April 11, 2017

Putting credentialed journalists to shame, in between Pre-Calc and Homeroom


Rigorous fact-checking has been discovered someplace you might not expect it: a high school newspaper.

Coming off of the 2016 election, during which fake news articles were retweeted by both the son and the campaign manager of a presidential candidate, and fake news strongly outperformed real news, media outlets are under heightened pressure to check facts and confirm sources. Luckily for humanity, the next generation of journalists seems to be taking the threat to public information seriously, as Samantha Schmidt reports for the Washington Post. A group of reporters and editors at the Booster Redux, the student newspaper of Pittsburg High School in southeastern Kansas, is being credited with ousting the school’s newly hired head principal after uncovering a slew of discrepancies in her credentials.

Amy Robertson, who was hired on March 6, resigned on April 4, after the Redux on March 31 published an investigative article, the result of several weeks’ sleuthing, that raised questions over Robertson’s degrees and previous work experience. The piece, written by five juniors and one senior, uncovered that Robertson’s graduate school, Corllins University, where she claimed to have received two of her postgraduate degrees, is a diploma mill with no working internet address. The article also brought to light that not only is the university not accredited by the Department of Education, it is also not accredited by the Better Business Bureau, which lists its physical address as “unknown.”

When the intrepid team of barely post-pubescents held a conference call with Robertson to clear up some of these mysteries, she “presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses.” And while Robertson later told the Kansas City Star that all three of her degrees “have been authenticated by the U.S. government,” an emergency faculty meeting on Tuesday revealed that Robertson was unable to provide a transcript confirming even her undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa. On Thursday, Chance Hoener of the local Morning Sun (which had repeatedly credited the Booster Redux in its own coverage of the story) picked up where the busy high schoolers had left off, confirming not only that Robertson’s degree from Corllins was bogus, but also that her undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa was a total fabrication.

In a statement released by the school district, Robertson admitted no wrongdoing but said she “felt it was in the best interest of the district to resign her position.” The school board has accepted her resignation.

The Redux story, which began as a feel-good “welcome” piece, quickly morphed into something much more sinister, and the students found themselves researching their new principal’s overseas teaching history in addition to her educational background. Although they were encouraged by their adviser, Emily Smith, as well as by the district superindendent, they did receive pushback from several individuals, as Smith told Schmidt when they spoke for the Post article.

The persistence and fearlessness of the teenagers is being rewarded; parents have requested that the students be recognized by school officials, and the superintendent was scheduled to meet with them Wednesday to personally thank them. On Thursday, they appeared on Good Morning America. In addition, major news outlets are lauding the reporters, from David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post to Todd Wallack, an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe — truly exciting affirmation, considering the staff of the Redux had watched Spotlight in class last year.

Is there a minimum age to win a Pulitzer?




Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.