Now even high school journalists are getting smeared with ‘fake news’ claim

A once-meaningful term of derision has filtered down from the highest office in the country to the halls of a New York City high school. Two student journalists, who have covered a controversy surrounding their interim principal only to see their efforts demeaned as “fake news” by a Department of Education official, are fighting back.

The editors of Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, have written a letter addressed to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and district superintendent Elaine Lindsey, refuting accusations that their reporting on interim principal Rosemarie Jahoda is “fake news.”

Related: ‘Fake news’ is dead

“To label our reporting as ‘fake’ is to disparage all the hard work we do,” The Classic’s Editor in Chief Sumaita Hasan and Managing Editor Mehrose Ahmad, both 17-year-old seniors, wrote in their letter. The Classic had previously published audio recordings of Jahoda questioning the use of interacting with students, livestreamed a sit-in in the principal’s office, and reported on a contentious meeting between Jahoda and the leaders of the school’s Muslim Student Association.

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The accusation that the student paper was publishing “fake news” was revealed by State Assembly members David Weprin and Nily Rozic. In a letter dated March 3, first reported by DNAinfo New York, Weprin and Rozic wrote that Frances DeSanctis, a representative for Superintendent Elaine Lindsey, told them the issues surrounding Jahoda’s leadership, were the result of “an environment in which ‘fake news’ is being widely circulated.”

Though DeSanctis did not single out The Classic specifically, the paper’s editors felt that the comments were directed at their work. “Since our reporting has been the most prominent during this controversy, it is reasonable to conclude that Ms. DeSanctis, speaking on behalf of the Superintendent and the Department of Education, means to refer to The Classic as ‘fake news.’” the editors wrote in their letter. “It’s frustrating, because it’s not like we didn’t get the other side’s story,” Ahmad told CJR. “We approached Ms. Johada numerous times for comment. From the DOE, we can only get comment from the press secretary.”

Frank LoMonte, Director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC, has been following Hasan and Ahmad’s work. “This is the first time we’ve heard of the ‘fake news’ weapon being turned on students,” LoMonte says. “It’s obviously a term that’s become devoid of meaning.”

“Fake news,” a phrase whose original, specific definition has been bastardized to the point of being meaningless, has been repeatedly levied as a cudgel by the President of the United States and his spokespeople. It’s been bandied about on cable news and deployed as a rhetorical weapon by those who simply wish to dismiss negative coverage. CJR recently reported on a State Senator in Colorado who faces a potential lawsuit for leveling the accusation against his hometown paper.

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Hassan sees a connection between the attack from the Department of Education and wider criticisms of the media. “It’s an issue we’ve seen with Trump’s new administration. He’s calling every valid news source fake just because it applies to him,” she told CJR. “[The DOE] is just calling the truth ‘fake’ because it’s not something positive.” A spokesman for the DOE did not immediately respond to CJR’s request for comment.

Hasan and Ahmad say that they’ve received overwhelming support from their community, and that interest in the student paper has skyrocketed. “Everyone has been very supportive,” Hasan says. “The teachers and faculty, even alumni from several years ago are supporting us.” And just as the criticism they’ve faced has mirrored that endured by national outlets, so has the support.  “We get pizza sent to our office sometimes,” Hasan says. “It’s been an amazing experience because everyone has been so encouraging. It really validates our work.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.