Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another high school journalism teacher lost

School paper loses adviser after issue about sex by Jeff Long

(Note: this post was written 20 minutes after a breaking news post on the Tribune's site– changes & updates may have occurred or been added.)

Here is the sort of story that sends bloggers to their keyboards. Barbara Thill, the adviser of Stevenson High School's paper, is stepping down from the post next year because the school made changes to the way the paper was structured after an issue about hook-ups at school.

Censorship!, comes the cry. Down with content control! Sex among high school is an important issue, and the sqeamish school principle needs to get over it!

Well, yes. But there is definitely more to the story. From the article:

The January "hooking up" issue described casual sexual encounters among students. Officials said the paper recklessly exposed the identities of the students by using their first names and graduation year and failed to achieve balance by omitting those opposed to hooking up.

Definitely an important part of the story. It continues:

The administration had voiced concerns about the Statesman to Thill for a year, a spokesman said later.

In the two issues published since then, the school's director of communication arts, David Noskin, and other administrators have reviewed the paper before it went to print, Selman said.

So far, administrators have not censored the paper's content, but Selman thinks the students' journalism has suffered because the review requires earlier deadlines. That leaves less time for reporting, editing and layout, she said.
...and a little later:
Administrators told students that two journalism classes will work on the Statesman next year, instead of one. Ribot said administrators told students that Thill was offered the chance to teach one of the classes but declined.
At this point in the article, I felt a whole lot more sympathetic to school administrators. Yes, we can talk about censorship and the "chilling" effect it has on the press and on the free exchange of ideas. Long, the reporter, includes that with comments from students about the effect the school's response has had on the reporting.

But reckless treatment of sources on such a sensitive issue? Well, I feel like Long could have bumped that up a bit– I had to chide myself for jumping to conclusions about the fairness of the situation too soon. I feel like the fifth graph is a little low. Additionally, it's hinted at, but not explained, that Thill was offered her post again by the school and chose to step down anyway. An important detail. Of course, not everything can be at the beginning of the story, but a 'voluntary' wedged into a sentence would have been clearer. These are crucial details that someone who doesn't read on will miss.

I think most readers at least skim to the end of this one, though– it is a compelling story. I want more information. The publication is now newsworthy and, with my limited knowlege of First Amendment law, I think it would be legally fine to run parts of the paper in question to let readers draw their own conclusions about the administration's response, perhaps blacking out the names of students in the article to avoid further exposure on the part of the sources.

The story reminded me of a situation from my hometown of Naperville, IL, and Long doesn't miss the connection. Linda Kane was fired from her long-standing position on Naperville Central's award winning paper after a controversial issue about drug use.

Thill's resignation comes less than a year after a journalism adviser at Naperville Central High School was fired after publicly criticizing the principal for his response to the school paper's controversial stories about drug use, including one column containing profanity.
Kane still works at Naperville Central. I suppose the article could mean 'fired' as in 'fired as newspaper adviser'– but it's not clear enough for comfort. This story from the Tribune about the events also says "fired" in the lede but clarifies a sentence or two later. (Coincidentally, the archived story is by the journalist I interviewed for our assignment for Friday– kind of cool.) EDIT: I e-mailed the reporter to see if this was a misunderstanding or if the correct phrasing is just, well, confusing– he said it was the latter and that because it says the adviser (not teacher) was fired, it was correct. I still think it's confusing, but it's not an error, per se.)

Bottom line: the story does a good job presenting both sides of the story with supporting information, but I'd organize it differently.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Violence and the educational system- the best way of looking at it?

My last blog post was a response to an article which was part trend story, part obituary. The Tribune has been keeping count on the number of Chicago Public School students who have been slain so far this year– and the number is scary. Two more have been killed since that last post, bringing it up to 28.

Carlos Sadovi and Angela Rozas, who both also worked on the last article, also wrote this one: Examining shockingly deadly year for schools.

The article says the number of deaths is unusually high, but acknowledges that it does not tell the whole story– it doesn't show how many have gotten close to being a part of that number, or include students who have dropped out or been killed during the summer.

The story does a good job of dealing with the complexities of the issues and examining measures that have been taken to stop the problem. Many of the things I pointed out as missing in my last post, and which some of you agreed on, appear here.

The article takes a step in the right direction: it gives personal context to the numbers and it looks at the highly complex forces fueling this trend and how the problem is being adressed. However, I don't think it goes far enough in divorcing itself from the numbers.

"You've heard and read the grim tally too many times recently," says the Tribune's Eric Zorn, opening up a column looking at how useful that statistic really is.

Zorn's column, Killings of students provides a grim tally, points out that while the number is sensational and brings killings which would have normally gone unnoticed into public light, its use presents problems.
"The number suggests that the life of a student is more valuable than the life of a dropout—though experts say fear of school violence is sometimes why youths drop out. And it points only indirectly, at best, to the root causes of street violence and possible prevention strategies."
Zorn delivers a tough verdict– but it really makes you think about how statistics, even if true and with some weight for catching the attention of readers, are limited in their usefulness and can show bias not normally associated with numbers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A trend of tragedy

10th-grader is 26th Chicago Public Schools student slain this year by Carlos Sadovi, Steve Schmadeke and Angela Rozas

This is a trend story with an extremely newsworthy and timely aspect to it. As the number of students from Chicago's public school system killed increases, already surpassing the total from last year, the deaths have an enormous impact on the families they devastate and the lives they end.

The story does a good job combining personal tragedy with the reactions of officials and their plans to combat the violence.

However, when I finished the article, I was left wondering what had been tried in the past and why it hasn't been successful. How will the new attempts to quell violence be any better than the old ones? If the story was merely marking the trend and showing the impact, it would be more understandable for these questions to go unanswered, but because the article does detail measures being taken by the Police Department I would have liked to see how they fit in with what's been tried before.

Overall, the story is effective in its poignancy, but I would have appreciated a more critical look at what is being done to stop these tragic losses.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Alleged assault creates controversy in Naperville school district

Story: Naperville-area district's response to alleged assault debated by Russell Working and Jo Napolitano

This story hits a little closer to home for me- I'm from Naperville and went through the school district in question.

The story examines debate in the community about an 11-year-old boy who is the alleged victim of a sexual assault by two other boys at his middle school. The school board has not forced those boys to transfer, a choice the boy's father has protested, saying his son is being traumatized by having to face them. While one boy voluntarily transferred, the school board said it cannot expel them for an out-of-school incident of which they have not yet been proven guilty in court.

There are a lot of different players and concerns here, and the story does a good job summarizing and contextualizing them for readers who might not be aware of what's been going on.

I would have appreciated more legal context, however. Previous court cases or an impartial expert could have provided more guidance in why this is such a sticky issue for the school.

An ethical concept we talked about in class is embraced in this article- neither the alleged victim, his father or the alleged offenders are identified. The reporters mention this explicitly, explaining their decision to protect the identities of the parties involved, which would definitely be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the ethics of journalism.

In general, the story does a good job presenting the complexities of the issue and all of the different factors involved. While I have the knee-jerk reaction that the alleged victim should not have to face his attackers each day in school, the accused parties also have legal rights and are still presumed innocent. Still, leaving these three boys in school together does not sound like it is beneficial to anyone involved.

Recession and Higher Education

Story: Recession alters parents' plans for kids' college by Lisa Black

This article demonstrates how the financial downturn is affecting families thinking about sending their children to college, and does a good job taking a much larger trend-- a bad economy-- and showing how it affects parents and their kids.

It also shows how the entire college selection process is being altered, drawing a link between the increase in the number of schools students are applying to and the downturn: students are diversifying to make sure they get into a school they can afford, and there has been an increase in applications to public universities.

There is a good mix of students, parents and experts in the story. The situations of the families personalize the story and take it beyond a mere description of the statistics of how the application process is changing.

The idea behind the story is a fairly obvious one. Education is expensive, and it makes sense, for many students, to scale back and knock out gen eds at a community college rather than attending a more expensive school. But the story goes beyond the figures and practicality and captures the disappointment of kids who wanted to go elsewhere, and parents who wanted to be able to send them there. The tough situation of a family where the mother is ill and medical bills prevent them from spending more on their son's education, or where the parents had dreams for their children to do more than they did, show the very real impact of the downturn.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Whites teaching black studies

Article: Whites break new ground by teaching black studies by Dawn Turner Trice

Black scholars make up the majority of those teaching black studies- in a number disproportionate to the ratio of black to white scholars studying black studies. However, more and more white scholars are joining their colleagues to teach the subject, according to this article.

The article kicks off with a feature lead appropriate to a piece like this- less about hard news, per se, and more about people.

Shawn Alexander can recognize the look immediately. It's one of surprise when a student enters his African-American studies class and finds, standing at the front, a white guy.
While we have no idea who Shawn Alexander is, what he does or why he should care, the first sentence is ambiguous enough that it draws you in. The second sentence is effective in presenting the... well, maybe not irony, but certainly unexpected situation the students are confronted with.

Which makes you think. And wonder. Why do white scholars decided to study African-American studies? How are they received? What kind of reception have they had in the field?

The article answers all of those questions (which, at least for me, sprang immediately to mind just from the lede). It uses a variety of white scholars- their stories, their inspirations, and their decisions.