Imagine: you’re a high school journalism student in a district that recently hired a principal for your high school. Seems like an easy story. You look at the resume, gather the facts of the hiring process, grab some quotes and a couple dates and paste that story on the front page of your publication.
It’s an easy story to write. And one that journalists all over the United States write every day. But for the journalism students at Pittsburg High School in southeastern Kansas, the basic facts were not enough.
The students took newly hired principal Amy Robertson’s credentials and did a couple quick fact checks. It didn’t take long; in fact, just a quick internet search to figure out that Robertson’s Master’s and Doctorate degree were bogus.
After a couple weeks of digging, following a path that “didn’t quite add up,” the students, despite being told to “stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong,” uncovered evidence that questioned the legitimacy of the principal’s degrees and prior work experience.
Robertson has since resigned from the position.
Just this week the students have been heralded by local, regional and national newspapers for their work. It’s truly incredible.
I, for one, am so proud of them. Not so much the fact that they uncovered what their superiors should have seen, but that they, despite being told to mind their own business, continued to follow their gut which probably had a pulling feeling based on the evidence they found.
These students didn’t just roll along with the status quo, but they asked questions. They asked questions to people who they may have been scared of and I’m sure that they asked questions of themselves, too. Am I doing the right thing here? What are the repercussions? Is it worth it?
We live in a society where questions are answered with “stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong,” instead of “let me help you understand this fact better.”
As a local journalist, I have begun to ask a multitude of questions to businesses, organizations and governments in our own town. I interviewed an organization twice within a couple weeks recently, and upon entering the interview the interviewee asked if I was going to “skewer” them again.
I think people in this town, in particular, are so accustomed to reporters (myself included) just dishing out the information that is given to us as fact that whenever someone wants to gather additional information or try to get a complete picture, there is an alarm that goes off.
But it is not the question that is the problem. The fact that people, especially public figures, hide information is the problem.
When I was a teenager, a wise woman told me: There are two reasons people get upset: 1) There is something they don’t understand or 2) Someone is too close to an unknown truth they want to hide.
When a question is asked, and there is nothing to hide, the responder will respond with a softness while they explain their answer. But when a question is asked and there is something to hide, the responder will, most definitely, dodge the question, not answer the question, come up with excuses, respond sharply, or for the most neurotic, they will hold something over your head, making the person who asked the question feel smaller than they really are.
Here’s the thing, though: if people (family members, friends, neighbors, businesses, organizations or governments) are transparent and honest to begin with, there is no need to ask a whole lot of questions.
Of course, there are questions everyone should ask of themselves and those around them to make our communities and lives better. There are a million questions that go into learning and planning as we develop materials and processes to ensure we are creating the best product we can at the time. Those types of questions should be welcomed and encouraged because a variety of perspectives and talents are necessary for anything to become complete.
But we live in a society where the majority of people are trying to hide something from other people.
I was watching Sean Spicer during a press conference the other day. Now, all political differences aside, because all Press Secretaries do this, he dodged one question after another with “Your question assumes the reporting is correct,” or “I’m not commenting on the reports.”
It seems like wherever we turn to find answers, there is someone giving us the run around just to advance their own agendas. I imagine they believe that if they dodge the questions enough or if they give us “just enough” to appear like they are participating then we, as a people, will settle in and mindlessly follow.
Unfortunately, we are at a point in our nation where we, as a people, do not believe anything because we know the answers to questions are not met with transparency and honesty. We know that the statistic may have been manipulated, the question was dodged, or that somewhere in the answer there was something, the smallest, most important part, was left out. This pattern has become so consistent that even high school students know they need to go in and fact check.
They felt an urge to jump “outside of their comfort zone,” even working through their spring break when there was pressure on them to “stop poking” because, I think, there is an urge inside human beings to know the facts, or the truth, in some cases.
I think the story of these journalism high school students is a story of courage that we all can and should apply to our own lives: one where we step back from what is fed to us and look objectively at the content only to follow up with questions.
Today’s students aren’t supposed to question what information schools give them or the way things in this world works. They are supposed to sit back while the adults make decisions for them or teach them about the way things should be.
I’m really glad that these kids did not take that approach to their education and their community. I’m glad that they started with a simple internet search which led them down this path; not because they caught someone in a “gotcha” moment, but because they are making their lives and community better by sticking their necks out to just gather more information.