A short list of post-mortem resources about the 2016 presidential election

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The 2016 presidential election might be over, but its ramifications are only beginning. The entire campaign–and the past week following the election, especially–have been marked by the exchange of razor-sharp opinions from all sides. Protests continue throughout the country, and some wonder how the next administration will shape public policy. This campaign and election tested and stretched the bounds of normalcy in an already ravenous political environment.

As journalism educators and publication advisers, this moment provides an opportunity to explore changing audience demographics, viewers’ use of technology, the purpose of political journalism and campaign reporting, and the importance of news literacy.

What follows is a short list of resources to use in class to help students better understand news coverage surrounding the election and its aftermath. This list is by no means exhaustive but only serves as a starting point for the exchange of ideas, discussion and debate.

The forces that drove this election’s media failure are only likely to get worse by Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab

This article examines the underlying assumptions about how social norms and expectations in the journalism profession and on the business side of the media industry contributed to the reporting about the election and candidates throughout the past year. The author discusses the rise and prevalence of “fake” stories that spread easily through social media and do more to shape some viewers’ opinions than truthful reporting does. The article also examines the “echo-chamber” effect of social media that leads some readers to select stories and surround themselves with information that confirms what they already believe.

Here’s to the return of journalists as malcontent by Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review

Building off the point in the piece above, this article discusses the importance of journalists cultivating sources beyond spokespeople and seeking input from those with whom they have fundamental differences of opinion and perspective. The lessons here are essential for scholastic journalism students and reporters, who must accurately capture the voice of their audience who largely cannot yet vote but will be affected by the outcome of any election. For more about these points,  this piece offers some further guidance to journalists to reach beyond their comfort zones and to find deeper, more meaningful perspectives from a wider range of sources.

How the 2016 campaign changed political journalism by Kristen Hare and Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute

This campaign changed political journalism by usurping the status quo and forcing journalists and editors to confront new realities about dealing with sources, relating to their audiences, and being more transparent about their decision-making processes. Some members of the public even challenged the work and role of journalists through threats and intimidation. Twenty journalists and media critics have offered their observations about how this campaign season has shaped and changed the norms of political journalism.

As seen on TV: For the TV-less viewer, live election night shows abound, on any number of screens by Shan Wang of Nieman Lab

This piece is a post-mortem on the variety of coverage available on election night as the results rolled in. In an effort reach further segmented portions of their audiences, even traditional outlets (like television networks) offered some online component to both draw and serve viewers who were more comfortable with that medium. Online-exclusive platforms offered even more options to viewers and additional competition to traditional outlets. Students must stay up-to-date with the opportunities for deeper and richer storytelling using a variety of platforms. Examples like these can generate more ideas.

How could polling be so wrong? by Steven Shepard of Politico & Four possible reasons the polls got it so wrong this year by Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR

Polling, when conduced scientifically, can provide an illustrative picture of public opinion. Yet, like any information-gathering tool, it does have its drawbacks and limitations. These articles explore some of the reasons why the polls seemed so “off” in their predictions that Hillary Clinton would win the election. Understanding how polls work and why they sometimes fall short of their fullest potential can enable journalists to better harness their power in the future.

These are a small sample of the available materials to use for class discussion, and other issues deserve attention as well. Among them, the president-elect’s attitudes and comments about the First Amendment and its protections for a free press. But we’ll explore that in another post.


Fact checking in an age of distortion, half-truths and outright lies

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Fact checking has been in the news a lot lately. The political contest that has been unfolding before our eyes this year plays out as both major-party candidates for president continually spar over policy positions and past decisions. Amid an influx of mutually exclusive claims and assertions by and about each candidate, it’s tough for the average voter to sort out fact from half-truths and even outright distortion and lies.

It’s no secret that politicians and others present information in ways favorable to their positions as they seek to sway public opinion. Just look at any election advertising. Beyond that, in this explosive information age, people post, share, and discuss countless assertions often without any consideration whether they are true. Such claims can originate from the candidates themselves, their campaign staffs, interest groups, or even from ordinary citizens with biases and agendas.

In this glut of information, where does that leave the truth? In the past decade, a new movement began that hopes to offer some perspective amid the chaos. “Fact-check journalism” began its rise to prominence amid criticisms that questioned why the press had failed to verify candidates’ provably false claims about their opponents or the candidates’ own dubious promises to gain favor among supporters.

In this traditional form, sometimes referred to as “he said/she said journalism,” reporters record a source’s claims without much question or investigation. Thus, one candidate makes an unflattering claim about an opponent, and the opponent fires back that it’s not true. Readers must decipher for themselves what’s true. Recent claims in the 2016 presidential campaign have sparked renewed interest about the relevance of this journalistic storytelling model. Others do argue that the model has merits because it raises obscure and marginalized voices that break away from the mainstream, thus enabling society a better chance of discovering the truth.

One of the most well-known fact-checking sites is PolitiFact, which began in 2007. Bill Adair, then with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), helped to found PolitiFact in an effort to investigate the underlying truth of candidates’ claims. The site has grown to examine the factual claims made by politicians, television pundits, and other opinion leaders in an effort to help readers seek the truth and understand the context behind the facts. Similar sites exist with the same mission.

In this episode of The Open Mind, Adair, who is now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, discusses the role of fact checking in an age when people often share, discuss and even argue about information without ever figuring out whether it’s true.

As students watch, ask them to consider these questions:

What is fact-check journalism? What is its role? How can it create a more informed electorate?

Does fact checking create accountability? By whom and from whom?

Are the results of fact checking easily accessible to most readers? Do people care?

How do politicians respond when the press fact checks the claims they make? The claims of their opponents?

Explain the idea of fact checks as “reported conclusions.”

What is the importance of transparency in the methods used and how claims to be checked are chosen?

Where do falsehoods start? Where do they grow?

What’s the responsibility of average people who share/post information online to check facts or verify before posting? What responsibility do those who receive/see such shared information have before reposting or sharing it?

How do changing technologies promise new possibilities for better fact checking?

Free speech in the news

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Last week, the annual celebration of Free Speech Week drew attention to the importance of free expression. All journalism educators know that free speech and press form the foundation for all journalism and public communication, and fostering appreciation for those freedoms lasts for more than one week each year.

So in that vein, I offer a few examples of stories in the news in which free speech was a central issue or question. Current events and other recent examples can show students how legal principles apply to events in everyday life. Each of these stories raises important questions about free speech, its application to real-life circumstances, and its limitations. Following each scenario are a few questions for class discussion.

Presidential politics and libel law. Earlier this month, Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president, threatened to sue The New York Times for libel after the paper printed allegations from women who claimed Trump touched them inappropriately or made unwanted advances toward them.

Trump’s lawyer sent a letter to the paper claiming the allegations were libelous and that publishing them was simply an attempt to tarnish the candidate’s reputation and his chances of winning the election. The paper’s legal counsel responded with a letter to the Trump campaign, and The Times’ editorial board wrote an editorial defending the story.

As the editorial board noted, the law provides that the actions of public officials and public figures (those who hold sway in some governing function or those whose actions draw attention to themselves) are subject to more rigorous scrutiny, discussion and debate than the lives of private individuals. The landmark 1964 case (of which The Times was a party) New York Times v. Sullivan, spelled this out when it held that the actions of those in power must be subject to the greatest possible scrutiny in order for democracy to thrive.

This isn’t the first claim the candidate has made about libel laws. Earlier this year, Trump said he planned to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to sue the people and organizations he feels have defamed him. Of course, the president has little power to change libel laws, which are passed at the state level. Beyond that, the president must respect the bounds of the First Amendment, which can’t be changed at will on a personal whim.

The bottom line here is that anyone running for what’s arguably one of the most powerful offices in the world qualifies as a public figure, if not a public official. Their actions must be subject to the most stringent public scrutiny. This is equally why discussion about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for reading and storing classified emails can be subject to the same level of inquiry and debate. Knowing the law is essential for interpreting and understanding the claims candidates make during election season and beyond.

  1. Why is it important for the public to be able to discuss the actions of public officials, even those individuals who are running for office?
  2. Even if elected officials are powerless to change laws regarding free speech, why is it important for journalists and the public to vigorously defend the protections of free speech and press and to scrutinize the claims they make about free speech and press?
  3. Are most members of the public educated about the free speech laws? Why is personal education important to helping average citizens evaluate claims by candidates and other elected officials?

A protest and a journalist’s right to tell the story. Amy Goodman, co-host of Democracy Now!, was arrested last month while covering protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline expansion in North Dakota. The expansion has been mired in controversy. Proponents say the pipeline will make it easier to ship crude oil to refineries, while opponents are upset that the pipeline will disturb sites Native American tribes consider sacred, and they argue it could pose health risks to those on a nearby Native American reservation. The pipeline has sparked ongoing protests the past few months.

Goodman was arrested while capturing footage of company guards using dogs and pepper spray on protestors. Law enforcement claimed Goodman—even though she was working as a journalist—was a protestor and even participated in a riot. The charges were later dropped, but the local prosecutor initially responded to the claim of Goodman working as a journalist by questioning how was it possible to even determine who was a journalist because anyone with access to a cell phone and an Internet connection could publish information.

Without the stories journalists tell, the ability to understand what’s happening beyond one’s own direct experiences would cease to be. While the system is far from perfect, the right of the press to tell stories that hold the powerful accountable to the people is firmly etched in our national dialogue because of the essential function journalists perform. Covering a major protest, such as the one surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, is certainly protected speech.

Journalists’ rights of access to newsworthy people and events aren’t any greater than those afforded to the general public. They aren’t permitted to run red lights, trespass on private property or do anything a member of the public wouldn’t be afforded the right to do when covering a story. However, the conduct of their jobs shouldn’t qualify as criminal activity. Goodman’s reporting provided a public service by drawing attention to a matter of national concern.

  1. Who does qualify as a journalist? Should the same free press protections be afforded to those capturing footage on a cell-phone camera versus a reporter working for a national television network? If the former isn’t afforded the same rights, could that erode those protections for everyone?
  2. Journalists sometimes witness illegal activity (trespassing, rioting, etc.). What public service does their presence provide when they document both the activity itself and law enforcement’s response to it?
  3. While no one is above the law, could the threat of arrest deter some journalists from doing their jobs? What effect could that have on the public’s knowledge of important issues?

Online speech, civility, and the limits of free expression. This summer, comedian Leslie Jones—star of the latest Ghostbusters movie and cast member on Saturday Night Live—was subject to a barrage of racist and sexist tweets.

The mastermind behind this campaign was Milo Yiannopoulos, a blogger for the right-leaning site breitbart.com. Twitter has since banned him from the site. Yiannopoulos was angry to be banned from Twitter and said Twitter’s action was an affront to free speech.

First, as a private entity, Twitter is legally permitted to ban users who don’t conform to the site’s terms of use. The prohibitions against censorship only apply to the government, not private individuals or companies. That’s perhaps one of the most misunderstood principles of First Amendment law.

Second, in another often misunderstood pillar of free-expression law, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Despite its lack of much, if any, contribution to the public agenda and the marketplace of ideas, to punish hate speech could easily pave the way to more censorship because deciding where to draw the line can become blurry. The best defense is a good offense, as they say. To counter the claims of those spewing hate speech, use speech that seeks to debunk it. In other words, instead of asking the government to punish or stop hateful-filled rhetoric, engage in speech that promotes unity, empathy and inclusion. Point out the fallacies that hateful speech contains. Stage a counter protest, for example. Or create an information campaign to promote a different viewpoint.

But, this case raises the point about the balance of fostering open discussion online while protecting individuals from an onslaught of hateful comments, attacks and bullying. The basic facts behind this story could play out in any school district in America where some students choose to bully fellow students from the shield of a computer screen. The serious consequences of which cannot be discounted. Putting the legality of the issue aside, it’s important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. And while the government cannot dictate that individuals be civil online, privately owned sites and apps can insist on a certain level of decorum on their sites.

In this article that thoughtfully spells out the important concerns raised in this debate, Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum, cited comments that Newseum CEO Jeffery Herbst made during a speech earlier this year about the importance of staking boundaries of acceptable comments, especially when users take advantage of anonymity online to attack individuals. Seeking to establish such boundaries, as difficult and fleeting as they might be, is an important step to finding the balance between expression and civility. Others point to the need for consistent standards and policies to decide how users can be banned from such platforms, even though the government can’t mandate such even-handedness.

  1. A private entity like Twitter has the right to ban users from its site. It’s not a government organization, so no legal free-speech concerns exist with such action. However, does such action curb the amount of available voices, even if they are offensive to most? Do personal attacks have any merit at all? Does it make a difference if the intended target is a public official (like the president) versus a private person?
  2. What rights should individuals have to be free from (often anonymous) attacks online? How should site and app operators consider the rights of such individuals when crafting their user policies and spelling out terms of acceptable use?
  3. Should sites and apps ban anonymous comments? Does anonymity foster vileness and mean-spiritedness? What benefits can anonymous comments have?

As these stories clearly illustrate, free speech is constantly in the news. While each of these examples might have been a “snapshot in time,” the underlying questions they pose for the future of free speech are timeless. As technology changes, the same questions re-invent themselves, so to speak, and the same underlying matters appear time and again. Shedding a spotlight on how free speech manifests itself in everyday events is the start of enabling students to better understand how to protect, foster and defend their rights to speak and write.

Presidential endorsement provides important press freedom lesson

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When it comes to student free expression, some people just don’t get it. And some probably never will.

Take the recent uproar over the student newspaper The Bear Truth at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, Colo., south of Denver. Last week, the content of an editorial led to outraged parents and citizens attacking student editors and the adviser both online and through phone calls to district administration. Some demanded that the adviser be fired and the student editors be suspended from school.

The problem? The paper printed an endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in an area that leans heavily Republican. According to coverage in The Gazette in Colorado Springs, the crowd’s outrage included claims that the school was improperly indoctrinating students with propaganda, that the adviser provided undue influence in the formation of the students’ opinions, and that such an editorial violated a district policy that forbade disseminating political material to students.

The student editors said the attacks they received on social media got even more heated and even less constructive. As The Denver Post wrote in an editorial defending the students’ right to publish, much of the uproar was misplaced.

However, all doesn’t seem lost here. Of the 60 comments posted on the story on the paper’s website, most seemed positive and affirming of student press rights. Some who disagreed with the paper’s stance still lauded the students for the courage and foresight they exercised in reaching their conclusions.

What follows is a response to some of the misguided comments and assertions from the crowd, especially claims about improper journalistic practice and violations of school policy and the law.

Editorials don’t speak for everyone. While an editorial does represent the official view of the publication’s editorial board, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of every member of the publication’s staff. Likewise, an editorial certainly doesn’t represent the views of all readers. This is true of student publications and professional media alike. A student paper’s editorial no more represents or “speaks for” all of the students in the school than does a community newspaper’s editorial speak for all of the citizens in that community. Nor does an editorial tell readers that there is only one acceptable way to think. Individuals must take stock of all the information available to form their own conclusions. That is true for students and adults alike.

Student readers had every right to disagree with the paper’s stance, even to the point of crumpling up the publication without reading further, as the article in The Gazette noted.

Editorials are not news stories. The point of an editorial is to pick a side and to justify why the paper thinks that side represents the best way forward. It’s no different when endorsing a candidate or weighing in on the appropriateness of a new grading policy. Despite some parents’ claims about a lack of balance and fairness, it was not journalistically necessary to give an opposing candidate equal space in this instance.

The point of the opinion section is to provide the community with ideas for discussion and debate. The paper’s editorial, representing one voice amid many, was simply offering its take about who it felt was the best candidate. Those who disagreed or were upset had every right and expectation to express their disfavor. That’s why publications encourage letters to the editor, online comments and interaction through social media.

Anger knows no boundaries. As the Post editorial also noted, such “outrage” isn’t restricted to one political camp. No doubt an endorsement of Republican nominee Donald Trump most likely would have fueled similar outrage in areas that lean more liberal. And that’s part of the crux of the problem here. The very people who were most angered over this endorsement most likely wouldn’t have been so concerned about indoctrination of “impressionable young people” if the paper had endorsed another candidate. People can find all sorts of creative reasoning as to why some speech shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment when it disagrees with or questions their own personal beliefs or interpretations of events. For free speech to have any value, those protections must be ardently defended for all, no matter the opinions expressed.

It should be noted, of course, that those expressing their concerns were simply exercising their First Amendment rights as well, however misguided and misinformed their opinions were. But it’s intelligent, informed and reasoned opinions that are better able to inform public debate and discussion.

The law is on the students’ side. Colorado is one of a handful of ever-growing states that offer their student publications additional protections beyond those afforded by the federal Constitution. The law is quite clear that students have the right to express their opinions on political matters and to write stories about such issues, even if they spark vehement discussion, outrage or discomfort. While policies may forbid school staff members from distributing campaign literature and other political material to students, coverage in the student publication doesn’t violate such a policy. And a big hats off here to the school administration for remembering the law and working to educate angry parents and community members.

It’s true student publications use school time and resources to publish their work. But that doesn’t entitle the community at-large the power to exercise editorial control over content simply because some disagree with what’s published or how it’s covered. Community members would have no more right to decide which groups can express opinions in a public space, like on a public sidewalk, simply because their tax money supports its upkeep.

These reactions are nothing new. Misunderstandings about the legality of content in student publications manifest themselves over and over again. The important thing to remember is that the students took a stand for something they believed was the right thing to do, no matter whether one agrees with their opinion. They took an unpopular viewpoint they knew might spark anger from some, but they pushed ahead anyway. They exercised their First Amendment right to speak and publish. During an election that will arguably shape the future for these young readers, The Bear Truth editorial board sought to help students form their own opinions, not to force them to line up behind their conclusions without question.

And in this entire process, perhaps a few more people will learn something about the law and the importance of press freedom. And perhaps, then, this whole uproar won’t be for naught.

Workshop explores social justice journalism

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Recently, the 12th annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop explored the topic of social justice in journalism and reporting. The previous workshops featured lively discussion and debate from journalists, experts, researchers and others connected to the respective topic under consideration. This year was no exception.

Panels included discussions about the Flint (Mich.) water crisis, the shootings both at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and of five police officers in Dallas, immigration, and safe spaces on college campuses. The workshop website includes several lesson plans geared toward high school teachers and scholastic media advisers.

I’ve also provided a few discussion questions that correspond to each video for advisers and teachers to use in class. Each session can be accessed in the archives link on the workshop’s website. The archives also include recordings of previous workshops.

Why this is Important?

What is social justice journalism? How do students define it? Why is it important?
How have economic/business interests affected journalistic decision-making for or against social justice reporting?

The Internet has enabled the average person to publish without gatekeepers. How has this affected the ability to bring More

Disaster coverage essential skill for student journalists

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The tornado outbreak in the Deep South last Monday had special resonance for me. As I sat in my living room on a rainy, cool evening in Northeast Ohio, I anxiously watched weather reports on TV and online that showed a line of powerful thunderstorms containing confirmed sightings of tornadoes headed straight for the home of some of my relatives who live near Madison, Miss., in the suburbs north of Jackson.

I was relieved when I got the “all-clear” signal from my family in the area, but the storm did, indeed, pass right over their neighborhood. Adjoining subdivisions did sustain some damage. Areas on the south side of Jackson sustained considerable damage, and other parts of the region lay in ruins.

Watching the coverage and seeing the aftermath reminded me of the importance of teaching students the best practices for covering disasters in their community.

As a source of local news, student journalists provide an important documentation function that describes events that affect both the school and wider community. If a large natural or man-made disaster strikes the community, it’s important for the student news outlet to cover it. Plus, with the integration of digital technologies today, student journalists can provide breaking news coverage through multiple platforms even if their print magazine or newspaper is only distributed once every few weeks.

Breaking news situations are chaotic by nature. Information is at a premium, and those in the know (law enforcement, medical personnel, government officials) might either be reluctant to share sensitive information or might not have all the facts themselves. It’s important to exercise good judgment about what information to pass on to consumers.

Public radio’s “On the Media” program created a breaking news handbook for news consumers to aid the audience in deciphering credible content amid a swirl of often conflicting information. Craig Silverman, editor of the blog “Regret the Error” at the Poynter Institute, edited the “Verification Handbook: A Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage.” The book, compiled by practicing journalists across the globe, provides considerations for verifying information in a hectic environment as well as vetting user-generated material. Both are excellent classroom resources.

Crowdsourcing can be a wonderful tool. After all, no news organization can be everywhere at all times, especially during a breaking news event. However, in an effort to get their time in the spotlight, some in the crowd resort to manipulation and fabrication—that tornado funnel that looks just a little too perfect or that heart-warming photo of a man pulling his dog through a flooded street might be real, but they might either be the work of a skilled “Photoshopper” or from another event entirely.

Disasters and other traumatic events can leave a lasting effect on both the journalists covering the situation as well as those affected by the events themselves. Ethical guidelines mandate that special care should be taken when covering disaster victims. These people may have just lost their homes or even loved ones. It’s important for journalists to balance their need for truthful, powerful reporting about a matter of public significance while maintaining their duty to minimize harm to those affected. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University provides excellent resources for journalists and educators in this regard.

Teaching about covering disasters also presents the perfect opportunity to further news literacy efforts in the classroom. After all, forcing students to confront the uncomfortable realities of news reporting (even if they never cover an actual disaster) allows them to expand their base of knowledge in determining credible from non-credible information and to appreciate the ethical dilemmas journalists face.

Seventh OSMA state convention a success

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Last week, I attended the seventh annual Ohio Scholastic Media Association state convention, which was held at Kent State’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. I helped to run OSMA when I worked for the Center for Scholastic Journalism during my time in graduate school. As much as I enjoyed planning those conventions, it was kind of nice devoting my energy to presenting sessions for a change instead of helping to “run the show.”

My role as presenter offered me the chance to work more closely with the student attendees. I met so many bright and eager young journalists who are passionate about elevating the quality of student media at their schools. Below is a summary of the three sessions I presented.

So you think that’s right?
Based on ideas from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book Blur, this session explored ways for journalists to assess information’s credibility in the digital age. In an earlier post, I discussed the book’s relevance to the journalism classroom.

  • Journalists are no longer the only gatekeepers of what the public finds out.
  • Because of online tools and social media, the public plays an integral part in the news cycle.
  • As a seemingly endless array of information exists, both citizens and journalists need to develop a “skeptical way of knowing” to help themselves wade through it all.
  • Not all information is credible, so it can’t be taken at face value.
  • Journalists will distinguish themselves from all the noise by their commitment to providing quality information.

Think like a designer
The premise of this session sprouted from years of work with students in a production lab. Design is about more than learning the necessary software programs. Good design stems from a mindset that keeps the reader as the primary focus.

  • All design is about communication.
  • Every design decision must be purposeful.
  • Even the smallest details matter (space between elements, the weight of lines, etc.).
  • Design is never about “showing off” all the cool things you can do with the software. If a technique doesn’t enhance the storytelling on the page, don’t do it.
  • Design needs to be “coached,” just like story copy. The message on the page/spread needs to be consistent and unified.

Everyone needs a gatekeeper
Editors are an essential part of every publication. Yet their jobs are more complex today because of an influx of information. This session explored the changing roles of editors and the basic foundational skills they need. As with any discussion of editing, I used numerous humor-filled examples of things that slipped past the watchful eyes of the gatekeepers.

  • As more voices enter the fray, editors are needed more than ever to maintain a publication’s credibility.
  • Correcting basic grammar, spelling and punctuation errors is only the beginning.
  • Catching legal and ethical red flags is a major part of the editor’s job.
  • Editors should pay close attention to how stories are structured to ensure they communicate the intended message.
  • The big question to consider is whether readers understand the story’s intended message.
  • Pay close attention to headlines and other display copy. Mistakes there are magnified.

In addition to a wide-range of sessions, students also participated in on-site contests, received awards and feedback from an advanced-entry contest, and listened to a keynote address from Mizell Stewart III, the vice president/content of the newspaper division at the E. W. Scripps Co., about finding their path in life.

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