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Websites should post policies, procedures, too

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sprclogoby Candace Bowen
Including a mission statement and other policy points on the newspaper’s editorial page or inside a newsmag front cover is pretty standard, but where does that info go on a website? From recent experience judging state competitions, it seems some staffs really aren’t sure.

They also aren’t sure what – if anything — should be topics to include.

So this isn’t the definitive answer on how to handle a board-approved policy, a staff mission statement, an ethics policy and a host of additional procedures your audience should be able to know. The Scholastic Press Rights Committee is releasing new info about that for all student media this spring. But for now, here are some tips about what you probably should post in some logical place on your website.

A look at the 30 finalists in National Scholastic Press Association’s Online Pacemaker competition shows most do include some or all of the following points. Generally these are listed in the ABOUT section.

  • Are you a public forum for student expression? Do students make final content decisions? The Kirkwood Call, from Kirkwood (Missouri) High School, uses JEA’s Model Policy as its basis and includes the First Amendment and a line from the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District’s Supreme Court decision.
  • What is your mission? What do you hope to accomplish? The Echo, from St. Louis Park (Minnesota) High School, emphasizes the importance of free student voices: “The publication will not shy away from covering newsworthy controversial issues of importance to students. Journalists should work to cover these topics robustly. Reporting in scholastic media that omits essential pieces of information because of review or restraint is an indirect form of fabrication. It destroys not only truth but credibility and reliability.”
  • What are your legal rights? The Palyvoice, from Palo Alto (California) High School, has an Editorial Guidelines section that explains unprotected speech, the California Education Code section 48907 and emphasizes how students take financial and legal responsibility for what they publish.
  • When corrections are added, how do readers know? The Chant from North Cobb High School, Kennesaw, Georgia, approaches that issue as many professional sites do, by saying, “When corrections have been made to a story, it will be noted at the beginning of the story along with the date and time the correction was made. A list of all corrections made and dates made will be posted under the About tab.”
  • Do you accept letters to the editor? Do they need to have authorship verified? Must they be signed? How are they submitted? And what about comments on articles? Do you reserve the right to remove ones that might be offensive? How do you do that without restricting dialogue with your audience? trnwired, from Prince George (Virginia) High School, handles that well in its comments policy, referring to what the Washington Post The Oracle, from the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, says it encourages “community members to take ownership of their opinions by using their names when commenting,” though it will accept anonymous comments that follow the school’s Acceptable Use Policy.
  • What about ethical concerns – photo alterations, plagiarism, interviewing friends, all those “should we?” topics? Palyvoice explains these and others under the heading Ethical Concerns. This is a good way to organize information. It’s best not to mix ethical topics with legal ones. Ethics issues have no right or wrong answers, and administrators might misinterpret and think students could be punished for an ethical breach.
  • Do you accept ads? Do you have the right to refuse ads? The Hi-Lite, from Carmel (Indiana) High School, provides downloadable ad contracts for both Web and print publications.

Student media have a long list of legal and ethical issues of concern and, in an effort to be transparent for the audience, addressing as many as possible on the website is vital.

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