Columbia Scholastic Press Association
Phone: (212) 854-9400
CSPA is affiliated with the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in the City of New York.
Learning to be objective when the subjects may be friends
By Katherine Reedy
Last January, Barbara Thill's Journalism I class was laying out the week's newspaper when they heard the news.
A fellow student, they learned, was in critical condition after being struck by a car near the school.
Thill, who teaches at Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, said her students responded quickly, put on their professional faces, and set about doing the hardest and most important part of a journalist's job-- reporting bad news, sometimes even the worst.
"It was basically the kids covering things as information came out," Thill said. "They just talked to friends and covered it the best they could."
Despite the gravity of the situation, her students were able to put out a thorough front-page story that treated the story with respect and sensitivity.
“His friends needed a way to stay with him,” was the story’s lead sentence, which led into a stirring anecdote about the student’s friends waiting for his recovery in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
Student reporters also included key quotes from witnesses, teachers, and administrators and added a professional-quality degree of perspective on the larger dangers of the intersection where the accident took place.
The story that resulted was one of the reasons that led to the paper, the Statesman, winning a Silver Crown award from the CSPA, but Thill also noted that experience was educational for her students.
"We were really focused on getting the paper out," said Thill, whose class of 14 newspaper students provides information for a school of more than 4,500 other students.
The decision to run stories about tragedies is usually difficult for teachers and students when shocking events hit very close to home. In Thill's students' case, students decided to run the story even though, she said, "The boy was in really serious condition, and they didn't want to cause further upset,” partly because they felt responsible to inform the school community of the news.
While high school students are stepping up to cover sensitive local news, some schools have even taken the initiative to deal with issues of national concern.
Martha Singleton, who oversees her students’ paper at Holmes High School in San Antonio, Texas, said she assigned her students to speak to Katrina refugees who stayed at their school after the hurricane.
“My kids did a lot of human interest stories,” she said, adding that she tried to teach them the importance of adding the local community’s perspective on issues of even national importance.
“Bring some voices into it that the professional media isn’t going to have,” she told them.
In another instance, Gold Crown winner The Remarker at St. Mark’s School in Dallas, Texas, also dealt directly with Hurricane Katrina by publishing a tribute entitled "Aftermath." One CSPA judge commented that the article succeeded in covering the unique and tragic story.
"Local impact, heartfelt responses, dedication to journalistic excellence, and front page features and commentary equals superb coverage of the devastation," the judge wrote.
And in Findlay, Ohio, journalism teacher Jim McGonnell said he assigned his students to cover the flooding that wreaked havoc on the region in August of 2007.
His students’ coverage, which included both print journalism and television footage for the school’s station, benefited the community far beyond the school’s gates, he said. Locals “wanted [the news] from another perspective” beyond the professional media, McGonnell explained.
Although students are stepping up to cover tragic situations of both national and local interest, experts caution that reporting on a tragedy can prove traumatic in its own right, and ethical concerns become more difficult when stories deal with matters of life and death. The following sites provide information and advice for journalists that can be invaluable in times of high stress.
- www.poynter.org – The Poynter Institute offers tips on covering tragedy that apply to young journalists as well as seasoned veterans.
- www.dartcenter.org – An institute founded by a former psychiatrist who specializes in helping journalists deal with traumatic experiences.
- http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp – A list of helpful reminders for tragedy reporting, such as “Minimize harm,” and “Be accountable.”
Prevents layout breakage if no content
CSPA is an international student press association, founded in 1925, whose goal is to unite student journalists and faculty advisers at schools and colleges through educational conferences, idea exchanges, textbooks, critiques and award programs.