What’s best for students? We return to that essential question constantly as decision-makers in every realm of education. In the “yearbook yikes” dilemma featured in this month’s Ethical Educator column in School Administrator magazine, the solutions address what may be best for one student but fail to mention what’s best for many others.
Where are the student editors in these discussions?
The opportunity to plan and produce student media is a valuable learning experience from start to finish. The communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking students on a yearbook staff experience continues well beyond the final page submission. Deciding how to handle the altered photo and ethical lapse is an essential piece of their learning.
Because students should be responsible for all content decisions, they also should be accountable to their audience and to each other. If the superintendent takes action to remedy the yearbook error, students are deprived of a major lesson in critical thinking and decision-making skills tied to journalistic standards and civic responsibility.
Ideally, student journalists address those standards and responsibilities long before producing even a single yearbook page by creating publication policies. With guidance and support from a trained journalism teacher, students define and put in writing what they stand for and why. The policy then serves as a guide — a commitment to themselves and their audience — for all future decisions. It includes what they will cover and why as well as how to handle errors, omissions, corrections and more.
If the students involved in the “yearbook yikes” dilemma have no such policy, this is an important lesson for them. Instead of removing students from the solution, administrators should empower them to figure it out and so they learn and grow from the process. As editors identify who was responsible for the altered photo and how to handle it (both internally with consequences and improved staff procedures as well as publicly and with the affected student), they can reevaluate their process and make it right.
Plenty of great resources exist to aid in this process, such as the Model Code of Ethics from the National Scholastic Press Association, which charges student journalists to be accountable with a commitment to admit mistakes and publicize corrections. The Society of Professional Journalists also offers an extensive collection of policies journalism teachers can use with their students in these important discussions. The bottom line is that this dilemma affects many more students than just the one pictured in the yearbook, and administrators should consider the long-term effects as well as the shorter-term needs of addressing a parent complaint.
As a student media adviser, I know firsthand the inaccuracy of Sarah MacKenzie’s claim that “… most yearbooks are already gathering dust on shelves only to be retrieved for class reunions, if at all.” Even months after distribution day, students cart yearbooks to school events, pull them from their backpacks daily, poring over pages together to read stories and carry them on vacations to review the personal memories, photos and details of times passed.
That’s all the more reason student editors should strive to meet journalistic standards and operate with integrity, and absolutely why student editors should be accountable for their decisions, including determining the best solution to this and any other dilemma. With a stronger emphasis on their “why” as a staff, training and support from a qualified adviser and empowerment to solve problems based on their own critical thinking, students learn important lessons and make better decisions.
And that, of course, is what’s best for all students.
Sarah Nichols, MJE, M.Ed
teacher/adviser, Whitney High Student Media
2010 National Yearbook Adviser of the Year
vice president, Journalism Education Association
A researcher at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, surveyed public high school administrators about their First Amendment knowledge this fall and discovered that administrators may, in fact, know more than they think about the First Amendment.
However, Audrey Wagstaff Cunningham, assistant professor, said when tested on their knowledge of specific attributes, the majority did not have sufficient knowledge about the reporting of minors, nor did they understand the limits of administrative control over seemingly “inappropriate” content produced in a student publication.
Finally, many of the administrators surveyed did not recognize the public forum status available to student publications. This suggests that administrators may not fully understand the free speech rights of students as defined in major cases like Tinker v. Des Moines.
Likewise, if they know about Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, they may apply their knowledge incorrectly. In addition, administrators who are less knowledgeable about the First Amendment as it pertains to students are also more likely to try to censor students’ work.
“Many scholars and educators interested in scholastic journalism,” Cunningham writes in the paper, “have suggested that the censorship problem begins in schools, and is fueled by poor understanding of First Amendment freedoms (Student Press Law Center, 2006). This study, despite several findings being statistically insignificant, is meant to help illuminate the path to better understanding the administrative censorship phenomenon.”
You can download Wagstaff-Cunningham’s paper, which was accepted by JEA’s Certification Commission as her MJE requirement, here.
by Tom Gayda
I’ve been lucky. Maybe even spoiled. Both of the principals I have worked for in my 14 years as an adviser have been named JEA Administrator of the Year.
Does this mean we agree on everything? No. What it means is they have trusted my students (and as an extension, me) to do their jobs free of prior review or heavy-handedness too many programs suffer from.
Evans Branigan III in his office at North Central. Branigan is JEA’s Administrator of the Year.
Evans Branigan III started as a social studies teacher and football coach at North Central. Before long he was an assistant principal and eventually the associate principal. For the last three years he was principal of the school. He has attended a half-dozen JEA/NSPA conventions, constantly showing his support for what we do.
And while that is nice, it’s the way he works with the students that is most important, and that is what helps create a great relationship between the principal and staff. Branigan has gone to Dave and Busters to have a relaxed interview with the newspaper staff. He has played cornhole after school for a website feature. His door is always open to students. Branigan has fun with it, too, often letting me know who his current favorite reporter is.
I suppose it is part luck. I know of administrators who are not friends of scholastic journalism. I think it’s time to forget them and focus on the ones who get it. Perhaps by constantly showcasing the great administrators the bad ones will start to change their tune. Or, make a less-than-friendly administrator a supporter by giving them no other choice. Share stories of successful programs with appropriate relationships. Kill them with our own version of kindness. Don’t wage a war — that won’t work. Be a constant pest with positivity.
One builds trust by having a strong program that has a history of doing the right thing. Mistakes are made and disagreements take place, but by creating an environment where staffs and administrators work together keeps communication healthy and open.
Fourth in a series
The post on administrative support is the fourth in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, prior review, Making a Difference and private school journalism. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.