Commentary

Teaching Young Journalists Old-School Ethics

Many of today’s journalism stars rose to prominence by writing exceptional blogs that broke some important national and international stories. When you stand alone as a journalist, your own conscience must be the judge of your ethics. Most get it right on their own. Others don’t, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

However respected they become, these journalists often miss the opportunity of being mentored by someone more experienced. My introduction to journalism, at the age of 15, was made by a courageous mentor named Frances Sweeney, the tough-as-nails publisher and editor of a small muckraking newspaper, the Boston City Reporter.

When Sweeney decided to expand the paper’s coverage from political corruption to an investigation of organized anti-Semitism in Boston — at the time the most anti-Semitic city in the country — she recruited a dozen Jewish teenagers to act as her volunteer undercover operatives. During our first meeting, as described in my memoir Boston Boy, she told us exactly what she expected:

“What I want from you is facts. A fact is something that can be proved, and you will bring me the proof with each fact you bring me. Anything that is not a fact is an opinion. I do not want your opinions. In this newspaper, only the editor has opinions, but they are of no use unless they are based on facts.”

Sweeney, a devout Irish Catholic, published editorials criticizing the Catholic Church for its silence on anti-Semitism, even after threats of excommunication from Boston’s Cardinal William O’Connell. Working with her transformed my life.

Which is why I was delighted to discover the global nonprofit Youth Journalism International (YJI), headquartered in West Hartford, Connecticut. It mentors young people in their teens and 20s from around the world in the art and ethics of journalism.

The husband and wife team of Steve Collins and Jackie Majerus started YJI in 1994 for students interested in pursuing a career in journalism. Slowly, this small, informal group grew to include students from other states and, eventually, started to receive inquiries from students in foreign countries. At the time, Steve and Jackie were both working full-time as reporters for the Bristol (Ct.) Press.

In 2011 Jackie was working on a story about the local hospital firing all of its emergency room doctors when she was told to stand down by her editor. The newspaper’s publisher, Michael Schroeder, had made a deal to kill Jackie’s story in exchange for a lucrative advertising contract with the hospital. Jackie felt she had no choice but to resign.

By then Steve and Jackie had incorporated YJI as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and Jackie became its volunteer executive director. She still doesn’t draw a salary.

Currently, YJI works with a group of 80 students from dozens of countries around the world; they publish their stories on YJI’s blog, its website and Facebook page. The students also interact with one another through a private Facebook group.

These journalists have reported on child labor in Pakistan, girls’ soccer in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the tsunami in Japan, the terror attacks in Paris, the Boston Marathon bombings and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. YJI also sponsors an annual International Youth Journalism contest.

Last month, Steve learned that Schroeder was the manager of a media group formed by Las Vegas billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to secretly purchase The Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper. Subsequent reporting by Review Journal staff and others alleged that Schroeder, at Adelson’s request, inserted an article into the Bristol Press critical of a Las Vegas judge presiding over one of Adelson’s lawsuits. The article was published under a fake byline and allegedly included plagiarized content.

“I woke up on Christmas Eve and I started to think about the students I teach at Youth Journalism International and what we try to teach them about ethics,” Steve told the Hartford Courant. He then began writing a post on his Facebook page accusing Schroeder of “journalistic misconduct of epic proportions” and abruptly resigned from his job at the Bristol Press.

“I have no idea how my wife and I will get by,” Steve wrote. “But here’s what I know: I can’t teach young people how to be ethical, upstanding reporters while working for a man like Michael Schroeder. I can’t take his money. I can’t do his bidding. I have to stand up for what is right even if the cost is so daunting that at this moment it scares the hell out of me.”

As Steve’s words were read to me, I could hear the voice of Frances Sweeney.

Steve is now using his free time to help Jackie raise funds for and run YJI as he looks for another job in journalism or teaching. A smart move for any university would be to hire Steve Collins and officially sponsor YJI.

Youth Journalism International relies entirely on individual contributions and is in desperate need of a volunteer development director to guide it through the maze of grant applications and philanthropic fundraising. (It has a waiting list of several thousand students that it can’t serve due to a lack of funding.)

This incredibly important, worthwhile organization should be supported by everyone who cares about quality, ethical journalism. For more information, go to HelpYJI.org.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.