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Where do trust and prior review meet?

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Leading a scholastic media staff in the shadow of Hazelwood

sprclogoby Chris Waugaman, MJE
A lack of trust can destroy scholastic journalism. We have seen it in a number of recent cases.

The scenario involves a student publication and a disgruntled administration. The cause of this tension can come from a variety of places, but in the end what has been broken is trust.

After this point, the battle of what you can and cannot censor in prior review becomes the first battle in an all out war. Sometimes it is unavoidable. But if there is a way to stop this from happening it begins with trust.

The life of a reporter and journalist is based on building relationships with sources, so they will feel comfortable communicating with that person. The adviser can take many steps to be sure that a lack of trust does not find its way onto his/her staff. Not only does the adviser need to be able to trust his/her staff, but the administration needs to trust the staff too.

Taking ownership of the situation, an adviser can be the first to build the foundation of a responsible student press. An adviser must make it clear to the staff what is appropriate behavior. Often, students do not realize they must live according to a higher standard than their peers in other classes.

In what other class are they expected to report facts to the public with the most objective viewpoint possible? Students need to learn the guidelines given in the staff’s code of ethics. This needs to be understood very early. Students and their parents should be required to sign the code of ethics contract. This contract lists a variety of behaviors that should be followed. At the bottom of the contract there is a list of consequences that will be imposed should the staff member violate the contract.

Secondly, the adviser can show examples of how reporters have shown poor judgment in their ethical behavior and what the repercussions were. Students usually respond well to the lessons to be learned from the Stephen Glass story or the Jason Blair story. The idea is there are many involved who can suffer, if just one person on staff acts unethically.

Lastly, I believe the best way to make sure students know how to behave is by having a strong editorial group of leaders that will mentor the younger members. For the first assignment a JI must shadow a JII or JIII. This has been beneficial for younger staff members to see that this is serious business.

Building relationships with faculty members:

In the same manner advisers must gain the trust of your students by being consistent and fair, they must establish the same rapport with the faculty. This can occur with the manner in which reporters behave outside of class.

The number one way to lose the trust of faculty members is to have an unprofessional staff. If the staff abuses the press passes, does a poor job reporting quotes or just prints a lot of false information and poorly edited material, fellow faculty members will lose all confidence in you and your staff.

One major rule to establish when covering a sport or club is to always have your reporter consult the coach or sponsor for their input. Too often the coach becomes upset because he was never approached about the issue the reporter is covering. This is not to say the reporter always has to use the quote but the reporter will always involve the person.

You must also stress to your staff to be fair with criticism and let faculty members share their side of the story when students feel strongly about an issue. The newspaper represents the entire school community, not just the students.

In addition always have your staff be on the lookout for stories taht are not just negative concerning faculty members. Seldom do local media cover teachers for doing good things. Trust is built by showing the faculty the staff cares about what is going on in the classroom.

Another way to get the faculty involved is to invite them on trips and conferences as chaperones and just to see what happens outside of the building. You will probably need extra help on trips to NSPA and CSPA conferences so bring faculty members along. In regards to getting them involved, our staff also consults a few members of the faculty when it comes to story ideas. The teachers get really excited when the students follow through with an idea they discovered.

Lastly, it never hurts to invite them to events where food is involved. I know this sounds like bribery but it works. Trust me, it works. Involve them in your celebration of Scholastic Journalism Week and of Teachers Appreciation Week.

Building relationships with administration:

Many of the same rules that apply for building relationships with faculty members apply to building relationships with administration. The best way to gain their trust is to establish a responsible, respectable and hard-working staff.

If your staff is not a discipline problem then the administration will have a much better relationship with you. Keep the administration involved with stories by using them as sources in a fair manner. Invite them to observe your staff at work in the classroom, from story assignment to layout days. Invite your administration to conferences and trips, especially if you might win an award. Invite them to your year end banquet and have them witness your finally celebration of a year of hard work.

Have the editor-in-chief speak to the faculty at the opening faculty meeting before school starts to introduce herself and explain the process of how the newspaper works. So many faculty and administration do not understand how much goes on. If your EIC can make this connection the school staff might have a new found appreciation for what they do.

The one major hurdle you must leap is to be careful about yielding to all of the administration’s requests. If you are not firm with your reporting standards you can become merely a propaganda machine for the administration. Once you have lost your credibility in this manner then everyone else you have built a relationship with may lose respect as well.

Building relationships with support staff:

This may be more important than anything else. One of the main reasons why our staff is able to get the information they need and to conduct the business they do is due to the secretaries, the custodians and the security guards. Without these people my staff would not be able to do have of the work they do.

Our head custodian is always available to explain how part of the building works. Our attendance secretary can tell a staff member where any student is at any point of the day. Our front office secretary can get you into see the principal before anyone else can. The guidance secretary can tell you as much about college and scheduling as many of the counselors. These resources must be thanked and respected regularly.

At the holidays we send them a card. During the appreciation weeks we send them some candy. They help us in so many ways I cannot begin to list the ways here.

Building relationships with parents:

Contact the parents early and often. It is advisable to contact them early with good news about their child so that if they ever mess up you have already spoken on good terms. Send a letter home that explains what you do and how you do it.

Just like with students, be consistent and fair. Let parents know how things are run and that the students are involved in the decision of the policies in the manual. Everything that you do to establish the respect with the students should work with the parents as well.

Be sure to invite them on trips and to your awards banquet. You might even want to establish a parent group to help with food on workdays and fundraising for miscellaneous items. Sport teams have team moms, why not journalism programs.

The biggest suggestion is to provide an open line of communication. If that means through a monthly newsletter or blog, do something so they are kept in the loop.

Building relationships with community:

This can really be an extension of how you cover what goes on outside your school. This year we covered many organizations and events outside of school not regularly approached by the local media.

We covered a homeless shelter, the animal shelter and a local plant being built. All three of these stories in addition to others showed community members what a professional organization our students run. Adults are blown away by the smallest things our staff does. And they cannot even fathom the bigger things. As teachers we see how capable our staff is everyday but because adults don’t experience that they somehow doubt their ability.

Invite them to your banquet as well. The end of the year banquet is really an excellent opportunity to have everyone come together.

Set up newsstands outside of your building so they have access to your publications. Establish a mailing list for interested customers.

Sell ad space to them. I know this sounds like only a reward for you but believe it or not your ad for them could bring them business.

Finally never forget that the community is just as involved as anyone in your building in impacting the students’ lives.

More actions you can take as an adviser:

  • Explain to the students the adviser’s role and make it clear in writing. Have the students read and understand the paper’s forum status and what it means for them.

Students may not understand the difficult position media advisers are in as both an associate with the staff and a member of the faculty, that at times might be criticized by the same paper. Students need to understand they must be responsible for the content decisions and the leadership. Courts have made it clear that as a public employee speaking out against your school places you in a difficult position. One case made it risky to be associated with critical speech (Garcetti Case 2006). Additionally the Connick and Pickering cases have left doubt whether or not an adviser’s speech could be considered “a matter of public concern.”

Students need to be informed of their rights and of the status of the paper. They also need to know about cases such as Tinker and Hazelwood and what constitutes language or speech that is censorable. Additionally if the staff does not understand under which forum the paper is functioning, the may be ill-prepared to make content decisions.

  • Establish a process for the students for leadership.

Just because you tell the staff they need to be the leaders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the students will know how to organize themselves. Establish a clear organizational process of choosing stories for the paper and stand clear of the process. If at any time the administration attempts to censor their work – they must take up the fight. It is more difficult for the adviser to sue on behalf of the students than it is for the students to sue outright. (1992 Louisiana Case – Geraldine Moody)

  • Introduce the students to their options and remind them that they are responsible for their fight against censorship.

Students need to know what legal precedent has been set in regards to their First Amendment rights. They need to be instructed about Hazelwood and Tinker and many of the other cases. This will allow them to understand what outcomes may occur if a situation arises. They also need to know who to contact about legal concerns. This past year at James Madison University, student photographers were shocked to find out their newspaper offices had been entered by area police to confiscate computers and cameras for evidence. The quick thinking editor of the Breeze immediately called the SPLC and gained the legal aid they needed to stop (or at least minimize) the seizure.

  • Avoid insubordination.

This is one of the tips listed in the SPLC Law of the Student Press, but it is a tip anyone would benefit from following. It is upsetting if your boss attempts to illegally censor the publication. However your situation will only get worse if you do not listen to your boss. Remember let the students fight for their First Amendment rights. If you have done your job as an adviser they should be well equipped to battle your boss without your help. Courts have not traditionally been on the side of employers who have censorship claims confused with labor claims.

  1. Let your students’ work be recognized and stand on its own merit.

I have been entering the staff’s work for the past ten years and although it might not be a “get out of jail free” card it will help validate the work that your staff does on a state and national level. In many of the cases, the standing record of the adviser is often mentioned in part of the defense of the adviser’s actions. A staff that has been awarded state and national acclaim understandably would be a responsible staff and the burden of proof for censorship might fall on the shoulders of the administration. Again this has never won a case in a court of law, but it brings positive light on the work your students do and it proves to some that sound editorial judgment takes place on staff.

  • Find a friend in nearby advisers and in the JEA.

It is nearly impossible to start as an adviser and not make mistakes. However if there is someone who has been working as a veteran adviser for many years nearby then perhaps that individual can serve as an adviser to the younger adviser. If something happens on staff that is questionable – the adviser might want to ask his/her mentor for guidance.

This will not solve all of the problems in the fight for protected speech, but in many cases these actions if applied early might have helped in the fight for a scholastic press free from prior review and the long arm of Hazelwood.

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