Posts made in October 30th, 2009

Self-censorship is scariest of all

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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

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