Interview by Devin Yingling, Communications Fellow at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In the Student Press Law Center’s series, Behind the Story, we highlight examples of bold journalism done by high school and college student journalists across the country.
SPLC spoke with student journalists Dani Klein and Ethan Schenker from The Black & White newspaper at Walt Whitman High School, Maryland. Schenker, Online Editor-in-Chief, and Klein, Feature Writer, shared what it was like putting together Klein’s story, “‘It’s getting closer and closer’: Debate team takes stock after students’ antisemitic comments on club trip.”
Klein reported a series of stories about the uptick in antisemitic incidents in Whitman’s community and this piece specifically investigated an incident when two students on Whitman’s Debate team allegedly made a series of antisemitic comments about their Jewish teammates during an off-campus team trip.
In the process of finalizing the story, The Black & White connected with SPLC’s free legal hotline where they received a pre-publication review of the piece.
Did you know? If you’ve been working on a long-term, investigative, sensitive or controversial story, SPLC attorneys can provide a free pre-publication review to flag any potential legal problems or risks. We’ll walk you through the best practices to avoid libel and other pitfalls. Just contact the hotline.
Devin Yingling: The Washington Post first picked up this story about this antisemitic incident on the Debate team. Dani, how did that influence and inform the way you went into the reporting process?
Dani Klein: The story being reported on by the Washington Post was definitely like the go button for that story. As high school usually works, sometimes there are rumors going around about things that we would report on but we can’t substantiate them. But when something like the Washington Post is talking about something, then we feel like we’re absolutely within our bounds and actually within our responsibility to search and go a lot deeper as we are able to because we actually go to this school. So that was like the catalyst for okay, now we need to really cover this from the angle of Whitman High School.
It also really affected the culture around the story because it wasn’t like the people that we were talking to didn’t know about the Post’s story. Administrators, students, everyone kind of heard about the Washington Post coverage, so people all had their places they were coming from and it made staff members actually a lot more cautious because they already knew there was a lot of light being shined on the school.
DY: Your staff had been covering antisemitic issues around your school for a bit before this story, so how did that play into how this story came about?
DK: Ethan worked with me on all of those stories, but I did happen to cover pretty much all of the news stories that we were doing on antisemitism. The very first thing was there was a nearby community area that was defaced with antisemitic graffiti, and I covered that along with a fellow writer in terms of talking about antisemitism in the community and how it feels like it’s getting closer and getting more common. And then, I guess it was about a few weeks later that there was actually graffiti on our own school sign which I wrote the news story for. That was very jarring. Before and after those incidents, there was a lot of content from our school-wide social justice initiative that we have about antisemitism. From there, it kind of was natural that I would cover the Debate story as well because it had now become unfortunately a trend in our school in our community that there was a lot of antisemitism coverage.
It was just really weird and uncomfortable to be a member of a community that we don’t expect to have these huge waves of hate. It’s not one of those things that people here are super ignorant about. It was definitely really uncomfortable to have to cover so many events going on in such rapid succession in one year against one group.
DY: At the bottom of your story, you have the disclaimers about staff involvement with Debate and Speech. As members of the school community and having these different interests and activities you’re a part of, how did you navigate being a reporter and a part of those groups as well?
Ethan Schenker: In journalism, we all recognize that how we hear things is very important because to be reliable student journalists, ideally you’re able to delineate when you’re hearing things and getting information as a reporter. You can’t break the news you hear in passing in the hall, someone whispering something in the other person’s ear, and this story kind of started out like that because we’d heard bits and pieces of it.
I did Debate from freshman through junior year, and I just became a lot more involved with The Black & White. I was going to actually go to a Debate tournament in January. And when I heard about this happening, I was just like, no, I’m not going to pay dues this year, I’m not doing that, I need to stay as far away as possible. And I think that’s the approach we all took. In order to remain professional and credible we need to be seen as student journalists who can put out accurate reporting before our own kind of interest in the activity.
While it’s never easy to put that kind of disclaimer, we thought that it was very important to do so because of how we want other students to see the way we’re taking our journalistic responsibilities seriously.
DK: I was in Speech and Debate and I already left Debate for unrelated reasons, but I knew a lot about the culture and a lot of the negative impacts of the culture of that specific group. Ethan was part of it for longer than I was, but he knew all about that too, and we have people in The Black and White who are also part of that and are still involved in Debate. So, it was important that we didn’t use our knowledge of that culture to make us feel like we knew exactly what had happened. We still had to figure out what had happened and uncover what had happened even if we had our suspicions. It’s still important to uncover the exact facts of what actually happened.
On the other hand, it actually could be useful at some points to know how that culture worked. It was both difficult to sort out but also very informative to know these people and have gone to school with them for so long.
DY: For other student journalists who are in your position of reporting on stories like this, do you have any tips for them about how they could go about navigating these conflicts and challenges?
DK: Earlier in the year, I just hadn’t talked to our principal because maybe I was intimidated, maybe I thought that he wouldn’t have anything to say on the issue. But one thing that was really helpful to this story, to future stories, and to just my understanding of the whole situation was that I spoke to the principal. That interview was actually really important because he gave me a wider perspective and also opened up a lot of important avenues that I had to really investigate more. So a tip to other journalists in this kind of situation would be don’t back away from the source that could possibly add something because it could be extremely important to this story and to the path of the entire reporting process on the issue.
ES: Speak to all the interested parties. Even if what they say could open the door even wider and you’re trying to get a story out, if you know someone’s waiting behind that door and you still don’t open it, it’s not necessarily fulfilling your responsibility as a journalist.
DY: Dani, going back to a previous answer you gave, you noted that some sources after that Post story came out were a little wary to talk about things. What did the information-gathering process look like while you were working on the story?
DK: Part of what we were reporting on was the school’s response, which was pretty quick and extremely messy. And inside the school’s response, there was actually a lot going on in terms of students feeling like they couldn’t say something because they had been warned not to by teachers, or administrators were shutting me out because it was an active investigation. So there were a lot of places I was going where I was finding people who weren’t willing to speak or only willing to speak anonymously.
One of the biggest things for me was that every single person who was in a restorative justice session that I was reporting on were told that they could not speak about what happened in that room, or they could be removed from the Debate team. So the fact that I was able to get people to talk about what happened in that room, it had to be anonymous.
Editor’s Note: Restorative justice sessions are a method of conflict resolution. In response to this incident, Whitman Debate leadership partnered with the Montgomery County Public School’s Restorative Justice Unit to hold three sessions that all Debate team members had to attend.
On the other side, there are rules about privacy for minors and investigations of disciplinary issues in schools that made it possible for administrators to just refuse to speak on the issue at all, which was really frustrating because Ethan and I knew exactly what happened and I just wanted to hear what they were thinking or what they were doing and they refused to speak about it at all.
DY: So once you did gather all that information and you had what you needed to sit down and write, what did your process look like?
DK: It was only, technically, my second news story ever. So I definitely was pushing the reporting along, but I had a lot of help in terms of the writing. The situation was changing so drastically every single day and there was so much more information coming out every single day that I could have pursued for hours or days. And my adviser and Ethan were both telling me, at some point you just have to stop and click publish and write a follow-up if that has to happen. That was a really difficult lesson to learn and that was probably the hardest part of the writing process. At some point, I just had to stop and let it be final.
ES: That was something that was very hard for all of us because we always want to be at the front of what’s happening and put it out there as it’s happening. So to be able to find that point at which what we’re putting out is all the information that’s available at that point, when there’s so much new information always coming out, made for some difficult judgment calls, but they’re ones that we all just put our heads together to make. Dani was still doing reporting even as we published and the response that administrators were taking was pivoting so quickly based on community response. There were a lot of things that could almost be seen as the story, so how do you all package it together?
DK: Another thing about student journalism that was so great and so evidenced by this story, is a lot of us weren’t big fans of The Washington Post coverage because when you’re so close to an issue, the kind of aloof way that the major news outlets report on things that take our school by storm can sometimes be frustrating. So we felt like we were responsible for coloring in every single possible detail because we felt like we owed it to the student body to the parents, the community. We also wanted to hold certain people accountable that weren’t being held accountable by the broader coverage that had been done by the Washington Post.
We had that exigence as student journalists because our community is all in this building, or connected to someone in this building. So me, Ethan and multiple other people related to the Black & White were skipping classes on that one day to get this all done. I was on the phone with some parents, doing interviews, getting calls and it definitely felt like something that you would do if it was your full-time job. That was really inspiring to me, that it was so important to us as a publication to get out all this information. It was a lot of effort and a lot of passion for what we were about to put out and what we eventually did put out.
DY: What tips and advice would you give to other students who are also multitasking, trying to do all these things at once and report on such an important story?
DK: If I didn’t have Ethan in this situation, I would have been screwed because I didn’t have the knowledge that I would need just on the news basis. I had the ability to push so many things through but I didn’t necessarily have the skeleton. That was what Ethan with his broad experience with a variety of stories, including news, was able to give me. It’s just so important to have someone probably older than you, depending on how your student publication works, that has experience in this that while you’re getting all the colors and all the details…they can tell you where to put them and how to shape them most accurately.
Obviously, you’re going to have an editor but it’s important that you have someone who’s also a mentor. If you’re writing something important, it’s important to have people who can support all the parts of that process, the reporting, facts gathering, research. Obviously having the SPLC supporting you in what ways you can disclose information. All those things, I would have been lost without Ethan and my adviser.
DY: It’s been a couple of months since your story ran. What impact did you see your original story have on the community?
DK: I think that there can be rumors in a school, but I think the reputation of The Black & White is such that when we report on it, it becomes more than a rumor. I think it was significant to the people in this school who didn’t really think it was funny and thought it was actually really serious that these comments had been made. It was really helpful in the community to legitimize the things that people were hearing and also delegitimize some of the ridiculous things that have been spun, which happens in high school.
People felt like no consequences had been given and people were frustrated about that. At least us covering it so that people knew what happened was, I think, a really powerful force and making people feel like they had gotten justice that the administrators weren’t able to give them.
DY: In a previous conversation, Ethan said this story provided validation to the Debate students affected by these comments which I thought was really interesting. Do you either of you want to expand on that?
DK: I think that a lot of those students were formally or informally told that they couldn’t confirm or deny any of the rumors that they were hearing even though a lot of people were turning to them for more information or for, you know, juicy gossip. So I think that that was a group that was very relieved by the fact that The Black and White was able to put out information. Everything’s flying around the hallways, but then The Black and White releases a report on all of the true facts that actually happened. I think it probably took a lot of weight off those students who were already under so much stress and pressure about the actual incident that had occurred.
DY: What are the biggest things that you took away while working on this story from your respective positions as the reporter and as the editor?
DK: It’s not that public shaming is the answer or that legitimizing rumors is the answer to put these people in their place. But when people hear what the truth is and they’re able to form their own opinions based on factual information, I think we actually see a community opinion emerge whereas that wasn’t possible when you were hearing the most ludicrous stuff surrounding these names and these people in this event.
ES: It’s important to always be looking for places that you can, as an editor, support writers and reporters in really any way possible even without taking the role of a writer or a reporter. The all-hands-on-deck approach is what’s really necessary for a story like this, and I think by employing that you’re able to put out what we did.
DY: Is there anything we didn’t chat about in terms of your story or your process for the story that you’d like to share?
DK: One thing that I would add is I was super intimidated when I got the first ask from Ethan to cover anything antisemitism-related because I was a feature writer. But now that I look back on it, I feel so lucky to have been the reporter that went deepest into antisemitism. A lot of the time, I think about what would have happened if I had said sorry, I’m busy today, give it to the news writer. I’m just really glad that I jumped onto this journey. And that’s the biggest piece of advice I would give to any reporter: If you get an opportunity to do a story that scares you, you should do it.