by cheri sabraw
I taught Journalism I and II to precocious high school juniors and seniors for thirteen years (1985-1998) and served as the advisor to the newspaper staff.
You can imagine the decade-long censorial tussles, the moral dilemmas, and the delicate dance that I engaged in with my headstrong students. That dance– akin to a waltz when I agreed to the job was, in reality, more like a complex rumba.
During my tenure as advisor, my many staffs and I argued about stories concerning how much to print about a teacher’s death by overdose, whether the decision to print a silly quotation by a freshman about seeing his mother naked was inappropriate and libelous, about whether issuing the custodial staff a “D” in our annual report card was accurate and fair, about how to cover a teacher’s strike when the journalism advisor herself had chosen to come into work, and in one case, about a suggestive photograph in a hot tub. (Luckily, the journalism advisor was not in that tub…)
On the first day of class each year, I liked to begin our year-long Saga of Free Speech with a discussion of what constituted “responsible journalism.”
I would begin by telling this little ditty:
The day in 1879 that Thomas Alva Edison and his scientists in Menlo Park, N.J., turned on the first incandescent light bulb, one that would last for more than 13 hours, was a momentous moment for all of mankind.
Before long, after the news had spread throughout the township and in the scientific community, the reporters began to arrive in droves, eager to report on the dawn of an illuminated world.
Mr. Edison, after hours upon hours testing carbon wire in the laboratory, took the first question from an eager reporter:
Mr. Edison, have you been in touch with the candle makers? Do you realize this invention will put them out of business? Are you concerned about the candle makers?
This story, along with a reading of Mark Twain’s short story The Stolen White Elephant (in which Twain lampoons the reporters’ inability to keep a secret and the detectives’ penchant for following dead-end leads rather than open their eyes and look), provided a perfect opening to a wide-ranging discussion about the role of the news reporter.
“News reporters are to keep most adjectives and adverbs out of their stories,” I said, “the goal is to report news in an objective fashion so that your readers can draw their own conclusions. You are not to lead your readers in a direction you think they should go. That would be biased. If you want to influence reader opinion, then consider joining the editorial staff.”
Were I teaching today, I would have my students scan the Google News Feed, where headlines from the NY Times, the Washington Post, and other “news” outlets (even fake news outlets as Facebook has streamed) try to influence reader opinion by dressing up News in an Editorial costume.
Sadly, we’ve become accustomed to this Mardi Gras of Free Speech, which, while creative, is anything but accurate.
This past election period seemed like a frenzied climax of reporter hustling.
Never, in any other election I have witnessed, has such an obvious press bias been so apparent. We expect this from the New York Times but from the Wall Street Journal?
Perhaps the Biggest Loser of this past election period was not the Democratic Party; rather, it was the press, which thought we Americans were stupid enough to believe what it said was the truth.
How did those candle makers get out of bed the next morning?