Truthful high school journalism doesn’t enflame rumors. It ends them.

“Fantasy Slut League — Earning Points for Sexual Encounters in High School”

— The Daily Beast, Oct. 26, 2012

“National attention on Piedmont’s ‘fantasy sex league'”

–, Oct. 25, 2012

“High school ‘Fantasy Slut League’ raises ruckus”

— The (Everett, Wash.) Herald, Oct. 25, 2012

Amid the salacious national clamor over hormone-crazed teens running wild through an Oakland, Calif.-area high school, one media outlet took its time, interviewed the key participants, and came out with a balanced and non-sensational story deflating some of the worst exaggerations.

That would be The Piedmont Highlander, the student newspaper at Piedmont High, which took the time to do what reporters at professional media outlets couldn’t or wouldn’t do — separate fact from hype.

Reporters from The Highlander interviewed more than 30 students with knowledge of the “competition,” who said the reported “sex club” was really more of a “make-out club.” The scandalousness was amplified in part by ambiguous wording in the principal’s memo to parents, which characterized the goings-on as “sexual activities.”

An editor at The Highlander, Kate Bott, took pro journalists, commentators and talk-show hosts to task for mythologizing the story without researching it (at the peak of the hysteria, several news outlets reported, falsely, that the school had known of the “club” for five years without doing anything):

News outlets’ priorities are now shock value and human interest rather than facts. These news outlets realize that sex sells and because they are a businesses writing for entertainment, they are ignoring facts that won’t sell as well.

This is what high school journalists can do — and do uniquely well — when freed from the straitjacket of censorship. Because California has the nation’s best laws protecting the independence of high school journalists (and shielding their faculty advisers against retaliation), students can fearlessly pursue controversial stories that involve “adult” topics.

If the public wants thorough and accurate coverage of what is going on inside of schools, it must necessarily depend on student news-gatherers.

Local news staffs have been decimated by layoffs, with the education beat suffering disproportionately. The Brookings Institution reported in December 2009 that the percentage of mainstream newspaper, television and online news resources devoted to coverage of education was a meager 1.4 percent.

The few remaining education reporters can rarely get unfiltered access to sources within the school. Whether because of legitimate safety concerns or because of obsessive image control, schools almost never allow journalists to have unsupervised contact with teachers or students. Access, if it’s allowed at all, comes with a public-relations chaperone.

Student journalists are “embedded” in the communities they cover. They’re accountable in a way that the Huffington Post or the “Dr. Drew Show” will never be, because they must face the people they write about every day.

They have access that professionals can only dream about, and the time to pursue stories carefully that the 24-hour professional news cycle increasingly forecloses.

School administrators bent on keeping controversy out of the student media often hide behind the justifications — genuine or fictitious — that students are incapable of sensitively handling mature subject matter, and that the students’ objective is to “make the school look bad.”

What happened at Piedmont, and what is happening in thousands of newsrooms across the country each day, conclusively proves otherwise. Students trusted with editorial freedom will, with regularity surprising only to adults who haven’t taken time to know them, choose stories of substance that push their schools to get better — or stories that rehabilitate their schools’ reputations.