Generation disconnect

High school journalists in Tacoma, Wash., thought they would strike a chord with their target audience by publishing a special edition of their student newspaper devoted to the awkward moments adolescence is so often wrought with. 

Maybe the special issue at Peninsula High School in Washington did get a few guffaws, but they were short-lived, because the high school principal recalled the issue hours after it was distributed. 

Student journalists at a high school in Noblesville, Ind., figured they were doing a public service by writing an article on the risks of oral sex, a practice they said was increasing in popularity among high school students. 

Perhaps the oral sex article would have raised awareness and maybe even spurred conversations between parents and kids (which could have been fodder for its own embarrassing moments issue). But that article has been censored on two separate occasions.

Derek Smith, faculty adviser of the Peninsula Outlook, Peninsula High School’s student newspaper, said his students were trying to do what English teachers have long grilled into them: Write for your audience. 

“I don’t think teachers or administrators are ready to have this backfire,” Smith said.  

That advice works well when the audience is the teacher, Smith said. But when your audience is a group of people who eat up embarrassing stories and talk about, think about and even participate in oral sex, administrators are not so eager for student journalists to follow that advice.

Harder for teens

Being a professional reporter is difficult, but being a student journalist presents a unique set of challenges, Smith said. One of those challenges includes teens wanting to publish pertinent information that speaks to their audience only to have those stories quashed by administrators who are more than twice their age.

“I think being a journalist in our society and culture is hard and doing it as a teenager is even harder,” Smith said.

Libby Hartigan, managing editor of L.A. Youth, a Los Angeles community newspaper written by and for teens, knows firsthand the problems teen journalists face when trying to write stories that will speak to their peers.

“Teens are a very challenging audience,” Hartigan said. “I’ve often seen high school students struggle with the limitations at their newspaper.”

L.A. Youth is not associated with any high school, so its writers do not have to deal with administrative censorship. Hartigan said her writers have tackled such beefy issues as teen prostitution and a story about the “choking game,” a dangerous activity where a person makes someone else pass out by pushing on his or her neck or chest. 

Hartigan acknowledged that teenage readers are drawn to more controversial stories, but even L.A. Youth would not publish every story that a teen audience might be interested in (an article informing readers how to grow marijuana, for example).  Hartigan urges her writers not to write about something just because it is edgy.

“I think [teens] are definitely drawn to that kind of stuff, but the stories that have the most impact are the ones that tell the honest stories,” she said. “They aren’t necessarily the most controversial.”

Hartigan said she is not opposed to her writers tackling some taboo, sex-related issues, as student newspapers sometimes do. 

“If it really shocks and offends, it’s not our purpose to do that, but if it’s important, we’ll go for it,” Hartigan said.  

In late 2005, a high school newspaper in Columbus, Ind., ran a story about oral sex which led to the school board voting on whether administrators should have more control over content in the student newspaper. In a success for high school student newspapers, the Columbus North Consolidated School Board voted against placing tougher restrictions on what the student paper can run. 

Student journalists in Noblesville, Ind., 70 miles from Columbus, have not been so lucky with their oral sex article. In February, Noblesville High School principal Annetta Petty informed students hours before deadline that the article would have to go before a committee that would decide whether the topic was appropriate. Weeks later, the committee recommended the article should run, only to have the superintendent, Lynn Lehman, decide the article had no place in the student paper. 

“He did not believe it was an appropriate subject for a high school,” Petty said of the superintendent’s decision. “The things that might be perceived as being of high interest might be perceived to be shocking to some members of their audience.”

Linda Putney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association, said that discrepancy can lead to “short-sighted” administrators putting restrictions on what students journalist can write.

“There’s definitely a generational disconnect,” Putney said. “That’s pretty painful. If it truly is an issue in the school, it ought to be out there for the world to know and for people to be informed.” 

The middle group

Noblesville and Peninsula high schools are part of a group of student newspapers that want to push the envelope and tackle risky topics but are not able to do so because of administrators. Putney said while having speech stifled by administrators is troubling, she is more concerned with the student newspapers that do not even attempt to write controversial stories.

“There are a whole bunch in the middle that don’t think about what they’re writing,” Putney said. “They’re in the mentality that they don’t want to shake up the boat. Those are the ones that frighten me the most.”

In Port Hope, Mich., the district superintendent called the student newspaper a “PR-type tool” meant only to report the positive news at the district’s one school.  In February, a student reporter covered a school board meeting and said she was told by the superintendent not to include comments from a controversial board member in her article. That student, Sadie Kelly, said she told Superintendent Scott Belt, “I won’t write anything bad, don’t worry.”

Belt said the good-news-only rule does not amount to censorship.

“There really hasn’t been any censorship,” he said. “The paper was formed to really do positive publicity. It’s always been just to give a positive outlook and to be a PR-type tool for the school.”

Learning how to make your school look good is a far cry from doing real journalism, Putney said, and newspapers that operate more like newsletters are robbing students of a chance to get a real journalism education.

“They lose out on critical thinking. They lose out on accepting responsibility on the stands they take. They lose that fire-in-the-belly feeling to go out and change the world,” Putney said. “If you’re just doing a school-spirit-type thing, that doesn’t give you much perspective.”

On the flip side, Putney said about 10-15 percent of student newspapers not only enjoy broad First Amendment rights, but also write important and sometimes controversial stories.

The Tower, the student newspaper of Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., is one such paper, Putney said.

Tower staff member Hayley Theison said the atmosphere at her school lends itself to press freedom. She said the freedom is a result of the good relationship Tower staff has with administrators, a knowledgeable and supportive faculty adviser and a past court case that was a victory for the Tower.

“I’ve never felt any pressure not to write something,” Theison said. “There are bound to be cases where people are going to try to stop you from writing something the general public has the right to know and it’s nice to know our administration doesn’t do that.”

At Mesa Valley High School in Grand Junction, Colo., staff members of the student newspaper, the Orange and Black, appreciate being able to write edgy stories without being censored by administrators.

“I think that our school is more used to approaching controversial topics than others,” said Scott Link, Orange and Black co-editor. “I think a long tradition of loving free speech here really plays a part.”

Smart and savvy

Putney said student journalists can improve their newspapers by gaining a better understanding of their First Amendment rights. Students who do not want to write hard-hitting stories out of fear of getting in trouble are self-censoring, Putney said. 

“That they’re willing to be compliant lets me know they don’t understand the importance of First Amendment rights,” she said.

For student journalists who do want to tackle that story about school board corruption, prescription drug abuse in high schools or even oral sex, knowing their rights is key, especially if administrators have a skewed view of the First Amendment.

 “Sometimes administrators and teachers don’t understand the rights students have,” Putney said. “A lot of illegal things happen and no one blinks.”

Also helpful is showing administrators how other newspapers have responsibly handled sensitive topics in their coverage, said Libby Hartigan of L.A. Youth. She said she knew of a student newspaper adviser who, in an effort to gain administrative support for an upcoming sex survey his students were writing, showed the school principal a similar survey done by Time magazine. The move showed the principal that the topic was credible and important and could be handled tastefully.

Pleasing more than one audience — administrators and high school students — is a difficult challenge, Hartigan said. She stressed the importance of connecting to the high school readers and not falling prey to filling the paper with safe (read: bland) school happenings. 

“A lot of papers are irrelevant to what students are actually thinking about,” Hartigan said. “Students might really be thinking about their favorite punk band and the newspaper is doing a story about the new assistant principal. There’s quite the disconnect.”

But it can be done right, as high school newspapers across the country have proven.

“I think there is a way to cover the news of the school and write about what students care about,” Hartigan said. “But it takes a lot of savvy.”