HS Newspapers: Meet the (Student) Press
As school publications struggle with the age-old issues of limited resources and censorship, many students may be losing interest in the power of the press—and their own rights.
By Rebecca L. Weber
Two days before Maurice J. McDonough High School’s RamPage is scheduled to go to press, sophomore Meg Ren sits at a worktable in the middle of the windowless publications room, drafting an article on the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) in longhand. Meg signed up for journalism to get a tech credit without using computers, but her strategy backfired—newspaper advisor Kim Eggerton has all the students at the Pomfret, Maryland, school shift roles throughout the year.
A classmate loudly declares that she has none of the articles she needs to lay out the 8-page issue in Adobe InDesign. With a paragraph of her NCLB story written, Meg walks over and delivers a headline for her to type in: “Pah-nah-see-ah or disaster. Question mark.” She misspells panacea, and Meg corrects her.
“You might want to use language that the average ninth-grader understands,” says Nancy Belle, an old hand who’s been reporting since middle school.
“But it’s a cool word,” Meg replies with a smile. “They’ll look at it and think, ‘pancake.’”
On the periphery of the room, where most students are working on a hodge-podge of leftover computers, some a decade old, Kayla Moore downloads images from a digital memory stick purchased by (and borrowed from) the yearbook staff. Unlike most students in this elective class, Kayla says she doesn’t particularly like to write. But, she adds, “I want to be able to answer people’s curiosities.”
In the context of high school journalism, in which administrators frequently vet—and sometimes censor—student publications, that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. When she filed a story on sexually transmitted diseases, Kayla’s principal excised half a dozen paragraphs. “I was really sad. I wanted to fight it,” she says. “But what happens happens. What can you do?”
Censorship of student journalism has been a constant issue since well before the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which ruled that school-sponsored publications do not have full First Amendment protection. What has changed, though, is how students like Kayla feel about those rights. Nearly three-fourths of high school students surveyed by the Knight Foundation either don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted. Just 51 percent believe that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval. “Our nation’s high schools are failing their students when it comes to instilling in them appreciation for the First Amendment,” say the study’s authors, who surveyed over 100,000 high school students as part of the Future of the First Amendment project.
That future appears to be a mixed bag. While only 21 percent of the nation’s high schools have no form of student media, 40 percent of high schools without papers have eliminated them within the past five years, the survey said. And while most administrators recognize that j-students learn to ask better questions than “Is this going to be on the test?” conduct personally meaningful research, write effectively, work in groups, and flex leadership skills, the elective isn’t their top priority. Some 85 percent say they’d like to expand their schools’ media programs, but usually cite finances or student apathy as reasons why they can’t.
Mark Xandrine Sneed knows a bit about student apathy and limited resources. Counselors at his Oakland, California, school used to use his journalism class as a dumping ground, he says. But when his students found out that athletes at McClymonds High School had special access to new computers and the Internet while they were stuck with ancient machines and no printer, they wrote an article. “Before the second issue, we had new computers,” Sneed says. “The kids watched and saw the power of words.”
The occasional op-ed on what to wear to prom or sports story on month-old b-ball tournaments may be inevitable, but accountability and exposure frequently fuel investigative passions. Earlier this year, for instance, high school journalists in Minnesota won national attention after methodically uncovering the true identity of a 24-year-old sex offender posing as a 17-year-old British royal at their school.
Not all stories see the light of day, though. Only one-quarter of principals surveyed by the Knight Foundation agreed that high school students should be allowed to report controversial issues without their approval. While liability issues are frequently touted as the reasons for prior review, most often it’s not about legal protection but controlling messages, says Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which offers free legal assistance to student journalists and advisors (see “Legal Aid,” page 36). “Schools treat [prior review] as if it’s normal and respected,” Goodman says, “but really it teaches a troublesome lesson about the role of an independent press.”
Linda Ballew, the Dow Jones National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year, knows the value of nurturing relationships with administrators. Her own principal at Great Falls High School in Montana visits the newspaper room, dines with the staff, and has even attended scholastic journalism conferences. But last spring, senior Roman Stubbs wrote a story involving a freshman who’d stabbed another student. Roman’s reporting took several months: he researched court records and interviewed the school psychologist and assistant principal. Legal consultation established that using the name of the student was acceptable, as the minor’s identity was already a matter of public record. Still, Ballew knew the danger of publishing a story charged with violence and racial tensions. She gave her principal a heads-up before the article went to press so he would be prepared for phone calls from parents.
But it was Ballew who wasn’t prepared for a phone call. While at the spring National Scholastic Journalism Convention with some of her staff, issues of the new magazine hit campus. Soon after distribution began, the administration confiscated nearly 1,000 copies. Ballew only found out after a student called her cell phone.
Once back in Great Falls, Ballew provided documentation establishing that the student’s privacy had not been violated, and the issue was ultimately distributed. Roman and some of Ballew’s other students would later decide that the seized paper was itself newsworthy. “It’s not going to be front page news, but it will be in the newspaper again,” Ballew says. The administrators, she adds, “know it’s coming.”
At McDonough, Eggerton hasn’t experienced similar levels of controversy over the RamPage. But her principal’s practice of prior review has prompted self-censoring among students, she says.
“When tossing out ideas, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we can’t do it because it will get stomped on.’ And I’ve said, ‘Let’s see if that’s the case,’” says Eggerton. “I’m not going into that battle if they don’t want to.”
Eggerton is better prepared to fight that battle than most advisors. When she applied for jobs teaching English two years ago, she made sure to pitch her previous career as an editor. But about three out of five student media advisors did not consider teaching the subject until after they were out of college, and few have substantial journalism experience of their own.
While the changing world of media and the Internet are new challenges for advisors, in McDonough’s publications room, none of the computers are networked, and the students aren’t too concerned about being broadcast competitive. They do care about watching their peers open the paper to read about testing, safe sex, and the latest tunes. For this to happen, they need to get to press on time. Which, at many student publications, winds up being the greatest challenge of all.
By the end of the period, with deadline now just one day away, senior Lauren Pierce, RamPage’s editor, looks at a mostly blank page and plugs in reminders such as “Caption about prom.” When she sees the headline for the still-unwritten NCLB article, she half-jokingly asks, “What’s the pancreas story about?”
Boosting the Bottom line
Chemistry teachers don’t fundraise for lab experiments, but journalism classes usually cover their own costs.
Most student newspapers have to balance their budgets by actively looking for advertising. “I consider selling ads part of the curriculum,” says Maryland advisor Kim Eggerton. “It’s part of how journalism works.” Here are a few ways to help pay for the power of the press:
Gather demographic data about the spending power of your school’s students and brainstorm how to present it for maximum impact, suggests Sandy Woodcock of the Newspaper Association of America. For example, instead of telling a local business that teens spend an average of $87 per week, tell them that the 2,000 students at your school have an annual buying power of over $9 million.
Early in the year, have students learn layout by making dummy ads for local advertisers. Approaching potential clients with the mock-ups will help small businesses readily see the possibilities.
The High School Ad Network is a new venture connecting national advertisers with high school papers. Visit http://www.highschoolads.org/ .
A low-cost alternative to costly newsprint and ink is taking your student newspaper online. The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Knight Foundation sponsor the not-for-profit Web service http://my.highschooljournalism.org/ , which hosts sites for $50.
Watching the Watchers
Same-sex marriage. War in Iraq. White House cover-ups. With mainstream media focusing on these headlines, it’s not surprising that student journalists want to take on the same issues from a teen perspective. But what makes for hot copy in a student newspaper or yearbook can also give administrators cold feet.
“Addressing those issues has caused an increase in school administrators’ [attempts] to censor the student press, to sanitize the school paper,” says NEA Assistant General Counsel Michael D. Simpson, who previously served as the Student Press Law Center’s (SPLC) executive director. “The student press is addressing a whole slew of controversial issues, which enhance the reaction of administrators to try and shut them down.”
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit, says that censorship attempts remain the group’s top concern. SPLC’s mission is to “advocate for student free-press rights and provide information, advice, and legal assistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.” That breaks down to not only tirelessly providing specific advice on media law to students, advisors, and administrators when problems arise, but also offering all manner of workshops and materials for classroom use.
SPLC offers a wealth of online and print resources—like its book, Law of the Student Press—to help youth and adults. Getting grounded in press law is a cornerstone of many journalism classes, and teachers can download Microsoft PowerPoint presentations on key issues. If students or advisors find themselves in a position where they have no alternative but to go to court, SPLC helps find lawyers willing to donate their time. (See their site at www.splc.org.)
Even when students don’t succeed in saving a controversial story from the cutting-room floor, it’s often a teachable moment. For students “who aren’t about to overcome censorship in an immediate sense, we are able to help them anticipate the next act of censorship they might confront, and work to avoid that,” says Goodman.
Several groups offer intensive advisor and student training - a lifeline for advisors who are often one-person departments expected to be well-versed in everything from writing, photography, and design to bookkeeping and press law. A growing number of online resources also offer virtual community when you need last-minute inspiration or long-term camaraderie. Among them:
- High School Journalism.org features 200-plus lessons in archives and interviews with pros. The ASNE Summer Institute offers teachers two weeks of all-expenses paid journalism training.
- The Student Press Law Center is the source for student press rights. If your publication needs free legal assistance, you need the Student Press Law Center.
- Ask other members of the Journalism Education Association for help on its listserv of 700 other high school journalism advisors. JEA also co-sponsors conferences twice a year with the National Scholastic Press Association.
- Submit your paper for a critique through the National Scholastic Press Association.
- Affiliated with the premiere j-school, the Columbia Scholastic Press Association hosts workshops.
- Fellowships, workshops, awards. Check out "In the Beginning," which offers information about getting a paper started.
- The tagline of the Poynter Institute says it best: Everything you need to be a better journalist.
- The Newseum is cyberspace version of the museum of news; includes daily front pages from 400 papers.
- The Freedom Forum funds the Newseum, and focuses on issues of journalistic freedom.
- Links to research by Jack Dvorak, director of the High School Journalism Institute.
- Find out what students think in the Future of the First Amendment study.
- Electronic journalists should check out the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation.