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‘Stupid teen stuff’ in student media
can alter history, shape future


by John Bowen, MJE

Private jokes, misleading and fabricated information have no place in yearbook journalism. In any journalism.

To simplify, in a Sept. 27 hearing about whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should become a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court, a yearbook sparked controversy years later about the meaning and truthfulness of some content.

People and events around that yearbook and some people noted in it led to an expanded FBI investigation and the attention of millions of people across the country.

In an email to JEA’s listserv, Steve O’Donoghue of California called what happened “an object lesson to every yearbook adviser.

Ignoring politics,” O’Donoghue wrote, “a man was being quizzed about stupid teen stuff by the senate almost four decades later, an inquiry that could determine whether he should sit on the Supreme Court.”

Candace Bowen of Ohio added to O’Donoghue’s comments.

“He (the nominee) also said the editors deliberately made it like ‘Caddy Shack,’ ‘Animal House’ and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ movies popular then, Bowen wrote. “I want the former yearbook editor to step up and comment. He (Kavanaugh) also indicated he wasn’t sure if HE had written what was in the book or if the editors had altered it.

All the political issues aside, this is not how yearbook advisers and staffers would want their yearbook or other student media discussed 50 years, 10 years or two hours later.

As student media staff and advisers continue to discuss the issues and examine possible guidelines for their coverage, here are some materials that might help schools produce journalistically sound and accurate student-run media:

  • Yearbook ethics guidelines:  Yearbook staffs are responsible for creating an annual publication that becomes the permanent record of the school and the school population they serve. The publication they create will serve as a record/history book, memory book, business venture, classroom laboratory and public relations tool for the district. Because the functions of the publication are so far reaching, and the publication itself is an historical document, the ethical questions facing the yearbook staff are challenging and unique.
  • Ethical guidelines for monitoring yearbook coverage:  utting the yearbook together is hard work, but the yearbook staff must avoid every temptation to cut corners and only take pictures of their friends, the first person they see in the hallway or the most high profile athlete, musician or student. Develop a system with a live index so you can track in real time how many times each individual has been in the yearbook and seek out underrepresented students and avoid over represented students.
  • Senior superlatives :Publishing senior superlatives, if seniors decide they are worthwhile at all, is one of those “traditions” best moved from student media to those who most clearly benefit – the senior class. Face it, publishing senior superlatives is akin to publishing fake news. They are not newsworthy, not in line with most student media mission statements and not factually based. It can also be argued they take precious funding from other more journalistically responsible topics.
  • Senior quotes: Senior wills, April Fool’s issues and senior quotes sometimes can be considered the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They have minimal journalistic value and can quickly damage a staff’s –– and a school’s –– reputation and credibility.  Senior quotes present too much potential for damage and turn over too much control of your student publications to students who are not trained in legal and ethical considerations. Libel, innuendo, and bullying could be slipped into content, and it may slip past your editors or advisers, thus causing harm to students and damaging your publication.
  • April Fools : These  issues are fake news and can damage student media’s credibility.  Yes, some find them acceptable, but their negatives far outweigh their positives. The ultimate question is are they worth the risks?



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