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Students speak out about cancellation of SGA elections

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE Series

Students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC, spoke out when a faculty committee chose officers for the upcoming student government offices instead of holding an election. That misstep caught the attention of The Beacon staff who wrote about the injustice in several issues. By the end to the year, the coverage in The Beacon resulted in a reversal of the decision,  thus reinstating the election process to the school.

Adviser, Mary Stapp shared “In our September issue The Wilson Beacon wrote about the school’s administration changing the process of Student Government Association elections, including an editorial on p. 4. Instead of having students elect their leaders, administrators decided to appoint leaders themselves. Before the Beacon reported on it, no one knew how SGA officers had been [s]elected. In our April issue, Opinions Editor Christina Harn reflected on the “Lack of Leadership Opportunities” (p.5). Our June issue reported the resulting “SGA Elections Reinstated,” after the principal widely acknowledged the importance of the student voice and the meaning of democracy.”

See the packages the Beacon staff shared in the September and April issues.

Student voice in publications and student government makes a difference in schools. The Beacon staff made a difference by bringing the process of student elections back to the students instead of a faculty committee.

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A newsroom guide for handling online comments

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“The New York Times and The Washington Post have the two smartest teams of lawyers and editors in the world, and they’ve come to opposite conclusions. The Times is a review first/post later system and The Post is a post first/takedown later system. So there’s no industry standard or consensus.”  – Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center

• Basically, there are two approaches for moderation of online comments:
– Post first and then take comments down if they are inappropriate
– Moderate and only post those that meet criteria

A third option, of course, is to allow no comments at all, but that runs counter to media serving as a forum for public expression.

For the most part, the same principles apply to handling comments as with handling letters to the editor in print or guest commentary in broadcast or online, including verification of sources and information. Once the decision is made to publish user comments or responses, label them clearly, keeping in mind your journalistic credibility and commitment to accuracy.

• How to handle inappropriate comments  (*see model policy below)
Pulling down posted comments looks like censorship. And if you allow comments to be posted without moderating them first, you create the potential of incorrect and legally dangerous comments being captured/cached and available forever. Why publish something that jeopardizes your media’s ability to serve your community and then remove it after complaints or realizing it’s inappropriate?  It’s all about the policy you establish, the atmosphere you seek to create on your site and your ability and willingness to enforce your rules and standards.  Remember, if you edit comments and change the intent or meaning you are legally responsible for their content, according to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.

• Criteria for comments
Just as you need a policy for letters to the editor, you need a policy for determining when you will allow comments.  Consider: Staffs can be responsible for the content of comments posted by others on their sites despite some special legal protections that exist in the online arena.

Ideally, those making comments will use real, verifiable names and email addresses.  If they don’t, commenters could remain anonymous if the student editor knows their real names. Approving content ahead of time is not prior review because it is done by the student staff, not school officials. Anonymous comments should be taken down after a short time

Use of real names is an ethical issue. Knowing who a person is can give comments clarity, meaning and context, and add credibility. Because part of the impact of using comments is about creating community where all can participate and feel safe, knowing identities generates trust in the commenter and the comment. Search engines pick up comments as if they were content, so you have an obligation not to spread falsehood; information must be verified

• Be upfront and transparent about your policy and explain it thoroughly
Student media can establish a forum by setting ground rules of prior approval/rejection without changing content unless cleared with the author. Do not edit or revise comment content. Revisions should be made by the author.

Once posted, comments or information should not be removed for transparency, accuracy and reality in terms of establishing a historical record.

• Establish a procedure for handling comments
Appoint an online editor and staff to vet comments (which means training for that staff on how to handle comments). Online comments should be signed with verifiable addresses and IDs that are verifiable. Require real names or IDs known by student editors or identify who will verify the names and identification before publication

Study other media, including The New York Times, The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post, for guidelines as part of the process of setting up a policy. Decide what is permissible in comments ahead of time and clearly publicize the criteria. An example would be no personal attacks. Also publish a statement that a student “editor” will contact the poster for information, clarification, to have writer correct grammar, etc.

* A model policy section for handling comments might look like this, with content adapted from The Washington Post , The Poynter Institute and introductory wording modeled on The New York Times:

Model Comment Policy

We moderate comments to enable readers to share, without abusing others, informed and intelligent views that enhance the marketplace of ideas, focused to the topic of discussion not the presenter.

By posting comments:
1.We recommend use of real names for commenting. We will allow anonymous just like we allow anonymous sources provided we have verified the commenter’s identity.
2.You agree not to submit inappropriate content. Inappropriate content includes any content (as defined by the Student Press Law Center) that:
• Infringes upon or violates the copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights of any person
• Is potentially libelous or defamatory
• Is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit
• Violates a person’s right to privacy
• Violates any local, state, national, or international law
• Contains or advocates illegal or violent acts
• Degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification
• Is predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass
• Contains advertising or solicitation of any kind
• Misrepresents your identity or affiliation
• Impersonates others

3.You agree you are fully responsible for the content that you submit. You will promptly remove any content that you have posted should you discover that it violates these rules or that it is otherwise inappropriate.

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources

 

 

 

 

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Resources

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Resources for the guidelines:
• Responding to takedown demands
http://www.splc.org/knowyourrights/legalresearch.asp?id=111
• Responding to takedown demands
http://www.splc.org/pdf/takedowndemand.pdf
• Responding to takedown demands
http://studentpressblogs.org/nspa/responding-to-takedown-requests/
• 5 ways news organizations respond to ‘unpublishing requests
http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/104414/5-ways-news-organizations-respond-to-unpublishing-requests/
• Post grapples with how to ‘unpublish’ and correct the record
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/06/AR2010080604341.html
• The ethics of unpublishing
http://www.caj.ca/?p=1135

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Handling online comments

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Possible takedown models

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Possible takedown choices

Model A: Leave everything as is, if:
• The request is designed to retain image or avoid embarrassment
• No discernible evidence of factual or legal issue
• Value of not changing information for historical, reality reasons
• Publishing the truth, as best we can determine it
• Credibility of the student media is paramount
• Your mission is to be an accurate record of events and issues

Model B: Publish corrections, retractions or updates, if:
• The information is proven factually false or otherwise legally deficient as of the time it was published
• There is a need for transparency concerning source inaccuracy
• There is a need to provide context and perspective of published information
• The staff needs to clarify or update information
• The staff feels the situation is considered a gray area best solved by compromise
• The staff can write a follow-up story

 Model C: Take down information, if
• One-time reasons, like fabrications, protection of sources exist
• Staffs need to correct something they determine, as best they can, harm to the persons identified outweighs all other factors

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources
Handling online comments

 

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Ethical principles and considerations

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If your students have to make takedown decisions, the legal advice is essential. Just as important are the various ethical possibilities, too.

While the legal principles are relatively clear, ethical principles might not be.. In ethical decision-making, there is topically no right or wrong but primarily right v. right decsision. Such decisions might depend on the mission and goals of your student media.

These points might help in ethical decision-making:
• The default position is not to take down anything newsworthy or accurate at the time of original publication unless there are clear, definably correct legal reasons: libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, obscenity. Everything else stays. The reason: if someone on the staff thought it good enough to post once, it should stay.  Maybe Put Up guidelines would help students avoid later issues. If your material is legally unsupportable or demonstrably inaccurate, you would likely, for justifiable journalistic reasons, want to change it.
• Original posts and articles also have historical/reality value. Good enough to go up, good enough to stay up. In Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism, the first obligation is to publish, no matter the platform, the truth as best we know it. Second-guessing that later, for whatever reason, can set a nasty precedent of what the historical record is. Considering Takedown demands/requests might also start students on a slippery slope of second-guessing and ultimately self-censorship.
• If there is a one-time reason, like something later proven to be untrue, then the student staff could make an exception. These exceptions would, by definition, be rare.
• Lastly, just because students agree to take down an item, does not cleanse the Web of the information, image or information.
• Some compromises that can be taken, according to The Online Privacy Blog include:
–Sunsetting that retires certain kinds of information (like arrests) after a certain preset period
–Block the article from search engines
–Make names anonymous or remove  them
–Unpublish the entire article if the information is “old, irrelevant or dangerous to an individual’s privacy or safety”
–Add an update for clarification

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Decision models
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy
Resources
Handling online comments

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Put Up recommendations

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Developing a Put Up Policy
Sometimes the best way to think about a Takedown Policy is to devise a system of proactive steps to avoid needing to take information down. Here are 10 steps to take before publishing:
• Independently confirm information to be used for accuracy, context, perspective, truth and coherence
• Determine whether sources used are credible and representative of diverse and knowledgeable viewpoints
• Clearly attribute all information as needed for clarity and authority
• Avoid anonymous sources except in situations where they are the best source and identities need protection
• Determine whether sources used have conflicts of interest
• Ensure your information has gone through a vetting process with editors
• If using teens or young people as sources, do so with an understanding of minimizing harm as well as publishing truthful and contextual information
• If using social media sources, be sure information is attributed, accurate, in context and used legally and ethically
• Train and background reporters in legal and ethical issues
• If using crowd generated content, clearly indicate the source and ensure its credibility
• Be skeptical of any information you cannot verify

See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
Decision models
Resources
Handling online comments

read more