by Mary Kay Downes
The very nature of a yearbook being the permanent record of the year presents numerous issues which primarily have to do with the permanency of the book. Yearbooks live forever! Often yearbooks are viewed as a public relations tool of the school, and the administration and/or community are reluctant to have any coverage at all which they would deem not supporting a pristine image of the institution.
This leads to self-censorship at best, and prior review or restraint at worst, as well as a myriad of other problems
Yearbook is a paid product compared to regular student media. We have an audience to satisfy, and because of this, we must considering their wants/needs differently than we do with a news website or news magazine because we want them to buy the book to pay the bill and be self-sustaining.
Although we absolutely don’t want to compromise journalism standards just to get students to buy the book, yearbook students are still obligated to cover everything, with accuracy and integrity, even as they’re trying to create a product people want to purchase.
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
As we all head back to school, look for some new content in the next week:
• An article focusing who who owns scholastic media content and choices to establish best approach for students
• An article discussing points of questions involving yearbook ethics
• A first look at a Policy Package to will help staffs decide what they want as the best editorial policy, ethical guidelines and staff manual
• Continued access to our ongoing columns on journalism pedagogy, FOIA, broadcast legal and ethical issues, news literacy and more Making a Difference reporting
• Our annual Constitution Day lessons and activities
• In the meantime, check out these major points from the press rights commission:
• Takedown demands guidelines
• The Panic Button means of reporting censorship
• Our Press Rights Minute
• JEA’s position prior review
• JEA’s existing model editorial policy and support
• Online, photo and yearbook ethical statements
• First Amendment Press Freedom Award application
• A teacher’s kit for curing Hazelwood
• Our Foundations series for scholastic journalism
Something you would like us to report? Let us know.
“The New York Times and The Washington Post have the two smartest teams of lawyers and editors in the world, and they’ve come to opposite conclusions. The Times is a review first/post later system and The Post is a post first/takedown later system. So there’s no industry standard or consensus.” – Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center
• Basically, there are two approaches for moderation of online comments:
– Post first and then take comments down if they are inappropriate
– Moderate and only post those that meet criteria
A third option, of course, is to allow no comments at all, but that runs counter to media serving as a forum for public expression.
For the most part, the same principles apply to handling comments as with handling letters to the editor in print or guest commentary in broadcast or online, including verification of sources and information. Once the decision is made to publish user comments or responses, label them clearly, keeping in mind your journalistic credibility and commitment to accuracy.
• How to handle inappropriate comments (*see model policy below)
Pulling down posted comments looks like censorship. And if you allow comments to be posted without moderating them first, you create the potential of incorrect and legally dangerous comments being captured/cached and available forever. Why publish something that jeopardizes your media’s ability to serve your community and then remove it after complaints or realizing it’s inappropriate? It’s all about the policy you establish, the atmosphere you seek to create on your site and your ability and willingness to enforce your rules and standards. Remember, if you edit comments and change the intent or meaning you are legally responsible for their content, according to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.
• Criteria for comments
Just as you need a policy for letters to the editor, you need a policy for determining when you will allow comments. Consider: Staffs can be responsible for the content of comments posted by others on their sites despite some special legal protections that exist in the online arena.
Ideally, those making comments will use real, verifiable names and email addresses. If they don’t, commenters could remain anonymous if the student editor knows their real names. Approving content ahead of time is not prior review because it is done by the student staff, not school officials. Anonymous comments should be taken down after a short time
Use of real names is an ethical issue. Knowing who a person is can give comments clarity, meaning and context, and add credibility. Because part of the impact of using comments is about creating community where all can participate and feel safe, knowing identities generates trust in the commenter and the comment. Search engines pick up comments as if they were content, so you have an obligation not to spread falsehood; information must be verified
• Be upfront and transparent about your policy and explain it thoroughly
Student media can establish a forum by setting ground rules of prior approval/rejection without changing content unless cleared with the author. Do not edit or revise comment content. Revisions should be made by the author.
Once posted, comments or information should not be removed for transparency, accuracy and reality in terms of establishing a historical record.
• Establish a procedure for handling comments
Appoint an online editor and staff to vet comments (which means training for that staff on how to handle comments). Online comments should be signed with verifiable addresses and IDs that are verifiable. Require real names or IDs known by student editors or identify who will verify the names and identification before publication
Study other media, including The New York Times, The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post, for guidelines as part of the process of setting up a policy. Decide what is permissible in comments ahead of time and clearly publicize the criteria. An example would be no personal attacks. Also publish a statement that a student “editor” will contact the poster for information, clarification, to have writer correct grammar, etc.
* A model policy section for handling comments might look like this, with content adapted from The Washington Post , The Poynter Institute and introductory wording modeled on The New York Times:
Model Comment Policy
We moderate comments to enable readers to share, without abusing others, informed and intelligent views that enhance the marketplace of ideas, focused to the topic of discussion not the presenter.
By posting comments:
1.We recommend use of real names for commenting. We will allow anonymous just like we allow anonymous sources provided we have verified the commenter’s identity.
2.You agree not to submit inappropriate content. Inappropriate content includes any content (as defined by the Student Press Law Center) that:
• Infringes upon or violates the copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights of any person
• Is potentially libelous or defamatory
• Is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit
• Violates a person’s right to privacy
• Violates any local, state, national, or international law
• Contains or advocates illegal or violent acts
• Degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification
• Is predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass
• Contains advertising or solicitation of any kind
• Misrepresents your identity or affiliation
• Impersonates others
3.You agree you are fully responsible for the content that you submit. You will promptly remove any content that you have posted should you discover that it violates these rules or that it is otherwise inappropriate.
See more for the complete package:
Evaluating legal demands
Evaluating ethical choices
10 steps to a “Put Up” policy