Every journalist looksfor the money quote — the soundbite that will put the whole story in context.Student journalists at a Puyallup, Wash., high school had no issue gatheringsuch quotes; their war of words would come later.
“I was 15. I washorny. It wasn’t really a relationship at that point. I’d known the guy for aweek.”
Those words from asenior at Emerald Ridge High School — and similar sentiments from four otherpeers — hurtled the Puyallup School District into a 2008 legal battle thatremains active today.
The February 2008issue of the high school’s newspaper, The JagWire, focused on an issue that the student staffthought was important for their audience — casual sex among teens. Content wasdiverse, ranging from the biology involved to debates over morality.
“In general, those arereally real issues for high school kids,” said Lauren Smith, one of theeditorial board members at the time. “It’s important they know what they’regetting themselves into.”
The notion of servingthe audience often gets college and high school publications in hot water whentheir relevant content runs afoul of what administrators, parents or even otherstudents deem good taste.
Risqué content canquickly become risky for student journalists. A few bleep-worthy words or amore-than-suggestive sex column can earn editors and reporters anything from aninbox flooded with angry emails to an earful from school officials to threatsto the publication itself.
So how to handle it?Students and advisers dished on the agony and ecstasy of pushing the limits incampus journalism.
‘Is it too risky?’
The idea to cover oralsex arose from a brainstorming session at a journalism camp. Three JagWire editorial board members were throwing out story ideas, and that one stuck,Smith said.
The trio brought theidea back to the other board members, and with their support, presented it tothe newspaper class.
After anhour-and-a-half discussion about the pros and cons, the students reached anaccord — they would run it.
“We expected people tobe like, ‘Whoa, can’t believe they covered this,’ at first,” Smith said, addingthat they never anticipated legal ramifications.
What the journalistsdeemed relevant to their peers was not what parents considered appropriate. Andwhat raised the most eyebrows, and eventually a lawsuit, were five testimonialsfrom students who were quoted by name about their experience and views on oralsex.
The students and theirparents cried foul, alleging the reporters had identified the intervieweeswithout their consent. The students and their parents sued the school districtfor invasion of privacy, while the paper’s staff countered that the studentshad given their consent to be interviewed.
In 2010, a jury ruledthat by talking openly with clearly identified student journalists, theplaintiffs had given consent to have their information published.
One month later, thestudents filed an appeal, which is headed for oral arguments in January.
But even as its lawyerargued that the newspaper was a public forum that should be free ofadministrators’ meddling, the school district handed down a new policy thefollowing academic year that placed every publication under prior review.
Under Regulation No.3220R, the principal would be allowed to restrict student expression if therewas reason to “forecast that the expression is likely to cause material and substantialdisruption of, or interference with, school activities” or if the speech was“offensively lewd or indecent.”
It was a reversal thattook the students by surprise. Smith, who had graduated by the time the policytook effect, said Principal Brian Lowney had always been supportive of theirfree-press rights.
“He was never tryingto impose prior review,” Smith said. “When he came in the newsroom, he wouldcover his eyes.”
Despite protests fromstudents and free speech advocates, including the Student Press Law Center, theprior review remains in effect, even after the school’s legal victory lastyear.
Students like AllieRickard, who joined the JagWire after the oral sex issue, say the policy hashad deep consequences on what issues the paper covers and how it covers them.
On certain topics,editors thought they should hold off and “be more conservative,” said Rickard,now a freshman at Barnard College.
“We were under themicroscope,” she said. “It was like, ‘Why don’t we just not take chances?’”
The impulse toself-censor was frustrating to students who had little experience withjournalism. What was more frustrating was the continuation of the policy —something students considered a reaction to the lawsuit — after the districtand the paper had been cleared of wrongdoing, Rickard said.
The high school problem
High schooljournalists undoubtedly walk a finer line than their college counterparts, andthe Supreme Court cases governing school expression haven’t made the waters anyless murky.
“It can hardly beargued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights offreedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” reads the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community SchoolDistrict ruling.
Tinker is often called a beacon for the rights ofhigh school students; the Supreme Court confined schools’ ability to regulatespeech or expression on school grounds to “carefully restricted circumstances.”
Yet, nearly 20 yearslater, the Court would take a step back from Tinker in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed school officials to censorpublications not deemed public forums for “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
There is no denying Hazelwood’s continued impact. In May, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went sofar as to cite the Hazelwood standard in legitimizing the censorship of anon-curricular, independent high school newspaper in R.O. v. Ithaca City School District.
Sexually suggestivestick figures may not seem like a major First Amendment fight, but they becameone when staffers at Ithaca High School’s The Tattler newspaper werebarred from running an editorial cartoon in 2005.
The cartoon, riffingon sex education, depicted stick figures in various sexual positions.
To get out from underthe restrictions, the students opted to publish an independent, undergroundpaper with the cartoon – which the school then banned from campus.
The students sued,alleging the school had violated their First Amendment rights. But the appealscourts sided with the district, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene,meaning the precedent will stand in New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
Show good taste
Even as the courtsbattle over legal standards, the issue of whether students should run controversial content remains separate and distinct.
The Society ofProfessional Journalists’ Code of Ethics doesn’t discuss covering taboo topicsspecifically, but it does encourage practitioners to “show good taste” whencompiling articles.
But that tenetshouldn’t lead administrators or students themselves to believe schoolpublications should shy away from touchy subjects, according to experts.
“If studentjournalists have solid reasons to publish profanity or sexually suggestivecontent, they should consider it, but they need to carefully weigh thepotential benefits against the potential harms,” said Neil Ralston, SPJ’s vicepresident of campus chapter affairs and assistant professor at Western KentuckyUniversity.
Those benefits mayinclude relevance to the audience.
The pages of TexasTech University’s La Ventana yearbook have been graced by everything fromSTDs to the stomach contents of a student who had, perhaps, too much to drink.It’s not your stereotypical yearbook fare, but adviser Andrea Watson said thecontent reflects the campus experience.
“They’re college kids.They drink,” Watson said. “They see these things on a regular basis. More powerto them for wanting to show this is part of college life.”
Watson, who has been La Ventana’s adviser since 2002, said she’s never steered her students toward or awayfrom subjects. Instead, she’s tried to “empower” them to cover what they thinkis relevant.
“We try to make aneffort to look at other aspects of college life,” she said. “It’s not allfootball games and classes.”
Not everyone loves thebook’s inclination to push the envelope. The 2009 book devoted a spread to STDsand tackling the “Raider Rash” stereotype. They caught some flak from studentsand parents, Watson said.
But La Ventana staffers have been lucky to avoid run-ins with school administrators, who“understand that our publications are student-run,” Watson said.
“In some respects, ourstudents are a little spoiled by that,” she said. “I don’t know what they’d doif they had to face that situation.”
Of course, there canbe other consequences for risky content, as the editors of East CarolinaUniversity’s newspaper found out this fall.
Around 600 of the9,000 copies of The EastCarolinian’s Nov. 8 issue werestolen from racks. The reason? Likely the front-page, full-frontal photo of astreaker that the editorial board opted to run.
There were multiplereports of filched copies, and a large stack of papers was found in a trash binin an on-campus parking lot.
The photo came from ahome football game three days earlier, where the streaker was detained.
“We decided that wewanted to, as an editorial board, publish the uncensored photos to give ourreaders, which are primarily college students, access to unedited photos,”editor-in-chief Caitlin Hale told the SPLC in November.
Hale said readerresponse was mixed, though the theft was something they didn’t expect.
“We’ve heard from notonly students but professors affiliated with the university, a lot ofcommunication journalism professors who have talked to us about it and maybenot necessarily would have made the same decision but still support it becausethey do understand the journalistic integrity that goes with the decisionmade,” she said.
A mounting trend
While streakers onfront pages may draw the ire of parents, students and faculty, few thingsresult in more letters to the editor than good old-fashioned sex columns.
Little more than adecade ago, sex columns in college newspapers simply did not exist. Today,they’re often some of the most talked about and widely read pieces in thepapers in which they run.
What’s the reason?
“Four words: Sex in the City,” said Dan Reimold, creator of the College Media Matters blog and authorof Sex and the University: Celebrity,Controversy, and a Journalism Revolution.
While listing CarrieBradshaw as the sole reason for the rise of sex columns is anoversimplification, she remains undoubtedly an influence, said Reimold, also ajournalism professor at the University of Tampa and adviser to The Minaret.
Reimold has foundcolumns, ranging in tone from salacious to studious, in 48 of 50 states and, atany given time, around 100 to 150 sex columns run in collegiate newspapers, hesaid.
More and more papersthat have never before run a column of this type are stepping into the arena.The most recent of these belongs to Penn State’s Daily Collegian.
In Mounting Nittany’sSeptember debut, under the headline “Let’s talk sex, hugs and handjobs,”Kristina Helfer explained to readers that she likes to have sex. She likes totalk about sex. And she likes to write about sex.
“The thrill of havingsex is like nothing else. It’s exciting, and everyone’s talking about it,”Helfer wrote. “College is the time when those whispers become a reality, whenpeople take others’ virginity and roommates are sexiled. And it’s time we starttalking about it.”
Shortly after thecolumn’s birth, news of the allegations of child abuse and sexual assaultagainst former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky broke. And thenexploded. Coverage of the scandal has dominated Collegian front pages since.
And in an example ofthe many ethical considerations that accompany content decisions, MountingNittany was pulled from the print edition for the time being in light of newcommunity standards.
“Based on the currentsituation and mood at Penn State, we have decided to remove the column fornow,” Collegian Editor-in-Chief Lexi Belculfine wrote Dec.1.
The return of thecolumn is being considered on a week-to-week basis, Helfer said.
During its run,Mounting Nittany has covered wink-and-a-smile topics like the hookup campusculture and also addressed the importance of health and safe-sex practices.Reimold said it’s typical for columnists to cover both ends of the spectrum;columnists’ motivation may vary, but they often share the same goals.
“I think in some casesit’s to shock. I think in some cases, it’s for students to build up personalbrands,” Reimold said. “I do think at their heart, in the most idealisticsense, there’s a rebelliousness of the student writers of, ‘Yes, it’s OK totalk about sex. We’re having it. Adults have to wake up to that.’”
The life of independence
“If it’s happening, weneed to cover it,” said Rachel Bowers, editor-in-chief of the Red & Black newspaper at the University ofGeorgia. “That’s the bottom line for me.”
As editor of the Red & Black, an entirely independent newspaper operation, Bowers knows a few thingsabout running content outside the norm.
Before Sept. 25, itwas conceivable many on Georgia’s campus did not know the term “sugar baby.”But on that day, the Red & Black defined it for them as“a young person who provides companionship to an older sugar daddy or mommy inexchange for money and gifts.”
What’s more, the papershowed that there were more than a few sugar babies roaming its own campus.
“We got a lot ofletters to the editor saying ‘you’re degrading women,’” Bowers said. “And it’slike, no, we’re covering women getting degraded.”
The story, pitched bya crime reporter, generated a lot of conversation on campus and an ample amountof criticism from staff and alumni.
But Bowers and herstaff didn’t flinch. Just as they didn’t shy away from running documents thisspring detailing a sexual harassment complaint against a professor – above thefold. Without censoring any of the profanity or vulgarities.
“If a professor issaying these things, the university community needs to know about it,” Bowerssaid. “It’s important. It’s relevant. And it’s pertinent to the audience we’resupposed to be catering to.”
Confidence in content,of course, is made much easier when none of your funding is provided by theuniversity. Red & Black went independent in 1980; completelyself-sustained, the operation even has a “nice little moneymaker” in anAT&T cellphone tower on its roof.
What that means is afreedom from worrying about cuts to funding and concern about making the wrongpeople angry, Bowers said.
‘It’s a conversation’
No matter the setup orcampus, however, all controversial stories should start with the same thing —careful discussion.
“The bottom line isthey’re all ethics discussions,” Bowers said. “I encourage each decision to bea discussion among our desk editors.”
When someone pitches astory that is likely to cause a stir, Bowers said the editors discuss the prosand cons as a group.
“In your gut, if youfeel like it’s the right thing or wrong thing to do, listen to your gut,” shesaid. “But you can’t make these types of decisions alone.”
The same rule appliesto columns — everything starts with a conversation.
“The biggest thing isto sit down with the editors and columnists and figure out what your limitswill be,” Reimold said. “Are you going to deal with some of the more graphicsexual issues and behaviors, or do you want to veer more toward love and sexualhealth scope?”
Understanding of youraudience and the community standards that come with them is key to making thosedecisions.
“Teenagers and youngadults — despite what old people might like to believe — sometimes have sex,and they sometimes use shocking language,” Ralston said. “And sometimes a student newspaper isproperly serving its audience by addressing those facts or taking on the issuesthat stem from this supposedly ‘adult’ behavior.”
Often, if you lookpast the taboo language or topic, the message isn’t controversial at all,Reimold said.
“The students use thephrase ‘blinded by the sex’ to describe many critics’ reactions upon simplyseeing a more scandalous topic in the paper and screamed out in a headline,” hesaid. “If you actually look at a number of the columns, many of them aredealing with these issues that they’re bringing up in more conservative ways,where they’re acting as a voice of reason for students.”
At Emerald Ridge, thestaff of the JagWire knew the students on their campus hadmisconceptions of the consequences of oral sex. So they ran a story. And evenwith the ongoing tumult of a court case and the subsequent microscope theyfound themselves under, staffers like Smith said it was worth it. In theensuing years, the school district has put oral sex in the health curriculum.
“Know that what you’redoing does make a difference,” Smith said of reporting on taboo topics. “Knowthat you are getting through to other people and helping kids make moreeducated decisions.”
By Nicole Hill, SPLC staff writer