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Investigative reporting guide for student journalists

By Suproteem Sarkar | Created for 45words


  1. A majority of states are affected by the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling, which gives high school administrators the power to control content published in student-run publications. Although the ruling should not discourage high school journalists from pursuing controversial stories, it is possible that students' publications may be scrutinized. In order to maintain autonomy, it is important for students to follow guidelines so their stories can be balanced and thoroughly reported.
  2. This post will outline the process of reporting a controversial story, detailing the methods that I use to develop a story that is both acceptable to administrators and an accurate reflection of a community response. As a reference, I will use one of my recent articles, published on p. 3 of the June 2013 issue of The Spoke, which covers the community reaction to a district proposal to outsource substitutes and aides.


  4. In order to ensure that an article is reported fairly, a reporter should conduct thorough research on all sides of an issue and select sources who have diverse opinions and backgrounds. An article that draws from students, parents, teachers and administrators is likely to better reflect the viewpoint of a community than one that only includes students. Before I began interviews for the outsourcing article, I made a list of several people who were involved with the proposal. Although the final article only contains a small sample of the people that I interviewed, I still found it valuable to speak with them in order to gauge the impact the proposal had on the community.

    It is important to include differing viewpoints so readers can be informed and form their own opinions. That's not to say that one should strive for the exact same amount of coverage for two sides—in the case of my article, the community response to outsourcing was overwhelmingly negative, so I included more quotes from people who opposed the proposal. However, it was also essential to include the district's rationale for the proposal. Presenting diverse opinions ensures that your story is well-rounded and demonstrates that you have conducted thorough reporting.

  6. In addition to providing a reporter with an accurate way to remember quotes, recording interviews and maintaining the recordings may come in handy later on. A few times, I have heard from people who claim that they have been misquoted. When this happens, I pull up audio recordings of interviews that I transfer from my portable voice recorder to my computer and let the person in question listen to what he or she said during the interview. It is absolutely necessary that published quotes are 100 percent accurate and reflect the viewpoint of the source. When I conducted interviews for the outsourcing article, I looked for quiet places with little background noise and made sure to keep backup copies of my recordings.
  7. If you are unable to schedule a source for an in-person interview and would like to contact them over the phone, it is still important to record the conversation. I usually place phone calls from a computer, using Google Voice, and use a free recording program like Audacity to record interviews. Laws for recording conversations vary from state to state, but generally it is all right to record if all parties in a conversation provide consent. Recording conversations increases your credibility and accuracy and allows you to respond to people who claim to have been misquoted.

  9. If at some point during the reporting process you feel that you need assistance, there are several outlets that can help. When I write particularly controversial stories, I consult with the Student Press Law Center, which is very helpful for providing legal advice. In addition, members of 45words are more than happy to share their experiences with writing well-reported articles and protecting their publications' freedom of expression.

  11. These guidelines are not designed to restrict freedom of expression—rather, they suggest ways to enrich reporting and protect autonomy. High school reporters should not be afraid to pursue meaningful stories, because often times student journalists are the most informed sources of local news and have the potential to make a difference in their communities.