By Scott Leadingham | December 16th, 2009
I came to Portland, Ore., this week to help with SPJ’s Narrative Writing Workshop. It was me who left with an education.
Taking advantage of end-of-year unused vacation days, I visited some friends in Oregon. One insisted I talk to her 8th grade reading/writing class. They’ve been studying persuasive writing, and apparently I know something about that. (I’m not a model journalist or persuasive writer, but I play one in 8th grade classrooms. Mom would be proud.)
My friend – Mrs. Edmonson, according to her students – had asked me to talk about my job. This would be easy, I’d imagined:
“Well, you see, kids, Twitter is a great tool for sharing news and information. Have you ever read the AP Stylebook? It’s a great resource…”
Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.
She – Mrs. Edmonson, that is – surprised me 12 hours before my grand arrival on campus by asking me to talk about the shield law, or, more accurately, the Free Flow of Information Act.
Indeed, it was the first time I’d been asked anything about the shield law in a non-work setting from a non-journalism industry person.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “How old are your students?”
Truthfully, I don’t expect most adults – or the legislators and pundits currently debating the legislation – to fully understand the implications of the shield law. So, would a handful of kids … er … young adults grasp the idea of anonymous sources and compelled disclosure?
The answer, I found, is a resounding yes (though I never used the term “compelled disclosure”).
The lesson was fairly simple:
1) Read a few short articles (on multiple subjects) citing anonymous sources.
2) Ask when, if ever, people shouldn’t be named as sources.
3) Brainstorm three pro and con arguments for a federal shield law.
(Yes, even though I work for an organization that explicitly wants a federal shield law, the lesson of the day was not to “indoctrinate,” but rather teach why people might approve or disapprove of this measure.)
Mrs. Edmonson’s task over the next week will be to assist these brilliant young adults as they write persuasive essays (editorials?) on why they support or do not support a federal shield law.
I know of at least one student who may seemingly support the idea of protecting journalists and their confidential sources. When told journalists can go to jail for keeping a promise to maintain anonymity, one student responded:
“Really? That’s just stupid.”
Now if only the U.S. Senate and American public could think the same way.