The old saying “any press is good press” is no longer true,according to some high school coaches and teachers.
Besides being historical records for their schools, studentnewspapers and yearbooks serve as educational tools about the First Amendmentrights of freedom of speech and press. However, according to some journalismeducators, many people within the educational system itself don’t always seemto understand or uphold these rights.
While it is well-recognized that administrators oftenpressure student editors and journalism advisers to censor their publications,sometimes the pressure comes from other sources within the school.
Melissa Dixon, a teacher at Oak Mountain High School inBirmingham, Ala., met resistance this year from a basketball coach at herschool when she tried to get the team’s scores for the yearbook. In her 12years advising the yearbook staff of the Paragon, she hadn’t comeacross that problem before.
The coaches hadn’t kept track of the freshman team’s scores,so Dixon asked a parent for the win-loss record. After she had gotten thatinformation, the coach asked her not to publish the record at all.
“He just decided that he didn’t feel like it was appropriateto make the team look bad,” she said. “When I explained to him that it was ahistorical record, he said that the parents are very upset with the coachesbecause of the [season] and he just asked that I didn’t put it in.”
Because Dixon is friends with the coach and sees him at theschool often, she worried about their future relationship. After correspondingwith other advisers by email, she ultimately decided to publish the win-lossrecord in the yearbook.
Tom Gayda, Region Six director for the Journalism EducationAssociation and a teacher at North Central High School in Indianapolis, saidwhenever teachers have issues within their own schools, he encourages them toexplain the role of the press to those in opposition.
“I find [not giving scores] silly, because at the end of theday it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad season,” he said. “I don’tknow why they think that by not giving that information or acting like itdidn’t happen it makes the truth go away. Had the kids been keeping trackthemselves, they wouldn’t have had to ask and it would’ve been included anyway.Situations like that are a little bizarre.”
Bizarre as they may be, situations where journalism advisersare pressured by those within the same school system to withhold certaininformation or publish favorable facts aren’t uncommon.
Dana Juenemann, teacher and adviser to TheStampede newspaper and Bison yearbook staffs atMcCook High School in Nebraska, dealt with a similar situation this schoolyear. A student working on the swim team’s page for the yearbook went to thecoaches to get the scores and was told she couldn’t have them.
“I honestly never thought it would be a problem to getscores, ever,” she said. “Our swim team improved a lot, but they didn’t win,and they don’t want that in the yearbook. My thought was, ‘Don’t ever tell ajournalist that they can’t have something, because they will find a way to getit, especially if it’s factual information.’”
Juenemann turned to the community newspaper to get thescores. When it comes to being pressured, she said, more often it’s requestsfor stories that show the school in a favorable light.
“Overall, they want us to make them look good,” she said.“It doesn’t matter whether it’s newspaper or yearbook. It seems like coaches,the administration, anybody gets upset if we bring anything to their attentionthat is not only controversial, but might show there are problems.”
Juenemann said she’s also dealt with comments from communitymembers and those within the school who’ve said they can’t believe the staffwrites articles about a team not winning.
“I really preach to my sports writers that … it’s anarticle, it’s not ‘Yay team let’s do better,’” she said. “That’s not your job,and if you want to be a cheerleader, go try out for cheerleading. In hereyou’re a writer and I need you to be objective and tell it like it is, as longas you back it up.”
Trying to find a balance
Oftentimes many bright-eyed, fresh out of college journalismeducators and publications advisers are plopped into unfamiliar school systemsand wished good luck. In response, the Journalism Education Association starteda mentoring program through its regional organizations to help support thoseteachers in their first two years.
Georgia and Wayne Dunn taught journalism in Ohio for 28 and30 years, respectively. After retiring, they began working with the JEA’smentorship program in their area when it began five years ago. While mentoringthe teachers lasts only two years, the Dunns said they continue to provide helpand advice thereafter.
Wayne Dunn said it can be precarious for new teachers whoare trying to find a balance covering the school while also trying to avoidtrouble.
Georgia Dunn said the impulse to give in to censorshippressure can be especially strong when journalism programs are endangered.“Here in Ohio, as in many other states, we’re having tremendous financialproblems for schools. They’re cutting teachers right and left, and programslike newspaper are being dropped,” she said.
She said one of the most important things she and herhusband tell teachers is to educate students about their rights, because thestudents may have to fight the battle. With many teachers starting off withone-year contracts, sometimes they can’t afford to push back because “if he orshe is given a direct order not to do something they have to follow it or riskbeing fired for insubordination.”
While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech andpress, student journalists aren’t necessarily afforded the full extent of thosefreedoms. The 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decisionby the U.S. Supreme Court gave public high school administrators greaterability to censor school-sponsored student publications, unless policy orpractice indicates that the publication operates as a “public forum” run bystudents.
In the years since, seven states — California, Oregon,Arkansas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado and Kansas — have passed laws givinghigh school students stronger protections for freedom of expression than under Hazelwood.
While the First Amendment and state law may protect studentjournalists against official acts of censorship by principals, superintendentsor school boards, there is not necessarily a First Amendment right to be freeof harassment by peers and community members – and that is sometimes wherejournalists suffer the most severe backlash for what they write.
In a particularly extreme case, student journalists atMuncie Central High School in Indiana who broke a story about a 2004 scandalinvolving allegations of illicit payments to members of the school’s popularbasketball team found themselves targeted for retaliation both officially andunofficially. Their photo credentials for several sporting events were yanked,a writer received a threatening text message, and the editor’s car and homewere vandalized.
‘Bodies to be controlled’
Experts in student journalism say it’s important to educatethe whole school community, from administrators to students, about theconstructive role that an uncensored news outlet can play in bringing problemsto light to be fixed.
SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein said it’s often“controversial” articles about problems within the school or with athleticteams that inspire things to go right in the future.
“From the perspective of a coach who has never had to teachjournalism or never had to be a journalist, writing about how the team lostjust feels mean,” he said. “Journalism students don’t report these things toantagonize the athletic teams or to make anybody feel bad about themselves,they report about these things so people can adjust and people can change andoffer more support.”
Juenemann, the adviser in Nebraska, said it’s usually thearticles that don’t seem controversial that end up being problems.
“It’s kind of a deal-with-it-as-it-comes type of thing,” shesaid. “When it happens to my kids, if they are going to do somethingcontroversial in our newspaper, they have to be able to defend it to me and a coupleother teachers before it’s going to go to press. Because I teach in Nebraskaand we don’t have a Student Freedom of Expression Act, we have to be very, verycareful. I just prepare my kids the best I can so that [censorship] doesn’thappen.”
In a time when schools are being criticized for lacklustertest scores or for wasting tax money, “student journalists researching orwriting a truthful story can be seen as damaging a school’s public reputation,”said Edmund J. Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic PressAssociation in New York.
“Few teachers other than journalism advisers have a realinterest in helping student journalists practice those rights,” Sullivan said.“Too many adults in schools look at students as bodies to be controlled and notyoung minds to be educated.”
Image isn’t everything
Dixon, the Alabama adviser, has been able to face down peerpressure to censor because of a supportive relationship with heradministration, which she cultivated over years of successfully advising theyearbook staff at Oak Mountain. By demonstrating she was capable of dealingprofessionally with controversy in the yearbook program, Dixon was able toavoid the mandatory prior administrative review imposed on the newspaper undera previous adviser.
This doesn’t mean that the yearbook always runs without aripple. In one instance, a student in Dixon’s yearbook class asked a footballcoach for confirmation of a player in a photograph for a spread. She said thecoach saw a prominent quote on the page that he didn’t like.
“The coach asked them to pull it out,” she said. “I stood myground there and said something to the effect of, ‘I don’t go on your field andcoach your kids and tell you what plays to run, and so you won’t be telling mewhat goes in the yearbook.’”
Dixon said dealing with pressure, especially from thosewithin the same school, isn’t something you can be trained for — it’s aboutlearning from mistakes.
Ultimately, it’s not the job of student journalists orjournalism educators to provide public relations material for the school,Goldstein said. The most important message journalism educators can impart toadministrators, coaches or fellow teachers is the need to educate students isgreater than the school’s image, he said.
“When you’re educating them in journalism, that meanswriting about things that aren’t always good,” he said. “Go out and pick up anynewspaper and you’ll see stories about athletic teams that lost and, you knowwhat, people still love the team. Every year, every newspaper in Chicago hasbeen writing about how the Cubs lost, but there are still a ton of Cubs fans.”
By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer