“But what does this have to do with school?” Jenny asked.
Mr. Portnoy leaned back in the chair at Jenny’s kitchen table and folded his arms over his chest. “I usually recommend that students try to find a connection back to their readership,” he explained, “but even in cases where there isn’t one, the experience of building investigative skills pursuing a story is invaluable. This is just the kind of thing I was hoping Madison would work on when I made her our reporter at large.”
Jenny scowled. “Can’t she get in trouble? I mean legally? For listening in on that conversation?”
The teacher reached down into his bag and pulled out some papers. He put them on the table in front of Madison’s mother. “I took the liberty of printing out some articles from the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is a non-profit out of DC that provides legal advice to student newspapers. This article goes over the legal issues you need to pay attention to when you are writing an exposé.” He tapped on the papers. Then he moved the top few pages to the side, exposing another article. “And this one gives a lot of good general advice on how to handle a hot story.”
“Hmm,” Jenny replied, still scowling.
“As for listening in, the legal precedent they give is that as long as you weren’t using extra technology, like a parabolic microphone or something, then reporting on something you overheard is okay.”
“I was just sitting in the next booth,” Madison offered. “And I didn’t record them. I just took notes.”
“Right, recording people without their permission can get you into hot water. And this article,” he tapped the second one, “emphasizes how important it is to have good notes. I’m confident that Madison is just fine, legally. It doesn’t mean she won’t be sued. But if she is, the school will back her, because she’s in the right.”
“I don’t know,” Jenny said.
Mr. Portnoy smiled. “Basically, reporters are allowed to do their jobs as long as they don’t break the law. I’m sure Madison wouldn’t trespass, or plant bugs, or do things like that.”
“Definitely not,” Madison lied.
Jenny turned her attention to her daughter. “Do you even have time for this? What about your classes?”
“It’s not that much time, mom,” Madison replied. “I’m just doing research on my computer. Googling stuff. Trying to figure out what’s going on, based on what I can find about the people involved. I don’t even know if there’s a story here. If it turns out that it’s something completely harmless, I’ll just toss the whole thing in the trash.”
“Did you tell her about the guns and the drugs?” Mr. Portnoy asked Madison.
“Mom, there are guns and drugs,” Madison said. Then she turned to Mr. Portnoy, “Yeah.”
“What?” Jenny exclaimed. “I thought you said this was about some old people at IHOP. Where do the guns and drugs come into it?”
“I don’t know yet. They are stockpiling groceries, medical stuff, drugs, money, and guns. I mean… that last part is what makes this story interesting, right?”
Jenny’s jaw went slack. She looked to Mr. Portnoy, who shrugged, then back to Madison. She said nothing. The group was silent for a while.
“Do you think she should do this?” Jenny asked the teacher. “What would you say if she was your daughter?”
Mr. Portnoy nodded, “Definitely. I’m here because she’s a minor… in loco parentis. As her teacher, I felt it was important to keep you informed. And whether you want her to keep going or stop? Well that’s entirely your call. But if she were my daughter, I’d do whatever I could to support her as she chases this story. From what I know so far, it could be big. I’ll be honest with you—the government conspiracy angle sounds far-fetched. The government is terrible at keeping conspiracies secret.”
“Because a reporter overhears it at an IHOP, for example?” Madison chided.
Mr. Portnoy laughed. “Point taken. But still. That part will need a lot more evidence. And that evidence might be impossible to find.”
Jenny scowled, as though that wasn’t the answer she was hoping for. “There’s no urgency, right?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Madison replied.
“I mean, if you publish this story in a month or in six months, it doesn’t really matter. You can take your time if you need to.”
Madison shrugged. “I guess that’s true. I mean, except I want the scoop.”
Mr. Portnoy smiled and nodded. “We love the scoop,” he conceded.
Jenny looked at him and then back to Madison. “How about we let it sit? You don’t give the story up, but you shift your focus back to school work awhile. Don’t push it too hard.”
“But mom,” Madison protested.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Mr. Portnoy agreed. “There’s another story that came down from the administration. I thought it might be a good fit for Madison’s interests. It involves environmentalism. Maybe you back-burner this big story and work on that one awhile?”
Madison sat back and folded her arms over her chest. “Fine,” she said. She knew that there was no point arguing. Her mother had already laid down her decree.
Jenny picked up the articles that Mr. Portnoy had brought and started to skim them. “Being a reporter on a student newspaper has changed since I was in school,” she said. “I was on my school paper,” she said, looking to Mr. Portnoy. “Did you know that Madison?” she said, now looking at her daughter.
“No,” Madison replied.
“Yeah. I was a copy editor mostly. But I also did some stories when they needed someone to cover. We just reported on the results of the football games or a profile of the new student teacher. Stuff like that. We didn’t do investigative journalism.”
“It’s still like that at a lot of schools,” Mr. Portnoy said. “But things are changing. With the internet and social media, kids are really plugged in to what’s going on. And they are reading a lot more investigative pieces on their own. Like Madison here, they say ‘that’s what I want to do.’ They want to make a difference.”
Jenny fixed Mr. Portnoy with her gaze. “It’s scary,” she said. “My little girl keeps growing up and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Oh geez, mom,” Madison protested. “I’m literally right here.”