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#SJW11: A conversation about prior review

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by Marina Hendricks and Lori King

Students in “Social Role of the Mass Media,” a Kent State University online graduate course this semester, recently considered arguments for and against prior review. We decided to approach the assignment as an imaginary conversation between a student editor and a principal. The result is a template that journalism students and advisers can use as a starting point to craft their own statements in support of an open forum, tailoring the points to fit the individual situation. The “conversation” also can be used in role-playing exercises to help students prepare for real-life discussions with administrators.

Editor: I made this appointment because we, as a newspaper staff, have a great idea to expand our readership. We already have a good newspaper. As you know, we’ve won quite a few Journalism Education Association awards, but we want to take our coverage to the next level – you know, into the 21st century. We want to put our newspaper online.

Principal: I know how hard the journalism students have worked, and I appreciate how well the newspaper has represented the school. I am concerned about the instantaneous nature of the Internet. There recently have been some complaints from faculty members and parents about stories in the print newspaper. For example, I received a lot of calls about Jane Doe’s story on cheating. Some parents felt their children had been misquoted and portrayed as cheaters. Several teachers were upset because they thought their classrooms were singled out as easy places to cheat.

Editor: First of all, that cheating story was accurate. We double-checked our notes and verified the facts. We also made sure those who were interviewed knew they would be quoted in the paper and that there could be consequences. Cheating is a problem at every school, not just ours, so that story should not be ignored. I think the story portrayed a good balance on why people cheat, how they cheat, and the consequences of cheating.

As far as the Internet goes, we agree on its instant nature. You have to remember that we are student journalists and will make mistakes as part of our learning process. But our newspaper policy is to correct mistakes in the next issue, which we do. The powerful thing about our newspaper being on the Internet is we can correct our mistakes immediately, rather than waiting two weeks, and whatever mistakes we make will not be printed in stone forever. So, I can’t guarantee we won’t make future mistakes, but I can assure you we will be quick to respond to them, as a professional newspaper would.

Principal: Why shouldn’t student-produced content be reviewed to ensure that it contains no factual or grammatical errors? And what about journalistic issues? I have concerns about content that is libelous, obscene and invades someone’s privacy. What about socially inappropriate content? Remember, we have students here as young as 14 years old. The rules and ethics of journalism also must be taken into consideration. Finally, if content disrupts the educational process, then I’m going to have another situation on my hands.

Editor: Our newspaper is reviewed for accuracy and legal issues before it’s printed – by me, the editor, as well as by the other section editors. We have a great adviser and journalism teacher who teaches us what we need to know, but empowers us to make the content decisions. Our adviser participates in journalism workshops every summer and also has worked for a daily newspaper. Her professional journalism experience helps inform what we do. We are quite aware of the importance of factual and grammatical errors. We have weekly training sessions on everything from learning how to write, interview subjects and design pages to what we need to know about libel, obscenity and other legal issues. We discuss ethical issues on a regular basis as part of the production process.

We also have a newspaper staff manual that outlines our common style rules, our students’ rights and our legal and ethics policies. This helps us with our quality control, checks and balances, transparency, stuff like that. I can make sure you have a copy of it.

Principal: Journalism is a class and therefore part of the curriculum. Your adviser’s lesson plans are subject to approval and oversight. Why shouldn’t all content produced in conjunction with the class follow suit? After all, I am responsible for seeing that journalism students have met the assessments/outcomes set forth in your adviser’s lessons.

Editor: Our newspaper tells you how we are meeting the assessments and outcomes. It is living proof that we are learning what she teaches us, and learning it well. Our newspaper class is actually one of the most valuable learning tools in this school.

Principal: True. But stories on cheating and other such topics don’t reflect well on our school. It is my responsibility to ensure that school print and digital publications reflect and represent the school community in a positive light.

Editor: But we have always operated as a public forum, which means students make the content decisions, whether it’s in a print newspaper or online. Our newspaper is not a public relations tool. It’s a forum where we, as journalists, report honestly and openly about what happens in the school community. The stories may not always be positive, but that reflects the reality of the world you are preparing us to enter.

We appreciate and value our First Amendment rights. We also really appreciate the support that you and the administration have given us over the years to practice our First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. I assure you, we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

Oh, and one more thing. Did you realize that when students make the content decisions, it takes the liability away from the school? That’s a benefit of our newspaper being a public forum. I’ll be happy to supply more information for you on the matter.
Do have any other concerns or questions?

Principal: Thank you for coming in to talk with me today. You have given me a lot to consider, and I think we can come up with a plan that addresses and respects our mutual concerns. Please keep me informed on the plans for your online publication.

Editor: We will. Thanks for listening.

Marina Hendricks, a member of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, is manager of the Newspaper Association of America Foundation and a former editor of a daily newspaper’s program for teen journalists. Lori King is a photographer for The Toledo Blade and an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Owens Community College in Toledo.

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