BY JAMES FARRELL
The students behind Townsend Harris High School’s student-run newspaper, The Classic, don’t take allegations of “fake news” lightly.
The paper’s staff has been on the frontlines of the school community’s ongoing effort to remove controversial interim-acting principal Rosemarie Jahoda, utilizing sources from within the school to break some of the controversy’s earliest developments.
So, when a representative from the district’s superintendent office dismissed many of the reports about Jahoda as “fake news” and maintained support for Jahoda as a candidate for the permanent principal position, the paper’s staff defended its reporting in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Carmen Farina and District 26 Superintendent Elaine Lindsey.
“In this political climate, where the media is persecuted by the new president’s administration, it has never been more important to uphold the principle of honesty in journalism,” the letter reads.
It’s the second time in recent weeks that Townsend Harris High School students have addressed City Hall directly. On Feb. 24, students held a rally outside City Hall calling for Jahoda’s removal and a more transparent principal selection process.
The “fake news” comments were allegedly made by a representative for the superintendent’s office, Frances DeSanctis, during a March 3 District 26 leadership team meeting. The comments were referred to in a letter to Farina from Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Flushing) and Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) that was published online by DNAinfo. In the letter, the Assembly members expressed concerns that the “fake news” comments disregard the community’s strong opposition to Jahoda.
“While Ms. DeSanctis acknowledged community concern, she did so while referencing the current environment in which ‘fake news’ is being widely circulated,” the letter reads.
While DeSanctis’ comments did not mention The Classic by name, the paper has been responsible for breaking nearly every development in the story. It was enough to convince the paper’s editors to act.
“The term’ fake news’ wasn’t used exclusively to label our newspaper,” said Classic Managing Editor Mehrose Ahmad, who signed the letter along with Editor-in-Chief Sumaita Hasan. “But I do think it’s common sense that it would apply to us because we reported the most stories and the most allegations in the most timely fashion.”
Several local media outlets have cited Classic reports in reporting the Jahoda story. The issue first became public after students held a sit-in protest against Jahoda, which the paper documented in a live Facebook video.
The Classic’s reporters said that their coverage was necessary to document the school’s concerns about Jahoda, especially after the sit-in, when Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro asked for “evidence” of problems with Jahoda, according to Ahmed and Hasan.
“We thought, as reporters, we were the only ones who could provide truthful evidence,” said Hasan.
The Classic responded to the accusation of “fake news” because its staff felt that it undermined the heavy workload they take on to ensure the accuracy of their work. The paper’s staff works up to 20 extra hours per week on stories for the paper. And Hasan and Ahmad said that reporters always work to independently confirm information, especially when it comes from anonymous sources, and reach out to both sides of an issue.
“We were upset, we were angry, because we felt demeaned,” said Hasan. “I feel like a lot of people might think that we’re not real journalists because we’re in high school, but I feel like we’re doing some real reporting, since all of these outlets are using our sources as a primary source. And my co-editors and I, we really, truly work hard to confirm every detail of every article.”
When asked to comment on the “fake news” claims, city Department of Education spokesman Will Mantell reiterated the agency’s commitment to considering community feedback.
“Feedback from students and school communities is essential for strong schools,” he said. “We continue to listen to feedback from the Townsend Harris community and will review the letter.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.