In recent years more than ever, journalists have grappled with what to cover and how to cover it in such a way that it is perceived by readers to be fair and appropriate. In December, I spent two days with the beginning journalism class, leading an exercise I participated in to prepare me for ethical dilemmas I could face. The exercise involved hypothetical controversies that could arise that the staff would have to tackle, testing our ability to discern where the line sat between ethical and unethical.
From the Beginning
Before we even pick up a pencil to begin writing, every student in the ninth grade Beginning Journalism class goes through a unit of the history of journalism, centered largely on the history of ethics and law surrounding journalism. Beginning with libel laws and the trial of Peter Zenger in the 1730s, which established the basis for freedom of the press in the U.S., and continuing up through the present day, discussion on cases such as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is at the forefront of our minds from the moment we enter the publications suite for the first time.
Click the images below to see more of that curriculum as well as some of the specific details I try to keep in mind.
In The ReMarker
First and foremost, we are taught and follow the National Scholastic Press Association’s Code of Ethics for High School Journalists, referring back it whenever there is a specific situation that causes us to question where we stand.
While our community is very accepting to students who express their opinions — whether political, social or otherwise — in the newspaper, some stories require students to speak candidly on issues that would damage their reputation. For example, in two recent stories on fake IDs and sex, it was decided that, in order to have the truthful perspective students bring to every story, we had to keep our key sources anonymous. But as each story comes, we evaluate that need on a case by case basis, grappling with the pros and cons using much of the same logic we learned in ninth grade. This year, our newspaper and school’s culture has allowed us to discuss the Kavanaugh allegations and sexual abuse, among other topics, with no need for anonymous sources, which is something that has allowed us to branch out further than nearly all other scholastic publications.
For cases in which journalists are not protected by the First Amendment, namely cases involving obscenity or other types of defamation, we always strive to steer clear of any potential dilemmas. Before we approach any topic we are unsure of, we find working with administrators — who otherwise give us freedom to publish nearly whatever we feel is newsworthy — to be the best possible solution, eliminating any opportunity for issues to arise after our paper is published. For a story in our November issue discussing a former instructor who had been implicated in sexual assault allegations at Philips Exeter Academy, we did just that. Click here to read the story.
Below you can see the sheets that detail staff policy on certain issues. Staff members see these every day, and it’s an easy way to ensure everyone, from staff writers to editors, understand the key pieces of how we handle those issues, should they arise.
What I’ve Done
biased sources and verifying information
One piece of the work I did for our story on the Kavanaugh allegations earlier this year was to interview a St. Mark’s student in order to get his perspective. Before I stepped into the first interview, however, I knew it would be nearly impossible to find a student who was informed enough to speak on the topic but was still completely unbiased. So instead of talking to one, I had two different conversations, one with a student who self-identified as slightly conservative and did not believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and the other a registered Democrat who thought Ford’s testimony was truthful. And in order to provide the thought process from a female point of view, I worked to ensure we interviewed multiple girls from our sister school.
Additionally, we encountered many different statistics throughout the writing process. Sources ranging from the school’s counselor to some of the students we interviewed provided various facts and figures about sexual assault and rape we worked to independently verify before including them in the story. And if they could not be verified or conflicted with consensus information, they were not used. Though this is just one example of how we ensure bias in our sources does not compromise our story, we work each time we craft a story idea to better understand how we should ensure we stay objective and fair in our reporting.
Keeping us safe: controversy around campus
Another story I took a lead role on this year was our first cover story, which we wrote in response to a former faculty member being implicated in a sexual abuse scandal at a former school that became public as the school year began. He had retired from the school years before, but many around campus, including me, were asking lots of questions, including one important one: “How did Henry Ploegstra slip through the cracks?”
What we discovered, through hours of interviews with the Headmaster and reading all the reports we could find on the matter, was our school had no knowledge of the allegations when they hired the once-loved humanities instructor, though administrators did find out about the allegations in 2015. But we set out to answer as many remaining questions as we could, chiefly, “What, if anything, has the school done to ensure someone like Ploegstra will never be hired again?”