November 3, 2021

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I went back to school this fall and started a part-time master’s degree in journalism education at Kent State University. My first class focuses on teaching journalism ethics, so I’ve spent the past few months examining journalism’s ethical standards and thinking about how they apply to student journalism.

My class is mostly made up of professional journalists and classroom teachers/student media advisers. The advisers’ stories during our discussions have reminded me that student journalists face ethical issues that professionals rarely have to consider.

By the virtue of being a student, they’re all part of the communities they’re covering. Especially in high schools and in smaller colleges, it’s hard to truly separate yourself from the people you’re writing about. The basketball coach you’re interviewing might also be your math teacher, and the student body president you’re writing a profile on might be your friend’s older sister.

While navigating these dilemmas, student journalists in a socially conscious generation are also pushing back against some of the industry’s longtime standards of objectivity, neutrality and perceptions of bias. As students mobilized nationally for March for Our Lives protests against gun violence, the co-editor-in-chief of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that “journalism is a form of activism.”

Students are asking: Can journalists write about issues they have a personal stake in? How do we separate journalism and advocacy — or should we? How does social media play into all of this? Do personal identities make journalists biased, or do they make their work better?

These are discussions that are happening in the professional world, too, particularly around race, police violence and protests. What makes student newsrooms different is one of their greatest strengths: their adaptability. When your staff fully turns over every four years, there’s less pressure to do things the way they’ve always been done. There’s more room for radical change, new policies and experimentation.

This is the start of The Lead’s series on the changing ethics of student journalism. In the next month, we’ll hear from student journalists about how their newsrooms are approaching objectivity and other traditional ethical ideals. We’ll explore how to codify ethical guidelines for your staff. We’ll examine the sometimes-blurry line between journalism and activism.

Are ethics still essential to student journalism? Absolutely. But student journalists have realized something the rest of the industry should bear in mind: The way the industry has traditionally viewed objectivity and neutrality benefits a select group of journalists and harms many others. It’s time to question our newsrooms’ practices like we would any other organization and find a better, more inclusive way forward.

One story worth reading

Is journalism a form of activism? Many journalists cringe at the term and think it compromises their ability to report fairly, but there’s an argument to be made for the idea, Danielle Tcholakian writes for Longreads. Journalists advocate for transparency, accountability and truth, and their most powerful stories often lead to tangible change.

“We observe, but we also prod and inquire,” Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times told Tcholakian. “We sue when government officials don’t give us records; newspapers’ past Supreme Court cases have won important victories for Americans’ First Amendment rights. We publish investigations when we discover wrongdoing, and we are proud of the improvements those investigations bring to the lives of millions of people. We will refuse judges’ orders and go to jail to protect important sources. We unionize to protect ourselves when we fear for our work. All that sounds like activism to me, even if journalists think the word carries a stigma.”

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at…
Taylor Blatchford

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