October 25, 2020

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The hole story

I come from an outdoorsy, close-knit family whose members live, work and play in close proximity. Recently, an excavator dug a huge hole on the family land, leading five of my nieces to spend an afternoon playing in the muddy hole that would eventually become a pastoral pond.

Before they launched their little swimsuit-clad bodies into the muck, their grandmother explained that there would be no towels for them when they emerged — they would have to hose off back at home or simply dry to crusty little hulks to be dealt with by their parents.

After a dirty afternoon spent literally playing in the mud, my nieces emerged from the pit to a sun and temperature that were both dropping. Suddenly faced with the reality of a trip across the field back to the homestead, clad in nothing but skivvies and cold mud, they decided to organize.

“Rev-o-lu-tion! We want towels! We want towels!” they changed in unison, marching around the dirt piles and stomping into the autumn grass. Yes, they eventually got their towels, but only after marching to fetch them on their own — and by then they were mostly dry, anyway.

It made me wonder where they got the idea to organize, chant and march — even if it wasn’t terribly serious. Little pitchers have big ears. They see what’s happening on TV, and they hear their adults talking about what’s going on in the world. All that, largely because journalists bring it to us — all of us, even five little girls out in a field.  Journalists have critically important jobs, and it’s our critically important job to teach them how to do it well.

For classroom discussion

The student editors at the University of South Carolina made a bold move last week when, for the sake of their staff’s mental health, they went dark — no news coverage for a week.

On Thursday, I talked to The Daily Gamecock editor who ultimately made the decision to give her staff of about 200 a full week off. I’ll have more later in a story for Poynter.og, but I want to know what you’re hearing and seeing about students, student journalists and mental health on your campuses. I’m at ballen@poynter.org

Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think of this student newspaper’s decision to cease publishing news for a week?
  2. What are the considerations when deciding not to journalistically cover a community for a week? Who are the stakeholders? Who will be impacted?
  3. What do you think are some of the positive aspects that might arise from it? The negative?
  4. What do you think are the implications for mainstream media organizations?

What will you be when you grow up?

The New York Times had this story broke last week: As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place. It outlines a vast network of right-leaning political and partisan newspapers that are popping up in locales without news outlets.

This is an important story for your students and recent grads to read, as they’ll be making hard choices in the future about their job prospects as the industry continues to contract. Having some classroom discussions now about the kind of work they are willing to do would be helpful.

Discussion questions:

  1. Would you have a problem working for one of these newspapers? Why or why not?
  2. What are the ethical issues central to partisan newspapers papers?
  3. What is the responsibility of this company to disclose its business model/practices to its readers? What about to its employees and freelancers?

Gone too soon

The newly installed president of a private North Carolina HBCU died from COVID-19, the university’s board of trustees announced last week. Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail was actively seeking to keep Saint Augustine’s University safe, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education, and quoted Justice James Perry, chairman of the college’s board, as saying, “It’s ironic that he caught it himself, as careful as he was.”

A good get

The Lumina Foundation is providing a $30,000 grant for the study of the financial state of student newsrooms. The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, which received the money, will focus on “editorially independent student-run media and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sustainability of campus journalism,” according to a release.

The study will be managed by Frank LoMonte, a UF professor and the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

“There has been a tremendous amount of research about the erosion of professional community newspapers nationwide, and that research has been the basis of a groundswell of philanthropic investment into reinventing the delivery of local news,” LoMonte said in the release. “But there has been no comparable attention to student media, which increasingly perform the same civic information function as commercial newspapers, and at a fraction of the cost.”

I know this issue is close to many of our hearts so I’ll be sure to follow and report on the study’s findings.

Practically speaking

I love love love this tweet by Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director of the Texas Tribune. Her urging to question our own brains before tweeting/writing/reporting felt spot on, and it could be a great classroom discussion about identifying biases:

In an essay for Poynter last week, Prism editor-in-chief Ashton Lattimore asked and answered similar questions: “And who’s the protagonist of the media industry’s collective story, judging from coverage at major outlets? White Americans, elected officials and the institutions through which they wield power.”

It’s time to talk.

This is a hard but important topic.

The Suicide Reporting Toolkit is out with an update for educators that includes tips on creating a safe classroom environment for discussion and lesson plans.


These are among their most valuable general tips (and might show you how important discussing this now could be):

5 reasons why journalists should report on suicide responsibly

  1. Irresponsible suicide reporting by the media can impact the number of suicides
  2. To avoid contributing to further deaths by glamorizing suicide through vivid language or by inciting vulnerable people to kill themselves through excessive description of the method.
  3. To avoid focusing on negative perceptions, stereotypes, sensationalism and deviance
  4. Responsible reporting can mitigate the number of deaths by suicide
  5. Responsible reporting can help dispel myths about suicide death and can educate the public on available treatments to help those in need.

On a lighter note

I really enjoyed Netflix’s new movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” I think it will hold your students’ interest (Aaron Sorkin joints tend to do that), plus it’s got a lot of issues adjacent to journalism: the First Amendment and the criminal justice system, in particular.

New useful tool alert

“The Media Manipulation Casebook is a digital research platform linking together theory, methods, and practice for mapping media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. This resource is intended for researchers, journalists, technologists, policymakers, educators, and civil society organizers who want to learn about detecting, documenting, describing, and debunking misinformation.”


Wait, how much?!

Here’s a lead that just warms the cockles of my records-loving heart: “The University of Iowa Athletic Department has spent more than $230,000 since June putting about 180 COVID-19-positive student-athletes up in hotel rooms and paying for their food,” writes Erin Jordan of The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette. What a find! And what an idea for your student reporters — request those records, please! There’s a reason we call them public.

Scrutinizing campus cops

Speaking of records requests, here’s a sobering story from The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Crimes of the Campus Police: As countless heartbreaking examples show, they are part of the problem. The story outlines instances of gender-based violence by campus cops toward female students. It would be an excellent story to localize, and an opportunity to explore and explain for your audience how police at your school are funded and operate.

How journalists get their wings

Vince Filak, who writes the excellent journalism education blog Dynamics of Writing, reported last week about a journalist taken into custody while covering a protest. Read it with your students for tidbits like this, and ask them how they might react: “As we were walking, I explained that I was simply doing my job and that (the police officer) had let the protesters go while targeting me. He told me he was sick of the media ‘thinking they can do whatever they want.’”

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

One last thing

You may have seen this story about a professor who responded in kind to a student who told him that they loved him.

I had the same thing happen to me once, when an ebullient, outgoing student shouted their love for me in a crowded newsroom. I was honored and embarrassed, but without thinking about it (and honestly) shouted back, “I love you, too!”

It may have been the first time, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I have uttered the words to students who needed to hear it multiple times over the years, and I was heartened to see a story about a professor being praised for expressing appropriately his love for a student, not chastised.

Has there ever been a time when students needed support and words of affirmation more than now? Perhaps it shouldn’t come in the form of the ILY phrase — that may be too much for many of us. But consider a way to show those students whom you love just that. And remember that at the end of the day, love isn’t just a word — it’s an action.

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
Barbara Allen

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