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Should it stay or should it go?

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by Teresa Scribner, CJE

After spending 17 years in the newspaper industry as a visual journalist, I feel like I have a solid grasp on leaving my personal beliefs at the door when I walk into a newsroom. For years, I bit my tongue on politics, religion and reality TV. Being able to compartmentalize has served me well – first in the industry and now as a teacher. 

I’m four months into my ninth year of teaching, and it has taken years to teach my students how to set aside their personal beliefs when they are covering their peers. But what happens when the one thing you try to teach your students comes back to bite you in the worst way?

In 2020 P.C. (Pre-COVID), I had two alums from our school reach out to me asking if I could remove a story from our website. Both students cited their growth since high school and their fear of future employers seeing the stories during an Internet search. Both students acknowledged that the written stories were accurate, but now that they were college students, those stories were no longer an accurate portrayal of who they are today.

Just a few weeks ago, another student emailed asking if I could remove her photo from a graduation video that had been up since June. Why now? What was I to do?

Just a few weeks ago, another student emailed asking if I could remove her photo from a graduation video that had been up since June. Why now? What was I to do?

I’ve seen several teachers pose this same question in the journalism teachers group on Facebook. What do you do when former students want you to remove them from stories published long ago?

My first instinct was to trust my news judgement gut. The stories were accurate. My student journalists had provided solid, well-researched stories. We had media waivers on file for all of the students we used. All of our bases were covered. 

And then my teacher’s light switched on. The story in question was about non-Black students using the n-word. What if my refusal to remove these stories cost my former students their dream job? What if they wanted to be on the Supreme Court, and these stories came up as they sat for their confirmation hearings? Would it be my fault if these kids couldn’t get a job?

Some of the responses on the Facebook page went with what would be best for the students, while others suggested editing the old stories to remove references or unflattering images. I ultimately decided to remove the student’s name from the story, even though it had been in the digisphere for more than six years. And if you do a search for the story, the student’s name will still pop up, although their name isn’t in the story anymore. 

Why did I do it? 

As for the other two students: one of them was a former staff member who didn’t want their byline on a story they deemed used “horrible language.” The other student claimed they did not give us permission to use their photo in a video, even though we had a copy of their media waiver on file. In both of these instances, I did not honor their requests.

The short answer is, “people change.” I knew this former student had gone on to become a star student in college and had even offered to come back to the school to run a program for students of color. When they first approached me, they insisted on talking on the phone and not over email so that they could sincerely express their regret in using the n-word. And I believed them. 

Now, will it earn them a spot on the Supreme Court? I don’t know. But I do feel better about my decision knowing this student had learned from their past behavior.

As for the other two students: one of them was a former staff member who didn’t want their byline on a story they deemed used “horrible language.” The other student claimed they did not give us permission to use their photo in a video, even though we had a copy of their media waiver on file. In both of these instances, I did not honor their requests.

Neither one of these students, in my opinion, had offered a compelling argument beyond their “I-don’t-like-it” approach.

Some may see this as unfair; why do it for some and not for others. For me, the answer was easy. These two students would still be able to get a job if someone were to ever see what it was they were complaining about. The student who wanted to be removed from the video had no complaints about being included in the virtual graduation video or in the yearbook.

I do not know if there is a right answer, but it may serve you well to think about having a policy in place.

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