Teach the First Amendment, now more than ever

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Then candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the press and the First Amendment has raised more than a few eyebrows among defenders of free speech during the past year. Everything from threatening to sue publications that printed unfavorable coverage of his behavior or candidacy to insisting he would change libel laws to enable him and others to more easily win lawsuits against the press have all been fair game.

The news business has long been a target of those in governing authority because the press wields the power to question and hold accountable all those individuals and institutions that everyday citizens place faith in to structure and shape their lives. However, it’s precisely that power to question authority that must be staunchly defended.

But his misgivings about the First Amendment don’t stop with the press. Earlier this month in a tweet, he hinted it was unfair for people to protest the outcome of the election. He reversed course on that statement several hours later with another tweet (as noted in the link above). And just this week, he announced in a tweet that flag burning should be illegal and punishable with jail time or possibly the loss of one’s citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that the practice is protected speech.

The freedom to write, speak, worship, assemble and petition can’t be taken lightly because those freedoms—etched in the hallmarks and identity of American democracy—can be eroded and quashed without vigilant defense. A government official’s own feelings, preferences or even ignorance can never supplant the law.

Perhaps some of these claims from the president-elect are more rhetoric than anything else. But it’s troubling when a powerful government official demonstrates such lacking knowledge of the laws and legal principles that protect the opinions of all Americans, especially those expressing dissent.

Press freedom advocates are calling on journalists to exercise more tenacity covering the new administration, and their calls deserve merit. It’s only through concerted, deliberate effort we can defend these liberties. But it can’t end with journalists. All citizens must make the effort to call out baseless claims that represent affronts to basic freedoms. And to do that, they need to understand the law, perhaps not enough to become legal scholars, but they need a working knowledge that enables them to call out falsehoods and overreaches of power.

To all scholastic publication advisers, now is the time to double-down on teaching students about a free press and other free-speech issues. Young people now, more than ever, need to understand the First Amendment’s protections, principles and limitations. That way they can wade through the clog of information and claims that circulate through the news cycle, blogs and social media and can help teach others about the importance of understanding and defending their freedoms.

Teaching about the First Amendment in class is the foundation. Ensure that students learn about court cases like Near v. Minnesota, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, New York Times v. U.S.New York Times v. Sullivan & Snyder v. Phelps. In few other places will students ever be exposed to this material. These seminal cases and others will provide a firm foundation to guide their continued learning and exploration. Help them apply the holdings in those cases to contemporary issues and stories in the news.

Guide students to stay abreast of what’s happening and to understand how the First Amendment and its protections are discussed and interpreted in the news and among conversations online.

And, of course, the best way to teach about freedom is through practice. No better “real-life” simulation of a free press in action exists than a student publication, whether print, broadcast or online. Teach students to do good journalism by asking questions of those in power and seeking accountability. That mindset will serve them well into their adult lives.

Below is a list of links to recent news items and columns that will enable better discussion.

A Call to Action for Journalists Covering President Trump by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Our First Amendment Test Is Here. We Can’t Afford to Flunk It, by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom: Why It Matters, by Mirren Gidda & Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

War Between Trump, Media Seen Escalating With Presidency’s Power, by Gerry Smith, Bloomberg News

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.

Publication critiques in a digital world

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Times are changing in the journalism world. As educators, we pride ourselves on preparing students to adapt to new innovations for delivering and consuming news and information. We preach a “digital-first” mindset, and we instill a revised approach to storytelling that encompasses a wide range of media.

Students are certainly adapting. Their work incorporates print, video, audio and Web-based reporting to create well-rounded story packages that allow readers multiple means to approach a story.

However, are the criteria we use to evaluate and to recognize students’ efforts changing readily enough? This post is a compilation of my thoughts, however narrow and lacking they might be, about the measurement devices used by state and national scholastic press organizations in an age of digital and social media.

Critiquing and rating services are valuable tools to help staffs gauge their performance and to set goals for improvement. However, most critiques are demarcated by type of publication or news operation—print newspaper/magazine, yearbook, or broadcast. For instance, a newspaper is generally evaluated in areas such as writing style, range of content, design and visuals, and editorial leadership. Those breakdowns were appropriate and worked fine in the days when silos were king—various media focused solely on one means of production. But as media meld, how should the criteria be updated?

What follows is list of observations and questions I’ve formed while judging publications this summer and fall for several national and state associations. I also spent nearly five years helping to run critiques and rating services for a state scholastic press association. It’s tough to stay ahead of technology and to anticipate how students should and will use it to tell their stories. The purpose here is to start a conversation as we work to find ways to serve students best by providing them with the most comprehensive evaluation possible of their work.

What’s the most equitable way to account for production differences? Because of differences in resources (financial and technological), staffs are at uneven points in production—some have opted to go online only, while others are a mix of online and print products. Some update their websites daily with breaking news content, while others have a website but only use it as a storage area for content following the print publication’s distribution. Some engage their audiences with social media, while others choose not to do so.

What standards should be used to judge the quality of digital products? The learning curves associated with new technology and engagement practices can be steep. Using Facebook to interact with friends is different from creating a strategy to both inform and engage your audience with that tool. Simply posting isn’t enough. While everyone will stumble as they learn, clear standards need to be applied during the evaluation process.

The basics still matter. Everything a staff produces needs to be quality work. Tweeting regularly during sporting events is a good thing, but it doesn’t overshadow shoddy reporting or poor design techniques in the print publication. Some staffs seem so proud of their new online ventures and experiments that they forget to devote proper attention to all of their platforms. It all matters, and it all still counts toward the evaluation.

Administrative restrictions abound. Some schools place bans on social media sites and other online resources. Is it fair to punish a student staff (hold them back from a top ranking) just because they can’t use social media? Yes, it’s possible for students to post from home, but such restrictions make it tough to do that properly and effectively.

Are judges qualified to evaluate it? Some judges of scholastic press association contests have little to no experience with social media and online platforms. While most judges might be solid on basics like reporting and design, the newness of online media might also translate to less experience and varying degrees of competency with new digital storytelling tools.

How are we measuring it? Critique books and criteria need to account for the publication’s entire information strategy when providing a ranking. In today’s age, is a newspaper performing at its peak without further engagement with social media and other storytelling platforms, even if it excels at all of the traditional criteria mentioned above? No doubt, a stellar print publication is providing an invaluable service to readers, but it acceptable to stop there? Criteria must be updated to make them specific to the content under evaluation. It’s tough to assess properly an online-only operation with a set of criteria for print publications.

This post is the start of a list that will grow with experience and insights as technologies and storytelling platforms continue to change. I welcome thoughts from others and their experiences as judges, contest coordinators, advisers and students.