt to interview a source, but the source did not respond.

Key Points:

An easy way to stop or stall a story is to make sure the students never get an interview with the people who have the information. It’s easy for a source to ignore a request for an interview. What is your responsibility as a publication when reasonable attempts are made to secure an interview, but the source does not respond?


To maintain credibility with their readers and/or to show balance, publication staffers must show they followed proper procedures to offer right of response or to obtain pertinent information for a story. When a story goes out with important sources who have been omitted, readers have a right to question the veracity or intent of the story. Always let your readers know who you contacted for the story even if they ignored or rejected your request for an interview.

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Responsibility in scholastic media starts with
ethics, accuracy, complete story QT23

Posted by on Oct 23, 2017 in Blog, Ethical Issues, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Administrators may want student media that depicts the school in a positive light, that promotes good news and overlooks the negative.

Is this responsible journalism?

Advisers may want student media that reflects students’ technical proficiency such as mechanics, grammar and style. Little else matters.

Is this responsible journalism?

Students may want to preserve tradition, give students the content they want, focusing on predictable content sure to avoid administrative displeasure.

Is this responsible journalism?

The goal of responsible, ethical journalism is not met by simply deciding stories cannot be published or media practices that produce no educational value. Journalistic responsibility is a layered, textured process.

Resolution of content issues will not come from a series of “don’ts” framed for the students.

Resolution will come through thorough, accurate and credible journalism shaped by a strong mission statement, empowering policies and a staff manual rooted in ethical guidelines that enable student growth, critical thinking and decision-making.

Resolution is not created  by publishing fake news forged by censorship and fear of censorship.

Strong journalism is rooted in ethics, empowered by trust and enabled by policies and guidelines that demand responsibility.

Journalistic responsibility.


Quick Tips: Journalistic responsibility

Question: What we speak of responsible journalism, what do we mean?

Key points/action: Responsible journalism is ethical journalism. Administrators demand responsibility but the trouble is groups define it differently.

Responsible and ethical journalism is accurate, complete and cohesive. It’s credible and has integrity.

These elements combined create a path to ethical journalism. The path is much more difficult, if not impossible, censorship, prior review or self-censorship because students are intimidated from carrying out responsible journalism, exist

Journalism that is censored, incomplete and lacks context is not responsible. It’s fake news.

Stance: Journalistic responsibility begins with empowering student media to practice the little things:

  • Access to accurate, complete and truthful information
  • Ability to present information in context
  • Access to credible and trustworthy sources through interviewing, observation and research
  • Leadership through their content, decisions and actions
  • Opportunities to decide all content for student media, to apply the principles, skills and practices they are taught and learn from their successes

As student journalists take these steps, they will maintain the idea of free expression as democracy’s cornerstone,


Common threads of responsible journalism connect school officials, student journalists and news-media professionals. Guidelines expressed here reflect the belief student journalists and school officials share a commitment to the schools’ educational mission and practices, and that commitment focuses on building stronger and engaged citizens.

Responsible student journalists accept ethical guidelines and practices to best serve their communities. Responsible administrators embrace and enhance journalistic practices that carry out the mission of scholastic media and of the school in fortifying information their communities need to make informed decisions and action in a working democracy.

To that end, we build goals for journalistic responsibility by:

  • Establishing policies and practices that enable thorough, accurate, complete and cohesive reporting of student-decided content.
  • Applying critical thinking and decision-making skills and practices to assist students as they become productive citizens in a democracy.
  • Empowering advisers’ development and use of substantive journalism curricula and application experiences.
  • Maintaining open lines of communication between students, faculty and staff, administrators and communities designed to build trust create a maximum environment for truthful and complete sharing of information.
  • Reporting accurately, thoroughly, credibly and cohesively so process and product model integrity.
  • Operating student media that publish information in verbal and visual context that enhances comprehension for the greater good of all communities.

Related: These points and other decisions about mission statement, forum status and editorial policy should be part of a Foundations Package  that protects journalistically responsible student expression.


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They need the freedom
to make mistakes, too

Posted by on Jul 11, 2017 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Lindsay Coppens, adviser of The Harbinger, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA

Scholastic press freedom is a big responsibility, and true freedom comes when young journalists aren’t just free to do great journalism but also are free to make journalistic mistakes and learn from them.

As teachers and advisers, we work hard to teach our student journalists the principles, skills and ethics they need while fostering their abilities to problem solve and communicate.

We need to continually remember, though, that it is the students’ publication, and while it can be tempting to continually hold their hands or catch them before they fall, the most powerful lessons can come from failures. My new editorial board recently had one of these learning-from-failure experiences, and I am confident they are stronger journalists because of it.

[pullquote]We need to continually remember, though, that it is the students’ publication, and while it can be tempting to continually hold their hands or catch them before they fall, the most powerful lessons can come from failures.[/pullquote]

Like many publications, at our paper a new editorial board begins its work in the spring. The new editors take the reins continuing established traditions, figuring out how to make their own mark, and tackling the behemoth task of organizing and creating social media posts, daily online updates and a final print issue of the year.

This year’s new group of 15 editors did a particularly great job putting together an ambitious 24-page print issue two weeks before school let out for summer. They set a goal (and met it) of pushing their page design in a more creative direction while taking on issues of substance.

They took a stand by writing an editorial which reprimanded the graduating class and others of recent years for destructive pranks and behaviors at celebratory school events, encouraging future seniors to have fun while being less harmful to others. They did all of this working as a team for the first time while I, their adviser who is normally there for most of the long after school “press week” hours, was largely absent due to a family medical emergency.

As I told the editors, my absence during their first issue was a true test of their skills and will. I hadn’t read about half the published pieces until the print issue hit the stands, and while I saw many of the pages pre-publication (mainly through pictures editors texted me asking for feedback) and gave some suggestions, this was the most hands-off I’ve been with any issue since I started advising eight years ago. I was incredibly proud of what they accomplished.

Then a few hours after the paper was distributed, I received an email from a senior class adviser who was angry about the editorial. She listed at least four key facts she claimed they got wrong, and while she recognized it was an opinion piece, she was “very disappointed with the wild inaccuracy of the article.”

Immediately my heart sank. What had happened? Was she right or were the kids?

I briefly replied, thanking her for the feedback, affirming that accuracy is of the utmost importance and letting her know I was forwarding her concerns to the student editors-in-chief who would be in touch with her soon.

I wanted the communication to be directly between her and the editors, but I also respect my relationship with my colleague. After meeting with the editors who looked physically ill when they realized their mistake in reporting rumors which they had not fact checked, I sent her one more follow up email the same afternoon:

“I just wanted you to know that the kids are having an editorial board meeting right now, and the biggest topic is the editorial–what went right, what went wrong (and how & why). They are picking apart their process and how they do or don’t fact-check, and what to do when mistakes are made. Anyhow, it sounds as if the process fell apart and they forgot about being skeptical reporters and that opinions need to be based on verified facts. The editors should be in touch with you soon to talk.”

[pullquote] “‘Thanks for following up with me and hopefully this can be a good real-life learning experience for our budding journalists. :-)’”[/pullquote]

She wrapped up her reply to me on an understanding note, which reaffirmed that much of our community understands the school paper isn’t just a product but an educational process: “Thanks for following up with me and hopefully this can be a good real-life learning experience for our budding journalists. :-)”

Meanwhile, at their lengthy meeting the editors identified every single fact that needed to be verified (and should have been before publication), and they put a plan into action that two editors would spearhead a fact-checking mission and write a completely new editorial to be published online.

This editorial would be honest in recognizing their mistakes and emphasize transparency in an attempt to not only set the record straight but also regain the trust of readers.

They also realized that the editorial was not a mistake of only one person, but illuminated a weakness and breakdown in their collective process: they had all read and approved of the piece, but not one had questioned the details beyond phrasing, word choices and grammar.

As a group they agreed they needed to be more skeptical and rigorous in their reading, even and perhaps especially of each other’s work. They also recognized the need to establish a clear fact-check protocol for every published piece.

In the end the editors formally interviewed seven sources, informally spoke with many others, and attempted to interview additional key players, all while preparing for and taking their final exams. As a result, they wrote and published an editorial, “Be skeptical of rumors, thoroughly check facts,” that I am incredibly proud of.

The piece begins candidly: “We made a mistake because we listened to rumors instead of skeptically stopping and checking the facts.”

The editorial continues by revealing and apologizing for their mistakes, sharing their process of determining the facts and affirming their commitment to their readers. Their work clearly demonstrates humility, transparency and dedication to being good journalists.

Yes, they stumbled and briefly fell, but my team learned more than I could have taught them in a classroom lesson. They are stronger journalists for the experience.

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