Beyond Good and Evil.
I was having a conversation with a student of mine earlier this morning concerning a new project started by some people here at the school where I teach. The conversation actually started yesterday afternoon when the student walked into the school meeting we have each day before releasing the students to go home.
The previous quarter, I had put several hours into designing and developing a project to create a student newspaper, up to and including a complete mockup of an edition. I duly sent this information to the Powers That Be and waited patiently for some word on high to respond, which, of course, never happened. So I was more than a little surprised when this student, whom I had recruited for the project as I had designed it, came to me with this news.
“For whom?” I asked. “For us – for the school newspaper!”
Instead we’ll consider that merely as background and look at the conversation as it took place this morning.
When the student came in this morning, I asked him to tell me about the paper. Excitedly, he told me that they were going to do stories on teachers and subjects about the school and the “positive impact” they have on the school and students.
I stopped him. “Wait a minute,” said I. “So what you’re telling me is that you’re not doing a newspaper; you’re putting out a newsletter.”
“No, Mr. Greene. It’s a newspaper – we’re telling everyone what’s going on here at the school that makes it special.”“Then, sir, you re not a reporter. You are a public relations person and you are not publishing a newspaper, but a news letter.”
The student looked at me blankly, not knowing what to say. This is a student who respects me quite a lot and who always comes to me each day to share his thoughts and get my input on them. I could see that I had disappointed him and had dampened his enthusiasm. For this, I was sorry, but at the same time, as a teacher – and as a journalist – I felt compelled to correct his misinformation.
I explained to him that the purposes of journalism and public relations are not the same. In public relations, one tries to present the best possible perspective of the organization or person they represent. In journalism, there is no such agenda. The purpose – the only purpose – of journalism is to present all the relevant and pertinent facts of a given event, situation or idea, without bias and without prejudice, and let the observer make up her or his own mind on the matter.
CAVEAT: Yes, I know, all too well, that this is not, and, honestly, never has been, the way journalism works in many cases, and is a large part of the reason I left professional journalism for other pastures. However, this is the manifesto of the journalist and the single-most holy Commandment – that to which we all should aspire. It is the way I conducted my own journalistic career and the same way I have, for the years I have been in education, taught every student I have had in this subject area.
The student, a young man of 16, had a lot of trouble understanding the difference. This innocence came to a head when he said that he “just wanted to tell the truth” about things.