Monday, August 04, 2008

Dealing with potentially controversial content

Summer is winding down and it's time to get back to blogging!

This week I'll be in Chicago attending the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and I hope to blog from there.

On Thursday at 3:15 p.m. I'll be on a panel, "College Papers' Mission: Confronting Issues of Responsibility, Diversity and Press Freedom." Check it out if you're at the convention.

In preparing for the panel, I've studied a number of instances over the past year or two of student newspapers running controversial or even downright offensive content. Most have been opinion columns or cartoons that have demeaned a particular ethnic, racial or religious group. In other cases, student newspapers have raised hackles by failing to cover certain events of importance to a particular group.

As you get ready for the upcoming school year, here are some tips to help your staff prepare for and deal with potentially controversial content.

1. Diversity your staff. A diverse staff helps a newspaper cover a multicultural community with sensitivity and a sense of responsibility. The more diverse your staff, the more you’ll have “cultural experts” to advise you on a range of sensitive issues. And think beyond racial minorities. A truly diverse staff includes people of varying religions, ethnic groups, political persuasions, sexual minorities and disabilities.

2. Train your staff. Teach your student newspaper staff to be on the lookout for sensitive material – words and images that people might find offensive or disturbing. Be sure to include the whole staff -- photographers, copy editors, designers, graphic artists and reporters, as well as editors – in the training. Show examples of controversial content run by other newspapers and discuss how you would handle such challenges. Invite experts who can educate your staff about the communities you cover.

3. Use the News Watch Diversity Style Guide. This guide, developed by the staff of News Watch at the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, offers guidance on a host of terms, from able-bodied to Zapatistas. It explains the Five Pillars of Islam, the meaning of “down low,” and when it’s acceptable to use the word Eskimo.

4. Reach out. Build relationships with campus and community groups representing different ethnic, racial, religious and political groups. Learn about their cultures, traditions and beliefs. The more you understand, the less likely you are to make a cultural faux-pas.

5. Ask hard questions. When considering content that some may find offensive – be it a news story, a cartoon, an editorial, an opinion column, a video, or a photograph – ask yourself: What does the piece say? Is it fair? Are there words or images that might hurt people? Try to look at it from different points of view. Weigh whether the benefits of the piece – the insights and information it will convey -- outweigh the trouble and pain it may cause.

6. Encourage group decision making. Young editors sometimes feel they should be able to make important decisions on their own. Try to create an environment where decisions are made after discussion among several people. Train editors to seek and consider multiple points of view before making judgments and taking action.

7. Warn the reader. When you do decide to run controversial material, explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it in an editor’s note. Show readers you’ve really thought this through.

8. When the flak hits, listen. Be open to criticism. Respond to angry letters and phone calls in a calm, rational and timely manner. Don’t get defensive. Offer to meet in person with school officials, student leaders or others who are upset.

9. If you’ve made a mistake, take responsibility. If you’ve got something to apologize for, apologize quickly and publicly. Don’t let wounds fester. Give your apology at least as much play as the error or offensive content.

10. Consider disciplinary action carefully. If an individual acted with negligence or malice, you might want to suspend or fire that person. But also remember that student publications are supposed to be learning experiences. If people involved made an honest mistake and take responsibility for their actions, they may deserve a second chance.

11. Stand by sound decisions. If after careful thought you believe you did the right thing even in light of criticism, explain your actions to your readers and your community. Be responsive to community concerns, but stick to your guns.

12. Heal wounds. If your publication offended a particular community, try to make amends. Reach out to that group and make it clear you want to improve your coverage. Appoint a diplomatic staff member as a liaison to that group.

13. Learn from your mistakes. While it can dangerously strain relationships between a publication and its readers, school officials and campus officials, running controversial content nearly always provides important lessons. Figure out what this experience is teaching you and use it to educate current and future staff members. Re-evaluate policies and systems that allowed this error or offensive content to go through.