When I head back to school this year, something will be different. South Mountain High School, where I have been teaching for almost two decades, will no longer have a student newspaper. The Southwinds journalism classes, which have been in existence since the school was founded back in 1954, have been cancelled.
I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, professional publications all over the country are folding under the weight of the Internet, where social media “reporters” can post anything anonymously and without regard for reliable sources and veracity. As a former journalist, the thought is almost physically painful.
I will now show my age by saying that when I was a reporter one had to verify facts by obtaining three separate sources who would agree that the information was accurate. (Imagine that!) It was also necessary to write a balanced story, meaning that those with opposing viewpoints needed to be given equal time. Reporters did not take sides, except in instances where stories were clearly labeled as commentary.
Today, the networks force reporters to opine in order to fill commercial slots and to make sure their listeners hear only what they already believe to be true. We wouldn’t want folks to make their own decisions based on fair and balanced reporting, now would we?
But back to the demise of school newspapers. Note that I am not blaming my school administrators. They have allowed my journalism classes to exists for years with just a small number of students. Unfortunately, the word journalism implies that students must write and, sadly, most have no interest. I suppose I should be grateful that the Southwinds has managed to survive this long.
Still, while I realize I am biased, I can think of nothing more valuable than producing well-rounded adults who can think for themselves. What that requires is the ability to discern whether a story is true or a fabrication. My journalism classes did just that: identify a source, determine their bias by reading their mission statement or biography, and read their comments carefully before deciding if they are worthy of your trust. My motto in regard to using sources in stories is, “When in doubt, leave them out.”
But, perhaps, my time has passed. Maybe people are more comfortable thinking that whatever they already believe is right. And that, conversely, everyone else must be wrong. Certainly, the networks have determined that this is an extremely profitable methodology. So, why mess with success.
Oh, wait! If no one is willing to change their opinion based on truth, where are we headed? If that idea doesn’t give you an uncomfortable chill down your spine, I don’t know what will. But I am afraid for our future.
I’ll give you an example. My classes often begin with a discussion on what’s happening in the news. No subject is out of bounds. Every year the same topic emerges. Mermaids. I am not kidding here. I always have numerous students who argue with me claiming half-human/half fish creatures exist. I then provide the facts: Even warm sea water is too cold for humans. They would die of hypothermia. Our skin would slough off after being in the water too long. Why are there no mermaid remains?
Yet, invariably, they smile and shake their Disney fairytale-infested heads. “But I saw one on the Internet, Ms. Montgomery.”
Eiee! Even when I explain that I’m a scuba diver and have spent a great deal of time searching for sea life around the world and have witnessed nary a sign of a mermaid, they disagree. Because they want to believe in mermaids, they do. Facts don’t matter. Not even when I point out the obvious fakery in their YouTube mermaid videos.
However, by the end of the school year, after pounding them on their sweet heads about verifying sources and having a healthy dose of skepticism when faced with dubious news stories, many do come into the light.
But my journalism classes are done. Who will teach them about truth now?
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