Different rules: Administrators seek stricter control of online publications

When news broke of a nearby elementary school student’s disappearance on her walk to school, Standley Lake High School’s monthly news magazine used Facebook to keep its students and community informed.

With every update on the case, The Lake linked to other news organizations such as The Denver Post. The student magazine shared Westminster Police Department’s pictures, as well as provided quick updates in the form of wall postings.

After the missing 10-year-old girl’s body was found and identified, the magazine used the page as a place for people to express condolences.

While the magazine has only had a Facebook page for a year, the staff posts to the page almost daily and has already amassed more than 800 likes. Facebook offers the staff an opportunity to get information out to the community in between monthly print editions, said Eva Hall, the magazine’s co-editor-in-chief.

Hall and the other editors monitor the Facebook account and perform various duties such as editing posts or deleting comments they feel are offensive or inappropriate, she said.

Her adviser, Ben Reed, offers guidance but doesn’t have final say. Instead, he said tries to teach students about the impact of what they say.

“I’m teaching them about the ethics of journalism and the responsibilities of online journalism first and foremost, and then it’s about trust,” Reed said.

Only an estimated one-third of high school publications have an online component, according to a recent study conducted by University of Kansas and Kent State University researchers. Those that do, like Standley Lake High, have had to figure out new policies for online publishing to supplement their long-established policies for print.

Often, the rules being established aren’t the same online as they are for print. Schools that let students have the final say over content in the print product sometimes cede student control to an adviser when it comes to the publication’s online accounts.

The differences in how online and print publications are treated can often be traced back to administrators’ fears of online, said Peter Bobkowski, a University of Kansas professor and the study’s co-author.

Online, student publications can reach larger audiences outside the school wall, Bobkowski said. The perception is that things online are both less controllable and more accessible, as opposed to a printed newspaper that is just handed to students in the school and community, he said.

At Pattonville High School, The Pirate Press staff have the final say on what goes in the newspaper but only journalism adviser Brian Heyman has access to the student newspaper’s Twitter account.

Students tweet from their personal accounts using the hashtag #PHSToday; Heyman reviews posts before retweeting them from the newspaper’s Twitter account. Heyman said he decided on this process because the account is new.
The Pirate Press also requires staff to sign a social media contract that addresses journalism ethics.

“Not only did they sign it for the school, but I modified that and made it so that it was pertaining just to the journalism class as well,” Heyman said, adding that he wanted to make sure students understood what the school considers inappropriate, like bullying or profanity.

Heyman said that after the account is more established, he’d like to let a student editor run it. The paper hasn’t created a Facebook page because they feel it would be too difficult to monitor, he said.

At Circle High School in Kansas, the student magazine’s staff is in charge of its website but not its Facebook page, said Vanessa Whiteside, the school’s journalism adviser. Whiteside said she had difficulty convincing administrators to allow the page at all.

When Whiteside approached administrators last July about the idea, she said they were worried about what comments would be allowed on the site. To allay their fears, Whiteside said she presented administrators with examples of other Facebook pages run by student newspapers in Kansas.

In the end, the superintendent would only allow the student magazine to set up a Facebook page if Whiteside was the sole administrator of the page.

Whiteside also ended up setting up the page as view-only, where comments aren’t allowed. The no-comment policy came about after the principal asked to have prior review of posts made to Facebook. Whiteside said she cited Kansas Student Publications Act, which doesn’t allow administrative censorship, and told him she was not comfortable with prior review. Disabling comments was the compromise, which Whiteside says she’s accepted.

It’s important to let students establish their own ethical policies for social media, said Michael Moon, the journalism adviser at Kinston High School in North Carolina.

At the beginning of the year, Moon teaches a lesson about what students legally can print versus what they should print. This helps provide a framework for students, who are responsible for deciding what goes on the school’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“They can post whatever they feel is appropriate to publish,” Moon said. “If they ever feel like they’re uncertain about something then they’ll just ask me what I think about it, and we’ll talk about ethical issues.

“Usually they make the right decision without any real guidance from me. They just want reassurance.”
By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer.

Tips for taking your student publication onlineDo your research. Find other professional and student run online accounts. This way you can show your adviser and your administration what you want to do and the standard of how the account will function.

“You don’t want to surprise them with anything, do your research, bring in examples of successful professional journalists and successful student journalists that are using social media,” said Michael Hernandez, the broadcast journalism adviser at Mira Costa High School.

Even if students already have an online presence, any time they want to try something new they should show administrators an example of how it’ll work. This way advisers or administration can see what the product will be instead of just a theory of how it would work, said Jim Streisel, the adviser at Carmel High School.

Know your rights. If administrators ask for prior review of your online publication or social media account, make sure you know your rights. Seven states greatly restrict administrative censorship of high school student publications. Also check any policies that your school and district have concerning student publications.

Establish your guidelines. If you’ve based your online policy off of another organization or publication, make sure it fits what you’re going to be doing online.

If you are going to allow and monitor comments, make sure you have it spelled out in your policies beforehand in a place where your readers can find it. This way if you remove a comment, your reasoning is already established on your site. Include a way to contact editors if readers have complaints or comments.

“What’s really important is that we are a professional news organization,” Hernandez said, adding that students should write down their policies. “You can’t just talk about it and hope they’ll understand it.”

Be professional. Steisel said he teaches his students to be prepared to deal with snarky and critical comments posted online by readers. He tells his students to be professional in how they respond and tries to help them understand the impact their words can have.

“If you give kids that sense of responsibility then they know what they’re doing is bigger than them,” he said.