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The most important meeting

Posted by on Aug 21, 2017 in Blog, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


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

Keep them separated.

That was my mentality when I first starting advising my high school’s newspaper. By “them” I meant the administration and the student editors.

By separated I didn’t mean student reporters shouldn’t interview administration (they are often invaluable sources), but I do think this mentality harmed the journalistic process in the long run. In my mind, keeping them separated was a way to protect student independence. We’re a publication with a limited public forum and no prior review, and although the administrators were generally supportive and respectful of the process, I wanted them to keep their hands off!

I now know this approach was flawed.

[pullquote]Another important part of the adviser’s role is to facilitate communication between the editors and administrators and to help staff members learn effective modes of communication.[/pullquote]

Yes, an important part of the adviser’s role is to protect the scholastic press’s independence, but I’ve realized this separation-focused approach can be detrimental. An us-against-them mentality developed, and inevitably, because the paper is run by high school students who occasionally make mistakes, the principal would raise concerns about the publication’s product or process. These concerns would lead to meetings which often had an undercurrent of fear, anger and defensiveness. We would all feel stressed and at least a little afraid of the next call or email from the administration.

And then one day I woke up and realized at least some of this stress and fear could be my fault.

Another important part of the adviser’s role is to facilitate communication between the editors and administrators and to help staff members learn effective modes of communication.

I realized that publication life would be less stressful and student journalists would be more empowered if they met with the principal preemptively. We started a tradition of a back-to-school conversation with the overall goals of establishing respectful relationships, determining modes of effective communication, and gaining an understanding of mutual and differing goals.

This back-to-school meeting between the Editors-in-Chief, the school principal and myself usually lasts only about 45 minutes but it has drastically transformed our perceptions and understanding of each other.

Some of the talking points:

  • The editors’ roles, values, and why they love working on the paper
  • Goals for the year
  • The publication’s social and community role
  • Law and ethics (including forum status, why it’s essential that we do not have prior review, and the publication’s code of ethics)
  • The publication’s process (of not only reporting, but also a brief overview of fact-checking, editing, and what they do if they make mistakes)
  • The best ways for editors and administrators to communicate
  • What the principal will do if she receives concerns or complaints from a community member regarding the publication or if she has her own concerns
  • The principal’s questions
  • Any initial story ideas or topics the principal may want to share

During this meeting, I talk little and listen a lot. Often I take notes while the editors and principal talk. If needed, I help facilitate the conversation. I also want the administrator to understand my role as an adviser: that I am not an editor and I do not approve copy, but help editors coach their staff, communicate and organize effectively, and produce a publication they are proud of.  

Since we’ve started the tradition of this back-to-school meeting, the relationship between the principal and publication’s editors has been notably more productive and collegial. For example, when an article or editorial questions administrative decisions, there has been less kick-back and more understanding that questioning and reporting incisively are important parts of the publication’s role. Or when a parent recently demanded the principal reprimand a student journalist for expressing a view the parent didn’t agree with the principal not only defended the student’s right to expression but also immediately opened communication with the student editors.

This meeting is the first important step in having a positive year. Learning about where the editors are coming from helps the principal build trust that they are committed to producing good journalism. The principal is more likely to understand that scholastic journalism not only plays an important social and democratic role in the community but also that it is a learning experience.

However, one meeting is only the start of a conversation that continues to develop throughout the year. And while conflicts may arise, I’ve found that this initial dialogue focused on the objectives, process, and ethics of a free student press is by far the best way to begin.


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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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Learning from the mistakes we make

Posted by on Nov 17, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Tom Gayda
“(Journalism) kids have rights. They have the right to be right. They have the right to make mistakes and the right to learn from those mistakes.”

So are the words of this year’s JEA Administrator of the Year—and my principal—Evans Branigan III.

If only more folks in administrative jobs would get behind this philosophy. Just like any students participating in any other activities, mistakes are made. Some mistakes are small, some not-so-small, but it is important educators provide an experience that is real to their students, and a safety net to catch them should they err.

What can we do to get others to live by my principal’s motto? Educate, educate, educate.

When things are calm, meet with your principal and tell them how you’d like to one day see them with the JEA Administrator of the Year award. Share the quote. Talk about the positive things that can happen when a collaborative relationship is built. Don’t let each other assume the relationship has to be contentious. Change the tone if you can.

Too many young advisers—and administrators—assume one can’t trust the other. Not true! It might be necessary to simply change the culture. Start my acknowledging you both want what is best for the kids. Then explain what your goals are. Ask your administrator what he or she expects. If these don’t match up, find the common ground you can build from.

There have been several JEA Administrators of the Year. Each state is honored to have individuals who work hard to ensure students are free to practice what we teach. Let’s celebrate all of these people and share their successes so others who might not be as up to speed have a chance to learn from their peers and see that everything is going to be OK.

Administrators also have the right to make mistakes. It’s up to us to help them correct themselves.

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Building a climate of trust can ease prior review

Posted by on Oct 2, 2013 in Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments


The newspaper staff of a small school sought me out at a national journalism conference a few years ago. Despite an informal of publishing  with just the consultation of the adviser, the school’s principal now wanted to review the paper before it went to bed.

Although I didn’t agree with the principal’s decision, I knew why she put the new policy in place. I had already heard the story through the journalism teachers’ grapevine, but I had the students tell me their version.

“She said she doesn’t trust us any more.”

Fifth in a series

The post on building a climate of trust is the fifth in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, private school journalism, prior review and Making a Difference. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.

There was a trail of bad decisions on the part of the staff. The editors knew the package they were creating was around a hot-button issue (It doesn’t matter if it was about student drinking, smoking pot or engaging in unsafe sex — it’s all the same to some adults.), but instead of writing a fact-checked, balanced story, the editors decided to deliberately skew the student poll to make student engagement worse in the activity look worse than it actually was.

In large graphs. On the front page. Above the fold.

Their reasoning: “We knew there was a problem, and we wanted to get the word out. It seemed like a good idea.”

The staff broke some of the cardinal rules of journalism — what I call the ABCs; Be Accurate, Be Balanced, Be Clear.

In breaking those rules, the editors didn’t just break their trust with their principal but with their readers. Every story now looked suspect. Was the author “just trying to get a point across,” or was he accurately telling the truth in a balanced manner?

There was little balm I could offer the staff. Loss of trust is a big wound, and it takes time to heal. The staff would have to be extra diligent in its coverage from this time forward. All staffers wouldn’t just have to get their facts straight, but their spelling, grammar and syntax would have to be flawless.

I encouraged the staff to continue to take on important stories and show it had the skills and the good judgment to cover hard stories responsibly. The goal would be to these stories to rebuild trust with the administration and readers.

Then in six months, they could go back to the principal and show her proof that the staff was deserving of trust. If that didn’t work, then they should try it again in a year, in 18 months — as long as it took.

“Make it your mission,” I said. “Provide responsible journalism with no prior review. Be prepared that it may take time, but make it your legacy — even if it doesn’t happen this year.”

Should students be allowed to make mistakes? Certainly. Does the coach go on the field with a football player during the game to “make sure” he doesn’t drop the ball? Never.  But the fact is, private schools and schools in Hazelwood states face a higher scrutiny.

With a strong foundation of trust and thoughtful storytelling, staffs and administrators can build a win-win policy. Together.

It doesn’t matter if you’re attending a private or religious school or one in a Hazelwood state — you can have a publication with high-quality journalism that speaks to your students. In a future post, we’ll talk about strategies you can use when your principal or board digs in its heels in because it wants to “protect” the community.

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Doing the right thing: Focus on,
support administrators who get it

Posted by on Sep 25, 2013 in Blog, Hazelwood, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


by Tom Gayda

I’ve been lucky. Maybe even spoiled. Both of the principals I have worked for in my 14 years as an adviser have been named JEA Administrator of the Year.

Does this mean we agree on everything?  No. What it means is they have trusted my students (and as an extension, me) to do their jobs free of prior review or heavy-handedness too many programs suffer from.

Evans Branigan III in his office at North Central. Branigan is JEA's Administrator of the Year.

Evans Branigan III in his office at North Central. Branigan is JEA’s Administrator of the Year.

Evans Branigan III started as a social studies teacher and football coach at North Central. Before long he was an assistant principal and eventually the associate principal. For the last three years he was principal of the school. He has attended a half-dozen JEA/NSPA conventions, constantly showing his support for what we do.

And while that is nice, it’s the way he works with the students that is most important, and that is what helps create a great relationship between the principal and staff. Branigan has gone to Dave and Busters to have a relaxed interview with the newspaper staff. He has played cornhole after school for a website feature. His door is always open to students. Branigan has fun with it, too, often letting me know who his current favorite reporter is.

I suppose it is part luck. I know of administrators who are not friends of scholastic journalism. I think it’s time to forget them and focus on the ones who get it. Perhaps by constantly showcasing the great administrators the bad ones will start to change their tune. Or, make a less-than-friendly administrator a supporter by giving them no other choice. Share stories of successful programs with appropriate relationships. Kill them with our own version of kindness. Don’t wage a war — that won’t work. Be a constant pest with positivity.

One builds trust by having a strong program that has a history of doing the right thing. Mistakes are made and disagreements take place, but by creating an environment where staffs and administrators work together keeps communication healthy and open.

Fourth in a series

The post on administrative support is the fourth in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, prior review, Making a Difference and private school journalism. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.
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