School newspapers can be daunting, frightening ideas for teachers and administrators. Adults fear irresponsible reporting that proves to be gossip about the school, a staff member, or student.
Or there’s the fear that some piece of news in the school paper will catch the attention of the mainstream news media and vans of reporters and cameras will bombard the school.
Or there’s a fear that the poor quality of writing will embarrass the school.
With the decrease in newspaper readership across the country and limited budgets, it’s easy for schools to decide against continuing to publish a school paper. But with thoughtful supervision, a newspaper can responsibly amplify student voice.
In the years I’ve supervised the school newspapers at two different Chicago public high schools, neither the students nor I faced any regrettable situations. Students reported on real issues, too, not just the school dance.
These are some of the guidelines and insights that helped me succeed as a journalism teacher and that can, hopefully, help others.
1. Make journalism a class
There’s no way a quality school newspaper can be consistently, thoughtfully published as part of a voluntary after-school club. (But if you’re doing it, let me know how.) In a journalism class, we cover general reporting and editorial practices, and students can be held accountable for producing high-quality pieces.
I’ve taught journalism as an elective, and I recommend keeping it as an elective. The format and workload for the class vary from my core English classes. This allows students to work at a more comfortable pace and think through their ideas, research, and reporting.
One drawback to making this an elective (and sometimes getting students who didn’t request the class) is that by April–especially with seniors–it becomes more difficult to motivate some students to produce high-quality material.
This year, my high school changed Journalism to a semester class. Mid-January, I’ll have a new crop of students, which will bring a new set of ideas and energy to the publication.
In an elective class of 25-30 students, there’s usually enough good material created for an eight-page newsletter. We also give other students in the school opportunities to submit their writing, photography, or art.
2. Follow a journalist’s code of ethics.
We follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:
- Seek Truth and Report It
- Minimize Harm
- Act Independently
- Be Accountable and Transparent
This code eliminates misconceptions that journalism is about reporting or creating scandals. It helps students understand and carry out our goal: to produce responsible and engaging journalism for students.
3. Make the newspaper for students—not for the school to market itself.
I tell my students that our newspaper is not a publication that summarizes everything that happened last month in the school. We focus on reporting about real issues that affect our school community. “What are students talking about?” I ask regularly.
“The school lunches!” they said.
So a couple of years ago, we ran an article about the poor quality of the school lunches—and made sure to interview the cafeteria staff and a representative from Aramark (I had to help with this last one).
Or they said, “So-and-so’s teaching!” So another year, our staff explored the question, “What is good teaching at our school?” Students interviewed students and teachers to get multiple perspectives. One of our administrators helped a student create a thoughtful survey that allowed students to share their ideas about teaching without singling out any teacher.
4. Make the administration your friend
Publishing a school newspaper as a forum for student expression is an opportunity to teach students the balance between freedom and responsibility.
Whenever students want to write about a sensitive topic, I meet with the principal and say, “Here’s what kids are talking about. If we report on this, what should we consider?”
One principal was a micro-manager. So I made sure to share drafts as a way to “manage up.” I always got meaningful feedback that I passed along to students. So students learned what it’s like to have a really tough editor. The underlying principle of these conversations was not to censor students but to make them better writers and thinkers.
Other principals have completely trusted me with the responsibility of ensuring responsible reporting that follows the SPJ’s Code of Ethics. They’ve never asked to see drafts. I’ve never had a student reporter who needed to retract something.
According to the Student Press Law Center, if school officials want to censor something, they “must demonstrate some reasonable educational justification.”
For April Fool’s Day, we’re more careful. We publish a satirical issue–thoughtfully. I partnered with a colleague who had her students produce socially responsible humorous pieces as part of their study of satire.
5. Focus on teaching structures and gathering perspectives
We read some well-written articles and editorials, then students research, interview, and write. I teach them to always have an agent (someone directly affected by the issue), some background or statistics to help readers understand why this is important, a view from someone who thinks differently than the agent, and some suggestion of possible next steps or solutions.
Most importantly, anyone who is mentioned in the article must have an opportunity to share his or her ideas. And I always—always—have staff members read how students quoted them before the story is published.
Desktop publishing tools make layout easier. I always do the layout. I haven’t figured out a way to have students do this.
Is it worth the effort to tackle all these challenges? I see how students take pride in seeing their name in print. One former student visited me last year and told me she was the only freshman writing for her college newspaper.
While many media literacy programs emphasize the evaluation of information, I see more value in having students actually take on the responsibility of creating information. In this era of media skepticism and proliferation, high-school journalism combats the war against facts.
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