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Getting everyone on the side of quality journalism

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by Matt Smith,  Adviser, Cardinal Columns
Fond du Lac High School

sprclogoOn August 25, the Fond du Lac Board of Education gave the official go-ahead for student publications at Fond du Lac High School to begin the new school year operating under new publication guidelines that scrap last year’s policy of administrative prior review.

The new guidelines are not the end of the journey (the language could be more consistent in designating the paper as a public forum for student expression and would be more protective if it was incorporated more directly into actual school board policy), but they are a huge step forward.

Students will no longer submit their work to the principal for approval prior to publication. They will also have the benefit of the more powerful learning and critical thinking development that comes with taking more responsibility for the quality journalism that they produce. The biggest benefit of all, however, may have come from the mere act of finally getting together all the stakeholders involved to craft the new guidelines.

The fact we got students and teachers and administrators and district staff (and eventually the superintendent and board of education and other community members) talking constructively about the importance and practice of journalism in our school was truly powerful.

Knowing the process is crucial
That fact is most people don’t really know what goes into producing quality journalism. They see the finished story, but not the process–all the work that went on behind the scenes debating the topic, tracking down multiple, confirming sources, verifying information, discussing possible implications and biases, rewriting, brainstorming different ways of conveying the material or addressing the topic, rewriting some more, etc.

Without understanding this process, a reader may find a particular aspect of a story disagreeable and assume it was included on accident or merely to attract attention or promote a particular point of view. Part of our job as journalists and journalism educators and students is to make this process more visible.

If we are to be trusted, then we must be transparent and accountable, and that goes double for school publications. Administrators, school boards and other district staff need to know how we operate as journalists, and we need to be confident and capable in standing up and advocating for ourselves.

How our issues began
This past March our principal presented my student staff with new guidelines that required principal approval prior to publication. These guidelines were implemented by the district as a reaction to the February issue of the paper, which included a story on rape culture called “The Rape Joke” as well as an editorial telling students that they had the right not to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

By the time of the new guidelines, the issue was already receiving effusive praise from some staff and community members and was being credited by many for increasing walk-ins to the local sexual abuse center and creating a noticeable awareness among the student body about the possible harm in using words related to rape and sexual abuse when joking around in the hallways. I have no doubt that some readers did not appreciate the frank discussion of such a sensitive topic, but the student staff was still shocked for the first critical reaction to the story to come in the form of new guidelines implementing prior review.

During the next few months, the district required at least some changes to every subsequent issue of the paper, and the student staff decided to work to reverse the new guidelines by getting out information about their situation and attempting to begin a dialogue with the district. It was not always an easy or straight road. The issue certainly got attention, both in national media online and on televisions and in newspapers regionally. Among many things, a petition got several thousand signatures, and some students held a sit-in to protest the guidelines.

As the nature of the review and restraint of subsequent issues got bandied about in the press and the local community, I think it became apparent to most people involved that something had to change.

Rebuilding relationships
However, building relationships, especially under stressful conditions, is fraught with pitfalls. Those who disagree and don’t yet know each other very well are prone to misinterpreting intentions . . . of assuming the basis for disagreement is a difference in intentions. However, I have found tmost people who live and work in the same community, if they take the time to have honest discussion and wade through the particulars of their goals, find the disagreements have more to do with misunderstandings than anything else.

In a situation such as ours, where the students are diligent in holding themselves to high standards of journalism quality and ethics and where they go to great lengths to verify information and debate alternate points of view, the best-case scenario is for the students to feel supported by the district in practicing such excellent critical thinking.

That cannot happen if the argument over prior review becomes a true battle in which both sides try to “win” at the expense of the other. As difficult as it might seem to pull off, the best outcome is to make sure that ALL sides see working together and removing the prior review as a win.

The conflict must be transformed from one that seems at first to be a fight between student journalists and administrators to one that becomes a battle between all stakeholders (including the student journalists and district staff, together) and the creeping disease of prior review (and the confusion, divisiveness, restraint of learning and possible legal violations it brings).

That can only happen by remaining civil and true to your convictions and by hammering home the message about prior review and about how seriously we take our journalistic mission.

Eventually, before the end of the school year, the district agreed to take part in the creation of a committee made up of students, teachers, an administrator and a district official representing the superintendent.

Following the general guidelines provided by the McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for Free and Responsible Student Media, the committee discussed and agreed to statements of common ground that included an acknowledgement of the purpose and benefits of a free press at school as well as the need to find a way to do away with prior review. Ultimately, after looking at examples of policies and publications practices at other schools with successful journalism programs, the group cobbled together and agreed to support detailed publication guidelines that put decision-making power back in the hands of the students in a manner that is transparent and both educationally and ethically sound.

We then presented this document to the school board. Before it would drop the administrative prior review, the board required some additional language regarding adviser involvement for the time being, but conversations and information-sharing will continue until we have a policy that is 100 percent best for the educational interests of the district and the students.

In our case, cooperation largely worked
I know such a strategy cannot always work. There are some places where intentions may be less than pure or where personal vendettas of one side might seem to trump educational concerns. In such cases, additional strategies may have to be employed, and the best-case scenario might not be possible.

Luckily, in our case, aiming for cooperative support in abandoning prior review has largely worked. Although it cannot always be successful, I believe such a best-case scenario must be the first thing we shoot for, and it can be made more likely if relationships and understanding are built before a crisis occurs. That I had not done much to explain what we do and why to the district is one regret I do take from this episode.

Moving forward, rather than see possible enemies, I choose to see future allies. Rather than burn bridges, I choose to build them. My students do what they do because they truly want what is best for the school and our community. If the district has the same desire and is willing to listen, then the facts about the power of a free press and the dangers of prior review are the greatest weapon for cooperation that we have.

If you are a student journalistic, make sure you are doing what is right and for the right reasons. Make sure you are keeping in mind ethical considerations (such as those outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics) and holding yourself and your staff to high standards of journalistic practice.

Be transparent about your decision-making and don’t shy away from conversations about how you operate or why you run stories the way that you do. Make sure you are aware of your rights (make yourself familiar with the resources of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee and Student Press Law Center), and if you face difficulties despite all of this, have the courage to stand behind your convictions and move forward with civility and professionalism and with all the expert assistance you can muster.

What you can do
If you are an adviser, continue to push your staff to work and behave as professionals. Build relationships with your administration (and even superintendent and school board) that allow you create understanding about the purpose and power of scholastic journalism.

Take advantage of materials that can help you build such relationships and understanding (especially the McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for Free and Responsible Student News Media, Quill and Scroll’s Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism and possibly some other information I put together that might help).

Strive to walk that delicate line where administration trusts you and feels comfortable asking questions and providing suggestions without feeling like they should be making demands or dictating the learning or student decisions that take place in the classroom.

For any administrators or other school officials who may be reading this, just know that your school newspaper staffs and advisers do everything that they do in order to make your school a better place.

Journalism is an incredibly powerful tool for teaching writing, researching, critical thinking, teamwork, responsibility and more. Develop a relationship with the adviser built on trust and an understanding of the legal, ethical and educational underpinnings of the scholastic press (try a visit, yourself, to Quill and Scroll’s Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism or take a look at some information explaining why a free press is important and consistent with school goals if you have a chance) so that you can can better grasp how to handle possible complaints in a constructive manner.

Feeling confident the paper is following proper intentions and principles can greatly minimize incidents of misunderstanding and the possible harm (sometimes far-reaching) that can occur when decisions are made without all the facts or without touching base with all the stakeholders first.

And for anyone who may in any way be involved, reach out for advice or input if you have any questions about particular decisions or situations. The Journalism Education Association, the Student Press Law Center and countless other organizations and individuals are ready to lend an ear and some expert advice.

One Comment

  1. Yeah! Good for you, Matt! 🙂

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