Sunshine Week presents opportunity to teach in-depth reporting

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It’s Sunshine Week again. No, it has nothing to do with the weather or an early arrival of spring. (After all, here in Northeast Ohio, temps are still struggling to get out the 40s most days.) But it has everything to do with a functioning democracy.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press coordinate this annual event to raise awareness about government transparency and the importance of an informed public. Sunshine Week is built around laws (commonly called “sunshine laws”) that mandate openness in day-to-day government operations. As the theory goes, corruption and malfeasance thrive in the darkness and shadows. The sunlight dispels the darkness so openness, honesty and fair play have a better chance of taking hold.

In practical terms, deliberations, debates and votes of most government entities occur in public. The records of many government institutions are available for public inspection and scrutiny. Any member of the public can find out how much the city spent on road repairs after a harsh winter, the salary of most government workers or the county sheriff’s latest arrest records.

Sunshine Week is perfect opportunity for everyone to understand better how their government at all levels (federal, state and local) operates and how transparent government serves the needs of the people. It’s also a time to understand which records are public and which are redacted or restricted and why.

Public records are open to all citizens, not just journalists. But stories garnered from the data in these records can be powerful. Student journalists, especially those at public institutions, need to take advantage of the data these records house. Below is a list of story ideas I use as part of a presentation about using public records in the student press. Exploring topics like these can deepen the audience’s understanding of how the school and other public institutions affect their daily life.

How often are your textbooks replaced? How much do they cost?

Is your school making cuts to programs to save money? Which ones? Who decides?

Did your school’s buses pass their most recent inspection?

Has the school cafeteria received health code violations recently?

How has your school fared on standardized tests?

What kinds of technology do your classrooms have? How often is it updated?

Is the roof leaking? When was the most recent building inspection? What types of repairs are being done? What will they cost?

How many fights have occurred at your school? How many arrests have occurred on school grounds? What were the charges? (Laws vary, but some of this information—especially the names of those involved in school disciplinary action—is private. However, the aggregate data about the number of incidents is often public.)

A note of caution: Public records laws vary by state, so learn more about your state’s laws and the process of making a request. It’s important to do research about which agencies hold the records you’re seeking. Many of the records for the stories above might be maintained by the school district, but some might fall to other government agencies like law enforcement or the local health department. Finally, this is merely a list to get you thinking. Tackling any of these stories takes time, resources and a well-developed sense of newsworthiness. Data and records by themselves tell you nothing. Each of these ideas requires in-depth reporting and interviewing to create a meaningful story that serves readers by helping them see connections.

The Student Press Law Center has complied numerous resources for student journalists to help them in their quest for public records and information. The Sunshine Week website also includes additional resources and lesson plans.

Web turns 25; story ideas, discussion points abound

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The Web turns 25 this week. The sweeping technological and subsequent social transformations since that time are daunting to describe. Everyday interactions among friends and family are now often mediated through a screen. Major social institutions like businesses and schools continue to incorporate the never-ending evolution of technology into their day-to-day operating practices.

While some celebrate the connections the Web enables through the exchange of information and ideas across time and cultural boundaries, others are quick to point out privacy concerns and a fear that an overreliance on technology negatively alters the social landscape.

This link contains a discussion from Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour about technological, social and cultural implications of life in the age of the Internet. The points the panelists raised provide ample starting ground for story ideas that scholastic publications can localize or for class discussion about media literacy issues.

Book proposes “new ethics” for digital age

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As journalism educators, teaching ethics must be central to every class and production program. The decisions journalists make, including student journalists, do affect those they cover. However, how do ethical principles grow and change as the news industry evolves?

The core ethical values of the journalistic profession are often summed up by the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics: seek the truth and report it, act independently, minimize harm and be accountable. Those values served the profession well during a time when journalists and editors acted as gatekeepers to funnel information to the public. If news was a conversation, it was generally one-way, and journalists did most of the talking.

However, as technologies have enabled audiences to participate in the creation of news as well as define, shape and influence the news agenda, do those values change? Should they?

In a collection of essays by top media ethicists, scholars and practitioners in their book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, editors Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute and Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute have proposed adjusting the set of core principles described above to include the following: seek the truth and report it as fully as possible, be transparent, and engage the community as an end, rather than a means. The book’s purpose, from the editors’ words in the introduction, “is an attempt to look at what’s happening in journalism in the early part of the 21st century, to define and articulate new tensions that challenge journalism’s core principles, and to suggest practices that further truth and community in service of democracy.”

 The book’s premise rests on the technological changes that drive how journalism is created and delivered. As is well evident by now, the economic model that once supported news outlets (advertisers footing the lion’s share of the bill to create and deliver the news in a quest for eyeballs) has since passed. Digital technologies make information more accessible, and the audience plays a central role in creating and shaping the news. The digital platforms themselves serve as a primary means for disseminating information. How they are used and who controls access to them can profoundly affect what the audience knows.

However, the editors noted those core values from the SPJ Code mentioned above remain inscribed in this new list of guiding principles. Those original values have expanded to encompass new ethical questions of the digital age. Things have changed, indeed. As the essays in the book discuss, audience members can now submit content. Who’s responsible for vetting its authenticity? Organizations like PolitiFact seek to add more context and information to nation’s political dialogue. But do all the claims politicians and pundits make fall into a true/false, right/wrong dichotomy? If Internet service providers can give preferential treatment to some information services over others, how will that affect the flow of information and social learning? What are the best practices for issuing corrections for erroneous information posted online, given how far and how fast information spreads?

The essays, which represent a variety of viewpoints and approaches by a community of scholars, can be summed up as follows:

  • Seek and report the truth. Searching for the truth is still the highest aim of the profession. Adhering to that value separates journalists from those who seek to spin or pursue their own agenda. However, finding and deciphering the truth amid an endless stream of voices and noise can become more difficult. Truth can range on a spectrum from recounting facts—like the number of people killed in a car crash—to the more abstract of deciphering meaning—what does the verdict in a contentious trail say about equity in the criminal justice system? Journalists can help direct people through the myriad of voices and information available today.
  • Be transparent. Transparency becomes even more paramount now that almost anyone can produce content for the world to see. Journalism now comes from numerous sources beyond traditional news outlets guided by public service: think tanks, advocacy organizations and partisan pundits. These groups bring angles and agendas to their reporting. However, their work can be a legitimate source of information, as long as the public understands the methods used to create it and the sources used to fund it. The public can also more easily question, scrutinize and discuss the work of journalists through social media and other digital tools. The book’s editors argue that adhering to more transparent newsgathering practices actually increases the public service function of journalism by allowing the audience to understand better how the news was researched and produced.

  • Engage the community as an end in itself. The community adds voices to the mix and plays a central role throughout the news cycle. Journalists need to find ways to respect and nurture that community to foster more openness and sharing as a means of creating better content. As the editors put it, creating and fostering community is an end in itself, not an end to something else (such as getting more “likes” for the organization’s social media pages).

Application to journalism education. This book issues a call to journalism educators, both at the scholastic and collegiate level, to re-examine their teaching methods regarding ethics. I’m a firm believer ethical fitness is a skill students learn best through practice. Adhering to core principles enables the profession to establish credibility by maintaining high standards that respect how journalism and newsgathering affect those covered in the news.

But, as the process of researching and distributing the news changes, educators must address new realities about the nature of the news industry in order to enable students to perform journalism ethically. Seeking the truth and reporting it is still journalism’s cornerstone. Yet, adapting one’s ethical philosophy to encompass the consequences of the evolving interactions of journalists, the audience and technology will be paramount for creating thinking, effective communicators.