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Students making content decisions – 1
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sprclogoby Candace Perkins Bowen
Even media staffs that have been the well-respected voice of a large, diverse student body sometimes run into problems with administrators. And sometimes a few tweaks of the editorial policy or staff manual could get them through the rough spots and apparently back on track to publish what they know their readers need and want to know.

Such was the case with The Wilson Beacon, print and online publications at Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. When new principal Kimberly Martin came on board for fall 2015, everything seemed fine at first when she met, at various times in the summer, with the co-advisers and student editors.

But the first day of class, she made it clear she “didn’t like surprises” and planned to prior review all content as she had done at her previous school, even online content, even though she had recently been an administrator in Colorado, a state with protection for student voices. (The potential “surprises” may have been what she thought might come from the Beacon reporter’s questions to those at Martin’s former school.…)

The editorial in the students’ first issue, which Martin had been given as requested, didn’t shy away from the staff’s concerns.

Once the word got out, advisers and student staff were not the only ones upset. The Washington Post education reporter covered the situation as did WaPo opinion writer Erik Wemple in “D.C. principal says prior newspaper review keeps students ‘safe and protected’.” Other online and social media plus the Student Press Law Center joined in, and a change.org petition practically overnight got 885 names of supporters, including Mary Beth and John Tinker.

In their next conversation, volunteer co-adviser Mary Stapp said Martin “spewed” a bit, adding, “I could certainly understand why she was mad. The editorial was scathing. Everyone who read it told me they were persuaded towards the students’ side of the issue, and you know prior review is something a lot of adults often don’t get.”

Stapp said eventually Martin focused on the need for an editorial policy, pulling one out from another school in the district. Stapp told her, “We have one of those, too!”   The discussion then led to two of Martin’s concerns: chain of command in content publication and quote verification. She said she would reconsider the prior review issue if these concepts were added to her satisfaction to the Beacon policy. Stapp took the message back to the staff and her co-adviser.

“The response from the editors was relief and everyone felt that we could adjust our policies,” Stapp said.

The chain of command section essentially spelled out what they had been doing in the past, Stapp said. It now reads:
“All content is determined by the editorial staff, and final content decisions shall remain the responsibility of select members of the staff as follows:

The chain of command for print articles begins with the contributor who submits the content to the appropriate section editor, who sends it after editing and revisions to the Written Content Editor. Before publishing, an Editor-in-Chief, and an adviser will review it. The chain of command for prior review of online content is section editors, Written Content Editor, and an Editor-in-Chief or an adviser.

“Staff advisers will not censor or determine content but instead offer advice and instruction, following the Code of Ethics for Advisers established by the Journalism Education Association.”

Quote verification was more of a challenge because student media run as an extra-curricular and include many students, though the editors do meet during one period with co-adviser Alexandra Styker. “We will have to constantly be questioning section editors about it until I’m sure they are in the habit of checking the verification, which will certainly be annoying,” Stapp admitted.

But the changes were enough. Martin approved the policy, which is now posted online, and the staff is back to making its own decisions and not worrying about oversight from an administrator who is afraid of surprises.

One other change Stapp said they made in the manual: They added an Ethical Guidelines section, something they hadn’t had before. In that section, besides the quote verification details, are other topics the Scholastic Press Rights Committee has recently suggested be moved out of a policy section so administrators don’t think students can be punished for ethical lapses.

This may “keep us out of trouble,” Stapp said.

The final Wilson Beacon staff manual, which includes the policy, can be found here.

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