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Facing ethical yearbook issues? Some thoughts


by Mary Kay Downes
sprclogoThe 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.

The below guidelines come from members of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee, and are not meant to be all-inclusive.

If you have others you would like to add, or comments on these, we urge you to use the comment section below.

Content:  All aspects of the lives of students have a place in the yearbook. Staffs should not shy away from what some might consider controversial topics such as immigration status, religion, smoking, drug use, tattoos, hookah bars, drinking, features on special education students, mental health, body image, bullying, teen pregnancy, inter-racial dating, features on gay/lesbian/ transgender persons .

Content:  Make all aware that the students of the editorial board make all content decisions. The principal, school board, booster clubs cannot dictate what should or should not be in the book. If you do not have an editorial board, form one. [pullquote]Yearbook staff members should cover controversial topics because they want to tell specific, personal stories about the year and not just cover an issue as they feel “we want to cover drugs.” Such coverage should be a timely and meaningful piece through the lens of the specific year. If it’s happening this year, and if it’s on the minds/mouths of our students, cover it. But don’t cover issues just to cover them.[/pullquote]

Content: Yearbook staff members should cover controversial topics because they want to tell specific, personal stories about the year and not just cover an issue as they feel “we want to cover drugs.” Such coverage should be a timely and meaningful piece through the lens of the specific year. If it’s happening this year, and if it’s on the minds/mouths of our students, cover it. But don’t cover issues just to cover them.

Content: Try diligently to cover all students and not just the ones who will be covered automatically via sports and clubs. Make a true effort to reach out to the unseen students and to avoid over-coverage of those who are involved in many activities.

Records: The scores for each game/match as well as win loss record must be included for all sports. This applies even if every game is lost. We are not in the business to make failure go away for the record.

Records: Yearbooks are “history book” and it is students’ responsibility to put even the tough losses and losing seasons in context because nobody else will.

Images: No images should be altered in any way to present a more favorable image. There can be no photo-shopping of pictures to delete anything. Crop if you must, but no alterations.

Images: No images can be taken from the Internet for publication without written permission of the copyright owner. “Courtesy of Google” is not a legal citation. This applies to pictures of world events, maps, movie ads, album covers.

Images: No images can be “flipped” so they face a certain way – off or into the spreads.

Images: Photos appearing in the book should be the work of students — not companies, professional photographers or faculty contributors. Images should be credited individually.

Images: With the desire to cover celebrities and pop culture there can be temptation to use images from social media and the Internet. Remember that all such images must be credited and used with permission. Encourage students who want to cover celebrities and pop culture to either purchase the supplements that all YB companies offer, or just cover what they can take pictures of themselves. This is easier for staffs who live in celebrity-rich areas.

Advertising: Have a policy on paper with regard to accepting unsolicited ads. Try to anticipate situations so you will be prepared if an ad is submitted, say for a beer company, and you feel the need to not accept it for publication. Take care to ensure the percentage of the book the ad section does not run overrun actual content. The practice of sponsoring pages by businesses should be scrutinized as the practice is not something we see in professional publications.

Affordability: We owe it to the students and to the community to put out affordable products. Everyone deserves a copy of the record of the year, not just the well-heeled. Care should be taken to make the product affordable which will also spur sales.

Superlatives: Great care should be taken if your students choose this to be a feature of your book. There have been lawsuits over appellations that can be considered pejorative. “Best Partier” “Biggest Flirt” “Most Likely to Live in Mom’s Basement” “Teacher’s Nightmare” Most likely to be on the wall of the post office.”  While this section can be a fun read, it is not appropriate to single out a few of the class for praise or for humorous purposes.

Superlatives: Often the yearbook program runs the contest. Thus they are “creating the news” – this is not a journalistic way to operate. IF the SGA, ASB, senior class or other entity runs such a contest, it can be covered as an event, but should not be the sole content of the senior section.

Superlatives: Should superlatives be included, the staff should provide details about how the winners  were selected, by whom, voter turnout, date(s) of voting, etc. to make it as specific and credible as possible. As with everything — inclusion of superlatives is a student decision, and while advisers may be nervous about the book including a feature like this, the teacher/adviser role is one of guidance and counsel in discussion, with students deciding whether to run superlatives and why/how.

Senior Quotes and Wills: Many of the quotes are taken without permission from song lyrics and copyrighted materials. To be safe, do not include. Wills are best written by a lawyer.

Senior Personal Ads: While these are a great source of income, they tempt parents into plagiarism. Make it a policy to inform parents at the get go that song lyrics and copyrighted material will not be accepted.

Senior Personal Ads: Often parents try to submit proof pictures from a photo company to use in the section without paying for them. This is unethical and illegal.

Infographics: No charts with statistical information can be included if not created by the staff, and sources must be attributed. INFORMATION IS attributable, BUT CREATE/ Design YOUR OWN INFOGRAPHICS.

Proofread: Hammer in the necessity for many pair of eyes to look over all submissions to ensure that someone with an agenda does not alter the copy in any way to write something mean, cruel or silly as a “joke.” Lawsuits have been filed against such acts.

Proofread: Encourage students to use tools online like Urban Dictionary in order to be even more thorough regarding what messages mean.

Initials: Make it a policy to not print any group of initials in senior personal ads. NONE is best. You do not want to have your book be a source of humor to those who get “inside jokes” especially if they are at the expense of others.

Quotations: Take great care to interview professionally and to never “make up quotes” just because a deadline approaches. Conduct interviews as conversations and reap the “money quotes” from those conversations. Read them back to the subject to ensure clarity. However, do not allow prior review of the story before submitting.

Additional considerations?
–Will your students have a corrections policy?
–Will your students have a policy on covering death?
–What will be the policy on covering the yearbook staff?
–Does your staff have an obligation to emphasize events or issues of “bigger significance?” What role will news values play?


  1. I would love to share this in a yearbook workshop. Would you allow me to do so?

    • Yes, you have our permission to use and cite this content. Thanks for asking. JBowen

      • Thanks so much! I am happy to cite it!

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