Wherever you position yourself on the political spectrum, yesterday’s anonymous New York Times opinion piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” was bombshell news. I think a good deal of the shock around the essay has more to do with how it came to be published than it does with the content itself. The Times identifies the author as a “senior official in the Trump administration,” and while journalists have a long and storied history of using anonymous sources in their reporting, anonymity is rarely given to opinion writers. When you read the piece, as you no doubt have by now, you either had your worst fears about President Trump confirmed by a courageous whistleblower or you were appalled by the insolence of a disgruntled employee, too afraid to attach his or her name to the accusations. Maybe you even dismissed the source out of hand as a liar who falsified events and exaggerated access to the president. I’m not here to moderate that debate, but I do see the Times piece as a great conversation starter with students about the risks and rewards of anonymous sourcing in journalism.
When our seventh grade U.S. history teacher found out I was interested in news history, and particularly in how competing perspectives influence narrative in the news, he invited me to lend a hand with his annual John Brown research project. Every year, he asks his students to investigate the life of John Brown, culminating in his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution, and write a persuasive argument stating whether he was a martyr or a terrorist. I was thrilled to be asked to help curate resources for this project and was particularly excited to dive into old newspapers.
I’m always on the lookout for articles that will help my students practice their evaluation skills. My preference is for anything intriguing that manages to dodge politics. Even better if the article challenges advice I’ve given students regarding how to determine a source’s credibility. Newsweek’s July 20th article by Aristos Georgiou describing the controversy around recent DNA testing of the Atacama mummy does all of that and so much more.
I want students to have expectations of journalistic standards, which continue to evolve over time but still tend to embody some sense of duty to citizens, the regular folks like you and me. I think it’s important for students to appreciate that tradition of watchdog journalism and how it relates to our democracy. Honestly, this watchdog role is the reason most of us put up with today’s scurrilous news media. No matter how much they annoy us, we count on journalists to watch out for us, holding the powerful and negligent accountable even if the law fails to do so. This is why we respect the institution of journalism, defend its reputation, but also hold it accountable. I want students to know how to hold their journalists accountable.