February 8, 2021 / Coverage

Covering Controversial Issues Takes Thoughtful Planning and Coverage

Written by Jon Bickel

We’re bombarded with news stories every single day, and as scholastic journalists it can be difficult to know how to cover these events properly. We reached out to the yearbook program at Eastern Lebanon County High School in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, for input from two of its members. This article is by adviser Jon Bickel. Be sure to check out the other article by Lucy Bickel, his editor and daughter.

The Capitol insurrection, GameStop, to vaccinate or not, UK and South African variants of the COVID-19 virus, election results and impeachment 2.0 – 2021 picked up where 2020 left off. As a yearbook staff, how should you cover these events in your yearbook? The answer, VERY CAREFULLY!

The most important thing is to be fair and balanced from the student perspective. I can’t say this enough. Also, please check out Mike Taylor, CJE, and Jim Jordan’s recent webinar discussing this topic. It is excellent and worth the time, and they list several great organizations with resources including the Student Press Law Center, JEA and NSPA.

I have been a yearbook adviser for 25 years. I have been very fortunate to have an administration that supports student journalism, and I have never had to submit yearbook pages for prior review. I want to keep it this way.

Before assigning students to cover current events, my staff does an exercise where we look at CNN’s website and Fox News’ website on the same day for media bias.  This is a great place to start for a yearbook student planning a current events page. For this blog, I am going to choose Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol insurrection. Both CNN and Fox News websites condemned violence, and both news organizations showed pictures of people breaking into the Capitol. At least here is common ground and may be a good place to start. From there though, the two sides start to differ, and we as yearbook staffs need to cover both.

Before creating a yearbook spread on current events, it’s important to start with a survey. Here’s where the Fair and Balanced comes in. Some questions for the survey could include:

  • What are your thoughts on the Capitol Riots?
  • Do you feel it was justified to impeach President Trump for a second time on charges of inciting the riots? Why or why not?

Avoid loaded words or words with an opinion or a positive or negative connotation as much as possible in the questions, as well as any copy on the yearbook spread.

When surveying the students in a normal school year, it’s important to survey 20% of all cross sections, meaning boys and girls in different grades and academic levels. With many schools being remote because of COVID-19, this may be much more challenging. Our school uses a platform called Schoology where the principal can send a survey to all students. The students have the choice to answer the survey. If students respond to the survey with ridiculous answers like Bugs Bunny or Thanos, we discard their survey results and count the ones with normal responses.

The nice thing about Schoology is that students write their responses. We have exactly what they answered in writing, which is great so students are not misquoted. If we need more information, we can always send them another Schoology message or we can call them or use social media.

Sometimes it may be challenging, but try and get at least three students on both sides of the issue on the yearbook spread. This shows that your coverage is fair and balanced. We also like to include their photos in a cutout to get more students in the yearbook. For example, you may get three students who believe the President should be impeached and three against impeachment. The important thing is to remain fair and balanced and to get as many student responses as possible on the spread.

Once we have the results, it’s time to design. We are very careful when choosing photographs that are not our own. Creative Commons is a good place to start for copyright free images. Flickr and Wikimedia Commons are also good places to search. Keep in mind that the photographer may not want money, but he or she may still want an attribution for taking the photo.

Finally, create the spread in a fair and balanced manner. We try to cover both sides equally when possible. This includes images, copy and captions.

2021 will keep the surprises coming. And that’s fine, but we as student journalists and advisers will be ready to cover these events from a student perspective in a way that is fair and balanced. As divided as our nation is politically, it’s important to cover the important issues in the yearbook in a way that is respectful, accurate and informative.  


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Jon Bickel

Jon Bickel is the yearbook adviser at Eastern Lebanon County High School in Myerstown, Pennsylvania