Advisers: Help students cover the world honestly, truthfully, transparently

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today from the Journalism Education Association.

“Is it really OK to be gay?” In the 2003-04 school year, that was the headline for my students’ newspaper cover story and double-truck package on their peers’ attitudes toward the increasing presence of LGBTQ people in media at the same time as LGBTQ issues were front and center in politics. I was teaching and advising at Wenatchee High School in central Washington state. It’s a couple hours’ drive through the Cascade Mountains from the progressive city of Seattle, but at that time, when it came to differences in culture and politics, it might as well have been in another country.

On TV, gay and lesbian people were moving from sidekick to center stage — “Will and Grace” had been around since 1998, but the summer of 2003 brought the debut of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” followed a couple months later by “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” State legislators debated same-sex civil unions and marriages, and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2004.

The convergence of LGBTQ people in mainstream entertainment and in political news was an important news peg for my students to turn the lens on their school and examine the atmosphere their peers created and experienced. At my current school, 15 years later, editors found a perfect news peg for coverage: Results of the school’s comprehensive wellness survey included data about sexuality and identity.

It’s an adviser’s job to help students cover the world around them honestly, truthfully and transparently. We must help them to tap in to current sentiments and ask how national or regional stories affect them. So it made sense in 2018-19 to explore the role of the school’s LGBTQ+ student alliance in a more accepting school climate, where many LGBTQ students said they didn’t feel the need to join that club. Another story explored why relatively few male students were openly gay at school — fewer were “out” than the data showed — while female students were more likely to be comfortable openly expressing their sexual orientation (about half of the girls said they did not identify as exclusively heterosexual).

Advisers must hold students accountable for their coverage by asking editors and staff what motivates that coverage. Members of this community should be covered authentically, not just in June for Pride celebrations or milestones, or LGBT History Month, which is typically in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. And to be effective, advisers must also learn history and use accurate terminology to be able to coach and question students.

Whether in a print newspaper or yearbook, online or broadcast, journalistic work also documents these attitudes and experiences for history. Student journalists can help the audience understand and make sense of the world around them, and the audience needs stories that explain or show people’s lives and perspectives. If done thoughtfully and not with tokenism, sources will feel well-represented, and the audience will be enlightened.