All week I’ve heard plans for creepy costume parties, haunted house visits and horror film marathons. But as Halloween weekend approaches, there’s something much scarier on my mind.
It’s scary how many media staffs and their advisers are under fire right now for doing exactly what they set out to do: report on issues of impact and interest to their students. The current situation at Timberland High School in Wentzville, Mo. is just one example of many. Stories of little consequence, such as the homecoming court or club happenings, rarely draw attention. But the ones that matter — the ones that have potential to help students — come under fire at an alarming rate, despite thorough research, credible sources and top-notch student reporting.
It’s scary when kids grapple with these big issues and how to cover them well. But it’s even scarier when they don’t. Good journalism — and the whole part about critical thinking, student leadership and free expression — stops when kids decide to censor themselves.
All too often I hear my kids during staff brainstorming sessions say things like, “People would freak out if we covered that,” or “[Insert administrator names] would give us a really hard time if we did that.” Despite frequent discussion of media law and a dissection of the ed code, I still hear, “We can’t do that, can we?”
In most cases, they can. And in many cases, they should. It’s easy to see why kids might be inclined to shy away from the good stories, the real stories. After all, many advisers share updates in class of programs facing censorship and use these as teachable moments. We read the controversial articles, discuss the situations and follow the stories over an extended period of time. Kids are interested and engage in meaningful discussion, but I realized lately that they might not be taking away the message we think we’re sending. Do our students come away inspired and empowered, or are they afraid of censorship, administrative retaliation or the risk of losing a beloved adviser?
Scary possibilities, to be sure.
We can combat self-censorship with a few simple strategies:
(1) Continue to expose students to outstanding journalism, both from students and from the pros. Read it, discuss it, analyze it. Nothing beats an important story done well.
(2) When students begin to talk themselves out of a sensitive story topic, encourage them to revisit your mission statement and/or editorial policies. Teach students to weigh the options: how many readers might be helped or touched by this story? What’s the potential for good here? How far might this story reach?
(3) Get outside your school bubble. You know your school community, yes, but have you looked at how other student media have covered similar stories? Are others in your city, state, region affected by the same topics? Is there an opportunity to learn from the experience of others? Collaborate?
(4) Point to a wide variety of resources so students have support. When students feel confident in their research and reporting skills, they’re confident tackling bigger stories. Establish a team-oriented staff culture so that students have peers willing to help with research and interviewing. Good student journalists know how much work is involved in getting a story right; they might talk themselves out of tackling the topic because they know a sensitive story often involves extra effort. Again, work together.
(5) Make sure students understand how to utilize expert assistance from the SPLC and feel comfortable doing so. Consider role-playing sample scenarios in class. Encourage student editors to create a plan in the event that a situation arises. It’s like a fire drill — we don’t expect to be in a fire but we practice the drill and know how to call 911 if we need to. Then we’re free to go about our daily lives and focus on what matters.
If staffers have a plan in place, covering a potentially controversial subject doesn’t seem so scary.
Sarah Nichols, MJE
John Bowen spoke about some of the problems with prior review and the censorship it can lead to in his Oct. 25th post and an earlier one. However, another problem is more subtle than blatant censorship. It is self-censorship by student editors. Why go to the all the work of planning, researching, interviewing, providing art work and layout design, etc. for a great story when the principal will just pull it anyway because the subject is controversial?
However, it is this type of story that leads to the most learning in a journalism class and make the class come alive, eager to learn to write and research better. The skills learned are life skills that will help the student no matter what profession he or she finally chooses. Learning to plan, to interview face to face, and to write and present information in a way that peers will clearly understand are “sellable skills.” Aren’t skills like those what we educators should be teaching our students? Aren’t teaching these skills what schools should be encouraging instead of undermining?
Prior review leads to less learning. Learning more, not less is what schools should be promoting.
Fern Valentine, MJE
One of the few academic studies of body art, “Tattoos and Body Piercings in the United States: A National Data Set,” shows 24 percent of respondents had tattoos…and that was 2006. USA News & World Report said this fall parlors for such art are “one of America’s fastest growing categories of retail business, with nearly one tattoo shop opening each day.”
It’s a big deal, right? And, while the stats haven’t caught up with what’s happening to teens now, it’s a good bet kids are getting inked at a pretty speedy rate. Sometimes that’s legal, and sometimes it’s not, depending on their age, the state’s laws and possible parental consent.
So it sounds like a great topic for student media. What is legal and what isn’t? Need parental consent? Why students get tattoos? Safety and health issues? And… for a follow-up — long-term effects? Regrets those who got tattoos have? Pain and cost of removal? Employer reactions? Plenty to cover.
Not so, say at least some school administrators.
Recently, the Timberland High School principal in Wentzville, Mo., pulled first a spread with photos and text about tattoos. Later, he told The Wolf’s Howl staff to pull ads for a local tattoo parlor, a client with a full-year contract, meaning a loss of several hundred dollars.
His excuse, editor-in-chief Nikki McGee told the Student Press Law Center Web site reporter: This falls in the category of “drugs, alcohol and etc.” and thus is censorable. McGee told the SPLC she had yet to receive an answer to her request to define “etc.”
A Kentucky newspaper adviser shared his concern when his principal wanted to cut an article about teacher and student tattoos. The tattoo photos weren’t really the issue — the principal seemed more concerned about teachers who said they got theirs “with their husband’s gambling money” or in a trade for a beer. “I don’t see any possibility of this article causing a great disruption,” the adviser said to a listerv.
This concern with tattoos isn’t exactly new. In 2005, Oak Ridge (Tenn.) High School principal objected to photos of students with tattoos, partly, she said, because the girl’s parents didn’t know she had such body art.
Thus tattoos may be increasingly popular, and teens may want and even need to know more about them. At the moment, though, consider this topic along with sex and drugs as something to cover with care and professionalism. Be prepared to explain why it is an important topic and worth the ink….and then be prepared to call the SPLC.
… When will it end?
At least three more recent situations should make one think about the educational validity of prior review:
• One, in Missouri, concerns a story on tattoos. It also led to students changing the content of their paper.
• The second, in Ohio, concerns an obituary and photo. According to the Student Press Law Center, the principal said she knew it was censorship and did not care.
• The third concerns a principal changing quotes while reviewing. Hopefully, we will have more information on this soon.
Of course, some of these don’t involve just review. Review leads to restraint, without consideration of the education implications.
When will it end?
When we agree it has no educational value and convince our various communities to no longer support its use.
We’d love to hear from you if your student media are open forums for student expression by policy and/or practice.
For student media to be designated as a public/student forum, the school must either: • Have a school board- or administrator-enacted policy stating students make final content decisions of protected speech*, or
• Have a student media-generated policy declaring students make all final content decisions and also indicating/verifying that practice has been in effect at least two years, and there is no district or building policy that directly contradicts that practice. During that time, no adult, including the adviser, other faculty members, administrators or publication boards have dictated or changed content
In both situations, the advisers may, as part of the coaching process, offer advice and comment, but not make final content decisions
* The policy can still limit unprotected speech such as libel, obscenity and substantially disruptive material, but it must give other content control to the students
We are updating our Google Maps of forum schools and would like to include all that qualify. In several recent instances, people sought a more precise number of open forums to show administrators or others that such forums were viable.
You can submit your forum status by going here and completing the information. We will then get back to you with a few additional questions.
To see our Google Maps of schools with reported censorship or review issues, go here.
To report censorship or related issues, go here.