Inauguration Day has arrived. As is the case every four years, for some, it’s a time of celebration and victory, and for others, it’s a day of somberness and disappointment. This day itself and recent events all point to important lessons journalism teachers can share with their students.

Gathering, celebrating and protesting

The First Amendment is clear on this one: Citizens have a right to assemble, both to express satisfaction and dissatisfaction with government action (or inaction, as the case may be). Every Inauguration Day is filled with demonstrations, marches, protests and counter protests representing a variety of ideas and viewpoints. While the rhetoric might get heated, this act of assembling is one of the hallmarks of American democracy.

Now is the perfect time to remind students of the importance of the right to peaceably assemble, and to discuss why a free exchange of ideas (no matter how distressing to some) is essential for democracy to function.

The key word here is peaceful protest. Remind students of the difference between demonstrations that seek to empower the public versus those that devolve into violence and vandalism. Every person’s rights are relative to those of others. While someone has the right to make their voice heard, he or she doesn’t have the right damage another’s property or cause another physical harm.

#PressthePrez

Leading up the election and in the weeks following, much concern has circulated about the new president’s understanding of and attitudes toward the First Amendment. I’ve discussed that topic in a previous post.

Earlier this week, the Society of Professional Journalists sent an open letter to then President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence requesting a meeting to discuss journalists’ access to information. Almost 70 journalism and First Amendment organizations have signed on to the letter. The hashtag #PressthePrez has directed the conversation through social media.

Remind students of the importance of open records, public meetings and journalists’ (and the public’s) right to access information. And it’s more than just information from the federal government. Your own public school district generates a wealth of information that could form the basis of excellent stories and investigations.

Is dumping unverified information online really journalism? 

Last week, the online publisher BuzzFeed released a 35-page dossier with unverified claims about President Trump and his potential ties to Russia. The revelation caused quite a stir just a week ahead of the Inauguration. It also sparked debate among journalists and journalism advocacy groups about the appropriateness of publishing unverified information. While some argued the publication was unwarranted, others said BuzzFeed should have been more transparent about what parts of the document were unverified and what steps reporters were taking to verify the information.

BuzzFeed stood by its decision, ultimately arguing that the importance of the potential truth of the information about such a high-ranking public official made the decision justifiable.

Students should be reminded of the ethical dilemma of simultaneously trying to tell the full truth and to provide the public with information to evaluate their elected officials while also minimizing the harm that stems from misinformation. It’s also essential to remember that one’s own personal views about the new president should have no bearing on the decision whether to publish. Publishing something simply because you “want” it to be true falls far short of highest ideals of the profession.

 

 

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