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Consider emotional impact as well as news values
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Censorship should not be an option

by Kristin Taylor
When the editors of the Panther Prowler, the student-run school newspaper for Newbury Park High School, decided to write
a feature article about teenagers having sex in 2015, they knew it was going to be controversial. The controversy wasn’t just about the content of the article, however — it was also about the image they paired with it, which appeared on the cover of their special edition magazine.

Since the article’s focus was the impact of limited sex education in and out of the classroom, the editors decided to use an iconic sex ed image: a condom on a banana.

Respecting the students’ freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment and California Education Code section 48907, administrators did not censor this feature. However, its publication led to an outcry in the parent community, many of whom believed the adults at the school should have censored it.

In an open letter to the community, editors Grace O’Toole and Courtney Brousseau explained their purpose in using this image.

While acknowledging that some felt the picture was “obscene or scandalous,” the editors argued, “It is the quintessential image of sex education. Moreover, it is a nurse-honored, military-practiced, and physician-approved method of teaching safe sex, and while it is not employed at NPHS, public schools across the nation model the proper method of practicing safe sex as a part of their official health curriculum. For this reason, we felt it reflected the angle of the article without sensationalizing the issue.”

The students also pointed out that those upset with adults at the school were missing the point. “It is important to note that while our adviser and administration did protect our guaranteed freedom of press, they did not produce or in any way endorse the magazine,” they wrote. “The decision to publish and distribute the magazine rested solely with the editors of the publication, not the adviser or the administration.”

O’Toole and Brousseau did not back down from their choice to use this image, but they did choose to take down the posters they had distributed to advertise the upcoming special edition. They also did not include the image when they published the article online.

“We maintain that [the images on the posters] were not obscene or pornographic. While they may have been suggestive, they were not revealing,” they wrote. “That being said, we did take [the posters] down several days before the distribution of the magazine. We didn’t want the buzz surrounding the posters to detract from our original intention of starting a productive dialogue and for that reason, we chose to focus on what is important – the article.”

This situation illustrates a few important takeaways about visual images and student journalism:

  • Just as with other forms of content, students should have final say over any image they choose to publish. Responsible editors should be ready to explain why they used the image if challenged by the member of the public, but they should not self-censor if they feel a controversial image is justified.
  • Student publications that operate as public forums for student voices provide some legal protection for adults and the school itself, as they operate separate from these entities.
  • Students should evaluate whether the impact of a controversial image will overwhelm the purpose of the reporting. If they feel the image might overshadow the message or is merely sensational, they may want to adjust accordingly.

Ultimately, students have a right to publish images along with their other content, but they should have a discussion about whether those images will hurt or help the main focus of their reporting when warranted. Having a consistent process and ethical guidelines helps student reporters to make good decisions about their images.

 

Quick Tip:

Visual images and censorship

Guideline:

Students should consider not only the news value of an image but also the emotional effect of the image on the audience. 

Social Media Post/Topic:

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, should journalists be 1,000 times more careful about them? And what if someone wants to censor one?

Stance:

Students should have ethical guidelines in their staff manual to guide their decisions about visual images and be able to explain the newsworthiness of any image they publish. Student editors should have final say in all content decisions.

Reasoning/suggestions:

Just as with other forms of content, students should have final say over any image they choose to publish. Student publications that operate as public forums for student voices provide some legal protection for adults and the school itself, as they operate separate from these entities.

Responsible editors should be ready to explain why they used the image if challenged by the member of the public, but they should not self-censor if they feel a controversial image is justified. Students should evaluate whether the impact of a controversial image will overwhelm the purpose of the reporting. If they feel the image might overshadow the message or is merely sensational, they may want to adjust accordingly.

When constructing a process for determining whether to publish an image, students should consider many questions, including:

  • is this image important and relevant to the story?
  • What makes it meaningful?
  • Will the audience understand the information conveyed without reading any accompanying text?
  • What story does it tell?
  • What story would others be able to get from that photo?
  • What, if any, warnings should accompany online content?
  • Is there an alternative, better, way to show the story?

Resources:

Visual ethics guidelines, Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism

Visual Journalism, NPR Code of Ethics

Lesson: To Print or Not to Print, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: A Picture Never Lies, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: When Journalists Err Ethically, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: Pushing Photo Editing Boundaries, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: With Freedom of the Press Comes Great Responsibility, Journalism Education Association

SPJ Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists

NPPA Code of Ethics, National Press Photographers Association

Photojournalism ethics needs a reexamination, The Poynter Institute

Visual ethical guidelines join online, yearbook ethics, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Audio: Using Images from Social Media, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee Press Rights Minute

Audio: Ethics in Editing News Photos, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee. Press Rights Minute

 

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