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Brett Kavanaugh’s 1983 yearbook provides teachable moments


Yearbooks are forever.

We wear this statement on matching T-shirts, mail it home on marketing postcards and proudly display it on homemade posters created by dedicated publications staffs nationwide.

But less than one week before National Yearbook Week 2018, the phrase takes on new significance during the hearings surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Earlier this week, Kavanaugh’s 1983 Georgetown Prep yearbook page made the news for its references to drinking and partying along with coded mentions of a female classmate that appear to be demeaning inside jokes.

Seeing a yearbook page in the news is always a teachable moment, of course. Journalism teachers can show students — and other stakeholders — the value of yearbooks as historical record, as memory keepers and, depending on one’s perspective, possibly as a sort of character reference. The way people hold on to yearbooks, as Heather Schwedel describes in this Slate article, draws attention to a student publication 35 years later as a form of historical evidence.

What complicates the larger discourse is the social media noise, which quickly shifted to placing blame on the yearbook adviser and others responsible for producing the publication. A tweet by Soledad O’Brien questioned the adviser, and the comments that followed illustrate the wide range of uninformed public opinions about what should and shouldn’t find its way into a yearbook — and who plays a hand in that decision.

What can yearbook staff members learn from the 1983 Cupola?

Recent H.L. Hall National Yearbook Adviser of the Year winners share their perspectives to help add context and offer guidance for students and teachers discussing this in their journalism classes.


What is the role of the adviser?

“Advisers are responsible for helping guide staff members in understanding their responsibilities and through challenges they face. They are not there to censor or to dictate content. They are there to provide support, advice and direction. Advisers are not there to serve as editors of student publications. They are there to help students establish the standards and guide them.”

— Brenda Field, MJE; Glenbrook South High School (Glenbrook, Ill.)

“First and foremost, the role of the yearbook adviser is to teach responsible journalism. If we’re doing our jobs, then students will be equipped to make responsible decisions regarding content. And this is what happens every single day in yearbook journalism classrooms across the country. Yes, I read every word that went into the books I advised, as that was the expectation in my school and community. But it was the editors and staff who ultimately determined content.”

— Cindy Todd; retired from Westlake High School (Austin, Texas)


Should topics like teenage drinking and parties be included in high school publications?

“Yearbooks, if done well, should be a journalistic record of the year. Like all good journalism, they should avoid sensationalism and bias. Student editors should see their job as documenting the year in an honest fashion. Yearbooks staffs should hold themselves accountable to ethical standards akin to those in the professional press. They are also responsible for understanding the standards of their school community.”

— Brenda Field, MJE; Glenbrook South High School (Glenbrook, Ill.)

“Editors should make ethical decisions about content. However, The culture of a school reflects its ethics. In no way should a staff gloss over facts or omit them for PR, but the coverage should be journalistic. The culture of Kavanaugh’s school was more problematic than its yearbook.”

— Lori Oglesbee-Petter, MJE; retired from Prosper (Texas) High School


Lots of high school yearbooks today include submitted items and senior quotes. Isn’t this the same thing?

“Kavanaugh’s list of ‘activities’ is filled with inside jokes and suggestive references (defamation included) that good student editors today would never publish. His yearbook serves as an object lesson on why senior quotes, superlatives and gag captions are inappropriate in a journalistic publication that seeks to record the story of a school year. The adviser’s role is to teach the journalistic standards along with critical thinking skills so that editors can make sound content decisions. In this age of ‘fake news,’ yearbook staffs must understand the importance of truth, fairness and accountability as they exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of the press.”

— Brenda Gorsuch, MJE; retired from West Henderson High School (Hendersonville, N.C.)


Is this representative of today’s high school yearbooks?

“Yearbooks have evolved quite a bit since the type of ‘anything goes’ books of the past, and not because of advisers or administrators. Yearbook editors and staffs see their work as an important piece of journalistic work that documents the year. Students have a much broader landscape in which to document their lives now and yearbooks have become more sophisticated, professional pieces of where the students hold themselves the the same journalistic and ethical standards as working professionals. Their books are historic documents that showcase beautiful photography, amazing storytelling and accurate records that represent all students, staff, events, athletics, activities and academics from their schools. There is still of the same garbage that  we see in Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook on social media. And, let’s be clear: that was content he provided. It was not created by the yearbook staff. Bottom line: I have no need to ‘approve’ yearbook content at my school because my students are journalists and take that responsibility very seriously.”

— Nancy Y. Smith, MJE; Lafayette High School (Wildwood, Mo.)


What other questions does this raise for advisers and students?

“While I do not agree or like much of the content in the yearbook pages I’ve seen on social media, I am left wondering:

  1. How much authority (and support) did the school give to the adviser?
  2. How much influence did parents have in the school’s decisions?
  3. What were the community and school expectations of the yearbook?

“I think it is an adviser’s responsibility to guide his/her students to responsible reporting. I do not think the yearbook is a place to glorify poor behavior and/or choices. However, this is a student publication – for students, by students. Students need to make intelligent choices of the book’s content and what they think should represent that year for eternity. Advisers should counsel staffs who are having difficulty seeing the long term effects of ‘hot topics’ in their publication to try to see the big picture.”

— Renee Burke, MJE; former adviser at Boone High School (Orlando, Fla.)


As you discuss the role of yearbooks and the emphasize the important learning opportunity students have as critical thinkers and ethical decision-makers in determining content, let’s continue to celebrate the value of student-produced publications with teaching and guidance from a trained adviser. Let’s share our pride and joy in being part of something permanent, something treasured, transported and passed across generations because it matters not only to those who made it, but — more importantly — to those for whom it was made.

Let’s remind all stakeholders that student journalists can and do make excellent decisions each day in their newsrooms and publications labs. This fall’s JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention in Chicago will recognize some of that outstanding work.

Let’s remind teachers that resources from JEA, including materials here on the SPRC site, lessons in the law and ethics curriculum and support from a mentor can all help yearbook advisers and their student staffers. And let’s help point student editors to best practices and standards outlined in guidebooks from national organizations such as NSPA, CSPA and Quill & Scroll.

Because after all, yearbooks are forever.

One Comment

  1. Our student media leaders and participants know most of this. Time we all–advisers, j-teachers, school pubs leaders & staffs–seize upon this opportunity to educate our school populations. Well done article, Ms. Nichols.

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