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Determining – and practicing– journalism’s secret words

Posted by on Dec 9, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Stan Zoller
During his game show, “You Bet Your Life,” the late Groucho Marx would challenge his contestants to “say the secret word and win $100.”

Imagine what it would be like if Groucho had his show today and featured as his panelists, a high school administrator and high school journalist.

What would the secret word be?

There’s a good chance the journalists, fresh from the fall JEA conference and beaming with ideas and insights in to the First Amendment and press rights, might say “Openness,” “Trust” or “Fairness.”

The administrator, on the other hand, may say something like, “Positive” or “Review.” Odds are they’d say more, but remember, we’re talking one word here and administrators seldom explain anything in one word.

Perhaps, however, the one word that could emerge as the secret word came out of a conference held several years ago.  In “Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media,” funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s Civics Group, the overriding general premise was if administrators and those students, teachers and advisers involved in student media would practice protocol, there would hopefully be a better understanding of what each was trying to accomplish.

Conceptually, it’s a great idea.  Protocol relies on communication, trust and cooperation.

Unfortunately, the gatekeepers of schools and even school districts put personal agendas ahead of a free and open student media.  I’ve heard principals say they don’t care what’s in the student media as long as it is “positive.”  In other words, don’t rock the boat and you’ll be fine.

So what is positive news?  Is our student media to cover only the Homecoming Queen, pizza sales for after prom?  The news that impacts our – not just students’- -world is not always positive.  Student journalists everywhere wrote about the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school, and the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  It’s not positive news, but many student media raised questions about the safety of their school.  A valid story.

Some people say that news is information that authorities would rather the media not report.  In other words, it is not “positive.”

If schools fail to meet state standards, are student journalists to avoid writing about the results because they are not positive news?  I know of one adviser who had the principal talk to his journalism class during which the principal said how she likes to “leak” news stories to the student newspaper.

Leaks from the principal’s office?  That sounds more like controlling information the public needs to know.  It should also set off the yellow light in a student journalist’s mind, or any journalist for that matter, that there is a lack of transparency emanating from the administration.

There are no “high school journalists” — but journalists who are in high school.  They have the same rights as any other journalists.  Any administrator who deems it appropriate to “leak” the news is not leading an educational institution in the best interests of its students, let alone student journalists.

Stakeholders associated with student media extend beyond the schoolyard fence.  Parents, the public at large and alumni are all part of the potential audience for student media.  Like students, faculty and staff, they deserve a free and responsible student media steeped in trust and responsibility.

And those just might be the secret words.

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Hazelwood made some better teachers, journalists; others suffered from fear

Posted by on Jan 21, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Nancy Hastings

Hazelwood stories: It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the Hazelwood decision came in…. it seems like only last week when the phone calls poured in from local media and area high schools asking for my opinions on what this would mean and my help to defend student rights from administrators already trying to clamp the voice of criticism.25 years of Hazelwood art

I always thanked my lucky stars that I worked in a school district and community that supported our student media. While we didn’t always agree, the administration believed in us to act responsibly. In fact, my principal used to tell me that he’d rather answer questions from student journalists than the local media, because at least the students quoted him accurately.

I do think Hazelwood made us better journalists. We still tackled stories that mattered, but we became more conscious of the need to cover all sides of the story as accurately as possible. The students became better critical thinkers as they debated issues and backed up their beliefs.  The decision encouraged more open communication as editors scheduled regular meetings with administrators to discuss subjects that mattered to both sides. In fact, they often invited the principal to attend Editorial Board meetings when the staff had concerns they wanted to discuss.

I think Hazelwood in some ways made me a better teacher. I started teaching in the Tinker era when… “students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.” I could no longer take those rights for granted. I had to fully understand student press law and ethics, so that my students could decipher their rights and responsibilities.  These students in turn, used that knowledge to help educate each new young administrator who believed students had no rights to criticize any school decision or activity. As students became more proficient in understanding the pedagogical mission of schools, they became more confident as reporters and writers.

Unfortunately, not all student journalists have been so lucky. Area administrators have confiscated newspapers that criticized a coach, have shut down a publication that called for the school library to be open longer after hours to allow students to research, and set have set up prior review because student journalists criticized school policies.  New advisers with little journalism background have become controlled PR tools of their administrations, fearful of covering anything that matters. So many staffs self-censored themselves, knowing someone is watching over their shoulders.

I remember that cold January day as if it were last week. Many journalism programs have thrived on the strength of a responsible student voice. Unfortunately many more have suffered under the misconceptions of the Hazelwood decision.

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Scholastic journalism enhances critical thinking, exploration and leadership;
Hazelwood promotes none of it

Posted by on Jan 18, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Bob Button

Hazelwood stories: The Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood is arguably the worst blow to scholastic journalism in our lifetime – primarily because it struck a hammer in favor of control and against education in America’s schools. 25 years of Hazelwood art

Having grown up in an era when student newspapers were seen as PR tools for the school, when I moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for a full-time journalism position, I asked my new principal in our first meeting what the guidelines were for what could and could not be printed.  He looked at me and said, “I thought that was why we hired you!”  That was in the late ‘60s, just as students were beginning to challenge everything.

What followed was a career supporting students as they explored topics of interest or importance in their lives – even if they were potentially controversial – and encouraging students to cover subjects in depth or take a stance in editorials or columns with a full understanding of the issues involved.  That is critical thinking at its best and it promotes leadership.  Never did an administrator tell us we could not cover a subject, even if it put the school in a poor light.  But with freedom comes responsibility.  We made some mistakes, which led to one of the first staff-written editorial policies in the country, putting in writing the student editorial board’s responsibility for serving the newspaper’s readers.

Students cannot learn critical thinking if that thinking is limited arbitrarily.  Students cannot learn responsibility or leadership if they have no freedom to make decisions.

Too many principals then and now think they teach responsibility when they exercise control.  They do not.  They simply relieve students of responsibility.  When students have no control, they respond either by acquiescence to the demands of those in power or by challenging the power in some other way.  Neither is a desirable outcome.

With the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood, many principals simply maintained the control they had always exercised, or established control they had relinquished under Tinker.  My principal didn’t change a thing.  Hazelwood does not mandate control – it permits it – and my principal was more interested in education than in control.  But in the 25 years since Hazelwood we have a whole generation of administrators who see control as their first priority, of teachers forced to be concerned first and foremost with test scores, of students who think of school newspapers as an exercise in innocuous comment.

Sure, there are wonderful administrators, great teachers and challenging students fighting the good fight.  But Hazelwood promotes none of it.

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Twitter: Creating a balance
between reporting role and social life

Posted by on Nov 14, 2012 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Jeff Kocur
The Zac Brown Band recently played to a full house at the Target Center in Minneapolis, and the Star Tribune’s critic gave a scathing review.

Reader comments attached to the story, though, exposed the writer’s dance between his snarky Twitter world and his professional responsibility to the readers.

A reader revealed the writer had tweeted several hours prior to the concert that “I had better start drinking now so I can get in the right mindset to give ZBB a fair review tonight.”

During the concert, he tweeted out things he did not like about the show. The covers, songs that went on too long, comments made by the band, & etc. littered the 20 plus tweets he sent out from the concert.

For me, this crossed a line I wanted to discuss with my kids as they engage more in Twitter as journalists.

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Developing standards for social media use in your student media: Part 1

Posted by on Mar 22, 2011 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Marina Hendricks, SPRC commissioner

For “Social Role of the Mass Media,” a Kent State University online graduate course, John Bowen asked us to draft a position paper on social media as a tool for student journalists. I found it easier to think through the assignment by approaching it as a hypothetical letter from an adviser to students. Here’s the result.

Dear students,

Before we launch our Facebook page and Twitter feed, I’d like you to think about how you will use them in your coverage of the school community.

Keep in mind that our editorial policy applies not only to our print edition and website, but also to our social network platforms. As a result, your Facebook posts and tweets must be accurate, objective and fair. Information you collect from or share via Facebook and Twitter must be checked and verified – with no exceptions. This is especially critical for breaking news. You must get it right, even when it takes time to verify facts. Your audience depends on you for accurate information and trusts you to provide it. You don’t want to jeopardize that trust. Once it’s gone, it may never return. And readers and users will go with it.

Just as important, you must practice transparency. For readers and users, that means letting them know where you obtained information and under what circumstances. For sources, that means telling them how you plan to use information they provide. And as always, refer to the policy for guidance on anonymous sourcing.

Be vigilant about Facebook and Twitter content that is libelous, obscene, materially disruptive of the school process, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, a violation of copyright or a promotion of products or services unlawful (illegal) as to minors as defined by state or federal law.

Speaking of promotion, remember that you are in the news business, not public relations. You wouldn’t include rah-rah statements in print or online stories, would you? The same rule applies for social media content.

We’ve talked a lot about the responsibilities associated with being journalists. As tempting as it sometimes is, we don’t use our power of publication to promote personal agendas or settle scores. The instantaneous nature of social networks makes that even more tempting. However, I know you will continue to use the same exceptional judgment you bring to our print and online publications by remembering at all times that you represent (school publication name). I know your posts and tweets will reflect your professionalism as journalists.

Our Facebook page and Twitter feed give us two new ways to reach our school community. Use them to start conversations, seek feedback and provide another window into our newsroom.

Finally, take a look at our editorial policy and see if there’s anything you want to update with respect to our social media platforms.

Good night, and good luck …

Your Adviser

Resource: “Online Ethical Considerations,” provided through Social Role of the Mass Media, Kent State University, spring 2011

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