Coverage ideas: Back-to-school supply shopping

It was tough enough to pivot quickly to distance learning in March as nearly every school in the country closed its campus. Many schools struggled to make the remote programs work while students lacked equipment to connect to the internet or to do work. Many families had insufficient bandwidth, or multiple children shared a device. In the months since, the pandemic has also caused a shortage of key parts because production has been slowed or halted, and the tensions on trade with China have further complicated the issue.

Furthermore, reopening schools for in-person classes — or starting via distance learning — meant that the traditional back-to-school supply list of pencils, glue sticks and binders looked different this year.

Focusing questions:

  • What is your school’s plan for ensuring students have access to online components of classes?
  • Did a shortage of equipment affect the plan for teaching and learning?
  • What problems have students experienced? These could include inadequate bandwidth/speed, software incompatibility, shared resources and more.
  • How was back-to-school supply shopping different this year? Did families spend more or less? What was easy or hard to find, and what was just skipped? What were some unexpected items on the list?
  • How did teachers reconsider what was essential and what might be needed in various contingencies?

Possible sources:

Students and families to share their experiences, teachers, school technology director, school budget administrator, managers of retail stores that sell traditional supplies or computer technology equipment

Possible sidebars:

  • Comparison of 2020-21 and 2019-20 supply lists, possibly with prices/amount spent, which could be compared among grade levels as well
  • Shopping list / receipt for expenses for back-to-school supplies
  • Case study: One student’s/family’s experience on shopping and finding (or not finding) needed items
  • Case study: How did students make do with missing, inadequate or shared items?
  • Explainer for the causes of the changes and/or shortages
  • Q&A with school technology director about how the school fulfilled needs, didn’t fulfill needs and/or changed plans to get by
  • Quotation collection: “I always buy ___, but this year I had to buy ___.”

Coverage ideas: QAnon

A group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles plotting against Donald Trump? The online conspiracy theory QAnon has moved from the dark edges of the internet to the mainstream. While it has existed in a space that was easy to ignore or dismiss, its adoption — or at least acknowledgment — by mainstream candidates and leaders make it a timely topic that can be explored in student media.

This could be a package all on its own, or it could be one example of a larger exploration of why people believe conspiracy theories (or why they believe certain sources and it’s difficult to change their mind). Of course you also want to treat sources with respect, so avoid coverage that demeans or ridicules people. When exploring a topic like this that is intertwined with a political issue, be careful to avoid perpetuating misinformation, and use language that places assertions and unproven statements in appropriate context.

A definition from The Washington Post: “Born in the aftermath of the Pizzagate debacle with two cryptic, anonymous posts published to the controversial message board 4chan in October 2017, QAnon has grown into a large and nebulous belief system. Its ‘leader,’ known only as Q, is ‘a purportedly high-ranking government official.’ At its heart is the baseless notion that President Trump is secretly working to bring about a ‘Great Awakening’ to expose an elite cabal of child sex abusers — including prominent political figures in Washington — that has been concealed by intelligence agencies, or ‘the deep state.’” Now, supporters of these theories have gained mainstream attention and at least one is likely headed to Congress.

  • What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory? (The New York Times): “QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. … According to QAnon lore, Mr. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 in order to break up this criminal conspiracy, end its control of politics and the media, and bring its members to justice.”
  • The Prophecies of Q (The Atlantic): “In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it.”
  • The Week QAnon Went Mainstream (The New York Times): “For almost three years, I’ve wondered when the QAnon tipping point would arrive — the time when a critical mass of Americans would come to regard the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory not merely as a sideshow, but as a legitimate threat to safety and even democracy.”
  • The QAnon Candidates Are Here. Trump Has Paved Their Way. (The New York Times): “More than two years after QAnon, which the F.B.I. has labeled a potential domestic terrorism threat, emerged from the troll-infested corners of the internet, the movement’s supporters are morphing from keyboard warriors into political candidates. They have been urged on by Mr. Trump, whose own espousal of conspiracy theories and continual railing against the political establishment have cleared a path for QAnon candidates.”
  • QAnon-supporting congressional candidate embraced 9/11 conspiracy theory (The Hill): “Marjorie Taylor Greene, who became the Republican nominee in a deep-red Georgia congressional district after a Tuesday primary, expressed support for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.”
  • Asked about QAnon, Trump declines to denounce the conspiracy theory (The Washington Post): “Most presidents, it’s safe to assume, would have offered some cautionary words discrediting the theory, particularly if the theory suggested that the president himself was involved in its machinations, as QAnon suggests about Trump. He could also have offered a bold endorsement of the movement, which was the least likely option. Instead, Trump took the middle road of ignoring the question.”

Focusing questions:

  • Why do conspiracy theories gain traction and spread among the population?
  • How do these theories impact people’s beliefs and actions in other ways?
  • How is the QAnon conspiracy theory having an impact on the 2020 election and on American society?
  • What are some cautions people should keep in mind when encountering conspiracy theories? How can people avoid being misled by inaccurate or false information?

Possible sources:

University professors or other practitioners who are experts in human behavior or political science; students and others in the community who can share how they encountered these theories and why they choose to believe or not believe them

Possible sidebars:

  • One person’s opinion about QAnon, conspiracy theories in general, the impact of these on politics or society
  • Quotation collection about conspiracy theories
  • Listing of conspiracy theories that can be debunked
  • Listing of actions to take to verify information
  • Timeline of QAnon incidents from “Pizzagate” to this summer’s primary elections
  • Glossary of terms related to conspiracy theories and misinformation

 

Coverage ideas: Cancel culture

The practice of online shaming of people who have problematic behavior from the past or present continues to be a cultural force, particularly among people who identify as more liberal. This practice is not new. It was a summer of many open letters. The issue has evolved into an election campaign issue since President Donald Trump mentioned it at his July 4 speech, where he called it “the very definition of totalitarianism,” and “completely alien to our culture and our values.” Note that canceling something can be different from cancel culture. Its prevalence in the culture through several recent high-profile “cancellations,” and because it has become an election issue make it a timely topic to cover for any student media, including yearbooks.

Cancel by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

  • This 32-minute podcast from WNYC’s “On the Media” breaks down the principles of cancel culture and its effects.
  • The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who writes from a more conservative political perspective, offers “10 Theses About Cancel Culture
  • A letter published in Harper’s Weekly in July caused a stir when notable authors and writers pushed back against “cancellation” of ideas and individuals: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
  • The Harper’s ‘Letter,’ cancel culture and the summer that drove a lot of smart people mad (The Washington Post): “While the Harper’s letter doesn’t explicitly blame ‘cancel culture,’ many readers saw it as the subtext — a big part of the debate roiling elite cultural institutions. For some, ‘cancel culture’ is the specter of online mobs advocating for someone to get fired over anything from an old tweet to an innocuous statement that doesn’t conform to some emerging progressive ethos. Others argue there’s no such thing — that the phrase itself is an attempt to dismiss the young or minority or LGBTQ groups using social media to hold the powerful accountable.”
  • The New York Times podcast “The Daily” took a deeper dive through a two-part explanation Aug. 10 and 11. Part 1: “Where it came from” and Part 2: “A case study”

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • When it comes to calling out bad actions, what are the possible repercussions — both for those being called out and those doing the calling?
  • Is there room for redemption, particularly among younger offenders? Can people recover from a cancellation?
  • How do teens reconcile positive feelings toward people and things they enjoy (entertainers, performers, creators, products) with potentially problematic behavior by the people behind those things? In short, can you separate the art from the artist?

Possible sources:

Journalists, digital media and pop culture college professors, social media influencers that your audience follows, people who have been “canceled” and others who have expertise in this area

Possible sidebars:

  • Case study of someone who was called out or who called someone out
  • Glossary of terms
  • Timeline of “cancellations” or the life cycle of a “cancellation“
  • Quotation collection or poll with opinions about cancel culture
  • Pro/con debate

Coverage ideas: Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has come to affect every aspect of life: school, work, home, social. For a period of weeks in the late spring and early summer, nearly every story in media had some connection to the pandemic — only a few other stories broke through, and even they typically were presented in the context of a stay-at-home order, social distancing or health/safety.

The pandemic also provides student journalists with numerous coverage opportunities. Every school news outlet should have a regular beat related to the pandemic, and every yearbook should have at least one spread to cover these events. So much student journalism is reactive to planned events and spot news, and there is a disappointing lack of enterprise in most student media. Of course you will want to cover the daily or weekly events — changes in policies, cancellations. The challenge with coronavirus coverage is to find ways to cover the impact or the less obvious stories, most of which will not fit neatly in a daily news story. But part of the work of student journalism is to document not just events but feelings, opinions and trends as a way of capturing history of this time.

Below are two story ideas that relate to the coronavirus pandemic. There are more, such as lasting economic impacts and sports.

Social-emotional learning. One of the biggest areas for potential stories will be the social-emotional learning and wellness around returning to school after being isolated for so long. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued recommendations to reopen schools for in-person learning because of the negative effects of social isolation. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also issued guidelines and tools to “Reunite, Renew and Thrive.” A related but distinct story that deserves coverage: gaps in equality and achievement that have been exacerbated through the pandemic.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • What has the school done to assist students and adults with the transition back to school this fall?
  • How are students and adults in the school coping with the transition back to school — likely distance learning at first but eventually in person?
  • What are some ways students and others recognize that they have changed? What are they doing to accept that change or to try to counteract that change?
  • Are there new activities in school (through classes or advisory programs), clubs, lunch or afterschool activities that are designed to assist with this transition and to help people cope?

Possible sources:

Students and teachers, counselors, school psychologist, mental health professionals in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Quotation collection about feelings of isolation or how sources have fought isolation or set goals
  • Tips from metal health professionals on how to stay connected or to deal with isolation
  • Listing of resources or of curricular/pedagogical changes
  • Profile of one person’s experiences
  • Compare distance learning with the revised in-person format or a hybrid plan

School opening and safety. Late summer was a time of much debate about whether and how schools should reopen. Soon after the first schools began the school year, among those that started in person were several coronavirus outbreaks. Schools likely spent a lot of time and funds on reorganizing school to be safe for distance learning or in-person classes.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • How have people and the culture changed? Did people follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines?
  • Did students, employees and parents feel that the campus was safe for in-person instruction? What made them feel safe?
  • What is the budget impact from distance learning or to modify campus for in-person classes?
  • Even when social distancing was relaxed, how comfortable were people with “returning to normal”?
  • What role did the teachers’ union play in the decision about returning to school?
  • What are some of the longer-term impacts and lasting changes from the need for different types of instruction (revised in-person, distance, hybrid)?

Possible sources:

Principal or other administrator, school budget officer, school nurse, teachers and students, public health official in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Profile or Q&A of someone regarding their experience recovering from COVID-19 — or their experience of having a relative with COVID-19
  • Listing of physical changes for safety such as modified water fountains or plexiglass partitions in the food-service area
  • Listing of other changes to the curriculum or teaching methods, such as an ability to work remotely and a desire for more group work (or continued independence)
  • Quotation collection on what made people feel safe or unsafe
  • Quotation collection about the first day that was unlike any other
  • Examples of individual safety routines
  • Gallery of face masks and how people balanced safety with personal expression
  • Timeline of school reopening decision and key events
  • Statistics list of expenses: distance learning (computers, wifi hotspots, software, training), in-person classes (plexiglass partitions, tape markings, new furniture), cleaning, transportation, operations (thermometers, masks, tests)

 

Story ideas from Summer 2020

Each summer, several topics emerge that are appropriate for including in student media with a localized angle. Some of them have cultural impact, while others are one-time news items that can be made specific through an interview at the school or in the community. I compile these into a list that I use in teaching summer workshops and to spark my own students’ ideas for coverage beyond the obvious.

The list reflects what I have read, heard and seen in my own media diet, so it comes from my perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive or exclusive of other ideas.

Many of the topics are related to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — school safety, economic impact and changes to learning. In many ways, the topics are intertwined as it is difficult to separate and isolate health, economy, education and civil rights. Main topics include: coronavirus and school; schools and sports; college and the application process; cancel culture and removing monuments or named spaces; Black Lives Matter, race and reckoning; journalism, media and objectivity; and of course the Nov. 3 election.

The full Summer 2020 list is here. It probably will be updated.

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.