Why online comment and discussion policies are integral
By Megan Fromm
Last month, Popular Science, an online news magazine dedicated to all things techie, scientific, and often futuristic, decided it was closing the comments section for new online articles.
Staff members argued that in some cases, comments were bad for science, especially when the nature of online reader responses keeps writers from “fostering lively, intellectual debate …[and] spreading the word of science far and wide.”
Not surprisingly, the magazine relied on empirical research that shows just how poorly an influencer public opinion can really be when it comes to science, and they defended their position succinctly:
“If you carry out those results [of the studies] to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.” –Popular Science
Comment sections can be a tremendous boon for online news media. They allow readers to interact with staffers, critique news coverage, correct errors, or even offer interesting story ideas. In a perfect world, an online comment or discussions board (whether for each article or for the site as a whole) would help your news organization develop a strong rapport within your scholastic community.
As online media strives to create spaces for significant interaction between those writing the news and those responding to it, long-term consideration must be given to how those interactions are shaped, facilitated and moderated.
Just as newspapers have staff policies for readers who want to submit letters to the editor, online news media should also have clear and accessible guidelines regarding their comments and discussion sections. These policies might include guidance on the following:
- The intended purpose of your comments/discussion section.
- Whether comments on your site are moderated, and why.
- If so, who monitors what gets posted?
- Whether readers must provide identifying information before they can comment.
- What types of language/content is not acceptable?
- How can readers flag responses for moderator review or to be taken down?
- Will the website take down comments, and for what reasons?
- Can readers expect the writers of the story to respond to reader comments?
These are just a few questions that should be considered when using reader comments to facilitate interaction on your website. And while Popular Science may have decided that comments weren’t the right approach for their website, consider how encouraging civil reader feedback from your community could build trust and encourage consistent relationships with the very people you cover most in your scholastic news media.
by Mary Kay Downes
The loss of any student is a tragic event either through sickness, accident or suicide.
Often times staffs are shocked when events such as this occur and frozen into either inaction or precipitous action. They ask, “Do we cover this?” They ask, “How do we cover this?” They ask, “Should we call the parents?”
All of these are questions which can be taken care of by establishing a policy by the editorial board for inclusion in the staff manual having to do with death. We have a policy in our yearbook staff manual and it precludes any type of memorial page.
We include a picture of the deceased student in the senior section of the yearbook the year they would have graduated. It is in a box with year of birth and death. If a faculty member dies, we include a similar box in the faculty section of the current year’s book.
Marina Hendricks, a member of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, has developed a “Social Media Toolbox” for use by student journalists and their advisers. The toolbox, available at hendricksproject.wordpress.com, features 16 lessons on social media plus related resources. The lessons can be used as a unit or individually, depending on the needs of students, advisers and school publication programs.
As a unit, the lessons are designed to help student journalists and their advisers navigate the transition into using social media as part of their publication programs. The unit starts with ethical decision-making to help guide students through the process. It continues with exploration of reasons for using social media, consideration of how social media tools are employed by journalists, and evaluation of the school community’s use of social media through a survey.
Yearbook staffs are responsible for creating an annual publication that becomes the permanent record of the school and the school population they serve.
The publication they create will serve as a record/history book, memory book, business venture, classroom laboratory and public relations tool for the district.
Because the functions of the publication are so far reaching, and the publication itself is an historical document, the ethical questions facing the yearbook staff are challenging and unique.
For that reason, members of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and representative winners in the Yearbook Adviser of the Year Competition have created ethical guidelines students and teachers might use in creating their own policies.
● The same ethical principles apply to yearbook journalism as to any other kind of media.
— Reporters should cover all sides of a story fairly and fully
— Reporters should identify themselves as representing the yearbook
— Reporters should verify source information with someone else or some other resource
— Reporters should avoid lurking on social media sites and should never use information gained from social media as their only resource. No information should be taken from a social media site without notification to the author of the site.
● Student yearbook staffs should also examine downloadable resources for additional ideas and approaches.
● In addition to the guidelines presented here, advisers should follow the tenets of JEA’s Adviser Code of Ethics, and students should continue to honor values expressed in existing resources.
● Although these guidelines may not apply to all staffs in every situation, it is recommended they be shared in discussions with adviser, staff members, administrators, school board members, members of the community and other stakeholders such as yearbook company representatives so all parties better understand the critical thinking, ethical and journalistic issues students experience as they make content decisions to summarize the year.
● Policies should be established to guide the staff in making fair, objective decisions regarding obits/memorials, ad sales, book sales and student classifications.
● Because the publication is created by students, for students, prior review by outside sources should be avoided and the staff should take precautions to report the story of the year fairly, fully and responsibly.
Ethics Guidelines for Yearbooks with Print and/or Digital Components
Section I: Policies
Before the staff begins work on the book (or as soon as possible), editorial policies should be established, placed in written form and followed exactly as the staff has created them. Policies should be included for general coverage, portrait pictures, advertising, obituaries, return of books and any others that may relate specifically to the school. As staffs determine specific policies, they should keep in mind these considerations:
• What is the purpose of the book, and what type of stories, photos and other coverage elements help meet that purpose? How will the staff handle sensitive or possibly controversial topics? Will all groups, topics and events receive equal space or attention? May readers, teachers, administrators or community members submit content?
• Are students required to be photographed by a particular photographer in order to appear in the album/people section? Will the school dress code apply? May students submit their own portraits to be included, and if so, what requirements exist in terms of size, content and technical quality? Does the staff reserve the right to exclude any photo it considers inappropriate? Will the staff provide other options for students who are absent, not yet enrolled or otherwise missing during the initial photographing period? If a student enrolls in the school later in the year, what are the options, if any, for being included in the album/people section? When will these deadlines occur, and will they be the same each year?
• What type of ads will the staff accept, and are there any conditions under which a staff might reject a potential advertiser or its submitted artwork? How will the available amount of advertising space be determined? Will the staff accept advertising after its published deadline? Does the staff have a policy for corrections or omissions? How will the staff remedy the situation if a printed advertisement has an error or receives a complaint from the purchaser?
• How will the staff handle the death of a student, faculty or staff member in the book? If the staff will include some type of memorial treatment, will all deaths be treated equally? How will the size and type be determined? What if this occurs at a time when no space is available? What if this occurs at a time past the deadline cycle? What if this occurs in the summer? Does the cause of death play a factor in how the death will be handled? What role will the deceased person’s family play, if any, in determining the content included?
• Under what circumstances, if any, will the staff accept books for return? What happens if a student does not appear in the book? What happens if a student’s name is misspelled? What happens if a student moves away and no longer wants the book? What happens if a person, group or team is unhappy with its coverage? Will a damaged book be replaced? Does the staff take action to recover a lost or stolen book? What happens to books not retrieved at the distribution event, and for what length of time will the staff keep them?
Section II: Covering the Year
Those who have signed on to be part of the yearbook staff have agreed to be the eyes and ears of the student body as they capture the unique aspects of this particular year at a specific high school. This commitment means —
● Coverage will reflect all aspects and voices of the student body and will not be limited to those who are on staff or their friends. The book will reflect the school’s diversity and will have balance in terms of age and gender, with emphasis on student involvement more than faculty and staff.
● The book will include scoreboards for all teams even if it has not been a winning year, group pictures with complete names of all teams and organizations, as part of the important record-keeping information.
● To keep the book as complete and accurate as possible, the staff will take extra care to work with the counselors, registrar and administrators to determine the correct grade level of each student enrolled to be classified as such. The staff will determine a policy for how to classify students who fall above or below the determined credit level and/ or students who plan to graduate early. The staff will include a “not pictured” list in the portrait section.
● Because this is an historical document, special care will be given to accuracy, including fact checking all information, correct quotes, correct spelling of names. Faculty names, classes taught and extracurricular activities sponsored should be included with faculty portrait pictures.
● The staff will tell all stories fairly and fully using resources representing all points of view.
● It is not recommended that the staff include superlatives in the book because they are not journalistic and do little to tell the story of the year, but because the book is a student publication and students should be empowered to make content decisions, advisers may want to help students organize a selection process, encourage reporting of the selection process as well as the action and reaction to the superlatives selected. In any case, award categories should be based on achievements, timely topics, service, performance and non-physical or popularity-based voting so all types of students have a chance to be represented. Low voter turnout is evidence that readers are not interested in superlatives, and is another clue that the staff should eliminate them.
Section III: Original Work
The story of the year should be as special as its characters (the students) and as creative and fresh as its authors (the yearbook staff). Because the story of your school this year can only be told once, the yearbook is a one-of-a-kind publication. The staff then —
● Will use previous years’ books only as a quick guide, and will avoid lifting material from previous books to include in the current book.
● Will use the books from other schools as inspiration only rather than copying their techniques for replication in the current book.
● Will refer to professional publications for inspiration and ideas but will use elements of what they find to create their own design, headline package or color usage. Credit should be given to professional inspirations in the colophon.
● Will not lift material (photos or text) from Internet resources without permission and will give proper attribution for that material as suggested by the resource provider.
● Will officially copyright their own work to protect it from use by those who have not requested permission.
● Will make clear when material not created by the staff is included in the publication. Because the yearbook is a student production, it is the ethical responsibility of staff members to notify the reader if pictures have been taken, copy written or designs created by someone other than a student staff member. Photo credits should be given individually to all photos and bylines should appear with all stories.
Section IV: Working with the PrinteThe yearbook staff is the publisher of the book and the yearbook company is the printer. The difference between the two is an important distinction. The publisher controls the content of the book while the printer works for the publisher to print the content as defined in a printing contract. The yearbook printer is an important part of the team but does not control content and is not the publisher. Because the relationship with the printer is a business as well as personal one, making ethical decisions is even more important.
● The printing contract outlines deadlines and number of pages due on each deadline. It is the ethical responsibility of the yearbook staff to meet all of those deadlines with pages that are complete and ready for the printer. Sending incomplete or dummy pages really does not hold up your end of the contract and results in extra time-consuming work for the plant.
● The printer’s representative should notify the staff if additions being considered will add to the final invoice for the book. In an open, honest relationship there should be no surprises when the final bill arrives.
● The printer should not make corrections or remove questionable content unless directed to do so by the yearbook staff with advice from the adviser.
● It is not the responsibility of the printer to find errors or catch questionable content. All content is the responsibility of the staff.
● Staffs who choose to use company-generated templates, plug-ins and other materials should let the reader know in the colophon that those printer aids were used and not all design work is original.
● Advisers should take special care in working with yearbook company representatives during a bid process for the printing contract. All information should be distributed to every representative in an open, transparent manner. Should one representative request special information, it should be sent to everyone at the same time.
● A review of the final bill should be made as soon after delivery as possible. Any adjustments to the bill should be made on the current book rather than on future contracts.
• JEA’s Model Guidelines: http://jea.org/about/guidelines.html
• JEA Adviser Code of Ethics: http://www.jeasprc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/JEAadvisercodeof-ethics-2012
• NSPA Student Code of Ethics: http://studentpress.org/nspa/pdf/wheel_modelcodeofethics.pdf
• Student Press Law Center: http://splc.org , http://yearbooklaw.com.
Sample SPLC yearbook staff member license
• Handling obituaries, NSPA: http://www.studentpress.org/nspa/wheel.html
• Yearbook controversy a time for discussion
Bios for yearbook-ethics guidelines
Mary Kay Downes, MJE, has taught journalism and advised the Chantilly High School Odyssey yearbook for 23 years where she also teaches English and serves as the English Department Chair. She presents at national workshops and yearbook camps and writes articles for journalism magazines. She has been honored as the 2007 JEA National Yearbook Adviser of the Year and received the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Key, the National Scholastic Press Pioneer Award as well as local and state honors. Odyssey is in the NSPA Hall of Fame and has received several CSPA Crown and NSPA Pacemaker awards. Downes is the past president of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association and is a member of the JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission.
Sarah Nichols, MJE, advises student media at Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif. She was named National Yearbook Adviser of the Year in 2011 and received a Medal of Merit in 2010 from JEA as well as the NSPA Pioneer Award in 2008. During her 13 years advising, her students have earned national recognition such as NSPA Pacemakers and CSPA Gold Crowns, among other honors. Nichols currently serves as JEA’s vice president and is a member of the Scholastic Press Rights Commission and Digital Media Committee as well as past-president for JEANC in Northern California. She is a former JEA state director and Certification Commission member. Previously she advised in Indiana and was an officer for the Indiana High School Press Association.
Linda Puntney, MJE, is JEA’s former executive director. A professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas State University, she was director of Student Publications and Royal Purple yearbook adviser. The Royal Purple staff received 20 Gold Crown and Pacemaker awards in her 21-year tenure — more than any college yearbook in the nation. Puntney’s honors include College Media Advisers Distinguished Yearbook Adviser and Distinguished Magazine Adviser, CMA Hall of Fame, NSPA Pioneer Award, CSPA Gold Key and Charles O’Malley Award, the JEA Carl Towley, Medal of Merit, Lifetime Achievement and Teacher Inspiration awards.
Nancy Y. Smith, MJE, advises the newspaper, yearbook, online paper and DVD at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, MO. She has been teaching and advising publications for 26 years and frequently speaks at workshops and conferences across the country. She has earned Master Journalism Educator status from the Journalism Education Association and is the JEA National Write-off Chair. She been recognized by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund as a Special Recognition Adviser and was named a Distinguished Adviser in the National Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition. She was also one of six finalists for the 2007-2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year.
Lynn Strause advised 30 yearbooks before she retired in 2007. The Ceniad, which she advised for 13 years, earned 13 consecutive Spartan Awards from Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, Gold and Silver Crowns and Pacemakers during her tenure. She was named JEA National Yearbook Adviser of the year in 2001. She is yearbook chair on the MIPA board, works with individual schools and teaches at a number of summer workshops, state and national conventions.
Achieving the most positive educational experience for everyone involved – students, advisers, administrators and community – is really simple. And it does not involve control or stripping the educational value of student media. Here are some suggestions:
• Hiring the most qualified educator to teach and advise your scholastic media or helping one without solid journalism background become more knowledgeable;
• Trusting and respecting those educator advisers as well as their student media editors and staff as the students make difficult decisions
(and sometimes make mistakes);
• Maintaining dialogue and offering feedback with advisers and student editors so they understand school administrator concerns, but where students understand that they have a real voice in the debate and have the freedom to excel.
Organizations that support these values, including the Journalism Education Association and others, stand ready to help administrators, advisers and student journalists with training opportunities, curricular materials and ongoing dialogue to keep them current on what’s happening in these important fields.
For more information on those groups:
• Journalism Education Association http://jea.org
JEA is the only independent national scholastic journalism organization for teachers and advisers. It supports free and responsible scholastic journalism by providing resources and educational opportunities, by promoting professionalism, by encouraging and rewarding student excellence and teacher achievement, and by fostering an atmosphere that encompasses diversity yet builds unity. It offers a voluntary teacher certification program plus the Summer Adviser Institute and two national conventions a year, co-sponsored with the National Scholastic Press Association.
• Center for Scholastic Journalism http://jmc.kent.edu/csj
CSJ is a national clearinghouse with information for and about student journalists and their advisers, a research center on issues affecting scholastic media, an educator of journalism teachers and an advocate for student press freedom and the First Amendment.
• National Scholastic Press Association http://www.studentpress.org/nspa/
NSPA offers two national conventions with JEA, a summer workshop, national critiques and teaching materials for teachers, advisers and students.
• JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission http://jeapressrights.org and http://jeasprc.org
JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission offers teaching materials in law and ethics with an emphasis on free and responsible journalism and up-to-date information to enhance teacher information and leadership abilities. The links are to a website and blog.
• Student Press Law Center http://splc.org
The Student Law Center is an advocate for student free press rights and provides information, advice and legal assistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.
• Newspaper Association of America Foundation http://www.naafoundation.org
The Newspaper Association of America Foundation strives to develop engaged and literate citizens in a diverse society. The Foundation invests in and supports programs designed to enhance student achievement through newspaper readership and appreciation of the First Amendment. NAAF also supports research and has funded the repeat of a national study by Prof. Jack Dvorak of Indiana University entitled, “High School Journalism Matters.” It provides evidence to support the value of student media work as students who have participated clearly earn better high school grades, outscore their peers on college entrance exams and earn higher grades in college writing courses than those who were not involved in student media.http://www.naafoundation.org/Research/Foundation/Student-Journalism.aspx
• First Amendment Center http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org
The First Amendment Center is a clearinghouse for comprehensive research coverage of key First Amendment issues and topics, daily First Amendment news, commentary and analyses by respected legal specialists. It also has a First Amendment library of legal cases and related materials.
• Five Freedoms http://www.fivefreedoms.org
The Five Freedoms network is a nationwide community of educators, students and citizens who support the five freedoms of the First Amendment. Its projects and mission focus on enhancing the educational strength of the First Amendment.
• High School Journalism http://hsj.orgHigh School Journalism is offered by the American Society of News Editors and offers lessons plans, articles and advice from commercial journalists and a wide variety of educational materials. It also offers six free, two-week summer workshops for new adviser/teachers and those wishing to gain additional information. The workshops are at six universities around the country
• Quill and Scroll http://www.uiowa.edu/~quill-sc/
Quill and Scroll is the International Honorary Society for High School Journalists and sponsors contests, scholarships and educational materials for students and advisers
• Columbia Scholastic Press Association http://cspa.columbia.edu/
CSPA offers contests and critiques, a large national spring convention and a fall workshop for advisers, teachers and students. It also has a strong adviser organization.
• Friends of the Spoke http://www.friendsofthespoke.org/Friends_of_The_Spoke.html
Friends of the Spoke is a student-designed and -run website, conceived to convince a school board not to adopt prior review. It succeeded.