Journalism educators have noticed worrisome traits among some student journalists in recent years. They are fearful, submissive, unwilling to oppose school or government leaders. Like “sheep,” one professor says.
And journalism is not a field for the flock.
A range of factors — from the political apathy of Americans to legislation infringing on students’ rights — has brought us to this point, said Dave Cuillier, the director of the University of Arizona’s journalism school and the Society of Professional Journalists president-elect.
Like many journalism educators, Cuillier traces much of this back to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 25 years ago this past January. The court ruled that schools can censor student expression when there is a “legitimate pedagogical concern,” a now frequently cited reason administrators give for censorship.
When students believe they could be punished for their expression, it makes them “feel like they just have to be sheep,” he said.
“I think they’ve been indoctrinated and socialized to toe the line and not question and to do what they’re told,” Cuillier said. “And a lot of that again is what Hazelwood has contributed to in giving teachers and principals authority to tell students what they can say and not say.”
Many high school students aren’t taught a full version of history, or why journalists need to challenge government, Cuillier said. They’re shown a cleaner version of history, and aren’t always aware of the atrocities that the government has been involved in, such as Guantanamo Bay or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II.
At the University of Arizona, a class called Principles of Journalism helps teach students more about history, and how journalists have helped bring various events to light.
“We’re not teaching them to hate America, that’s not the point. We’re just teaching them that nobody’s perfect, including the government,” Cuillier said. “We really try to open their eyes to a different reality than what they were exposed to in this sheltered, censored setting of high school.”
It’s difficult to quantify the frequency of censorship in schools because much goes unreported. Anecdotal evidence indicates it happens regularly. The National Scholastic Press Association, the Journalism Education Association and the Student Press Law Center surveyed attendees at a high school journalism convention last year; out of 500 students who took the survey, 195 said they had censored themselves. Out of 78 advisers, 25 said their students had self-censored.
John Bowen, the chairman of JEA’s scholastic press rights commission, said he wasn’t surprised by the amount of self-censorship, but was surprised by the population it came from, because “the people who go to the JEA convention are usually the ones who have the strongest programs in the country.”
Prior review and prior restraint probably cause some of the self-censorship, he said, and comments from administrators are another culprit.
“In some cases they’re being told ‘you really don’t want to do this,’” Bowen said. “It’s like a veiled threat.”
Fear for their adviser’s career can also cause students to self-censor, especially if there have been previous problems, he said.
It seems that “most high school students don’t want to get their adviser in trouble,” Bowen said. “If they like the adviser they’re not necessarily going to do something that might put the adviser’s job in jeopardy.”
Hunterdon Central Regional High School newspaper adviser Tom McHale said he saw students become more cautious when prior review was put in place at his New Jersey school this year. Knowing they have to get approval and that controversial stories could delay their paper is always “in the back of their minds,” McHale said.
On the paper’s opinion page, the students are now less likely to criticize the school or its policies, and during planning the students think about whether stories will make it through administrative review, McHale said.
McHale said he fought the policy throughout the year, but with no sign of change, submitted his resignation in May. He said he hopes students will fight for their rights.
“I hope that it matters to the next staff and they continue to push for a policy change,” he said.
Scott Winter, an assistant professor of journalism in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said “journalism educators are way ahead of their peers” in providing an educational experience where students are allowed to be active instead of encouraged to be passive. Still, it’s often a struggle to get students interested in covering controversial stories, he said.
“I think it starts with just teaching them how to be really adept at media criticism. We can’t leave all that just to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart,” Winter said. “They have to be critics of their own media that they consume.”
Bowen said concerned students should try to prevent problems by interviewing people from each point of view of a story, including the principal if his or her point of view is relevant. He said he also suggests that students who are worried about covering a certain story consult local media on whether they would cover it and how they would do so.
“I don’t think there’s any topic that I think should be off limits,” Bowen said. “It’s all in how you report it.”
Students also need to know the laws and power structures they’re dealing with, Winter said. From the editor of their paper up to their school board, students need to know how to follow the chain of command so that if they’re facing censorship, they know who to approach about the problem.
“If you get to a school board and they find out you want to be on the agenda … then all of a sudden you have an audience with the people,” Winter said, adding that schools don’t want the publicity.
But even for advisers, challenging authority and opposing censorship can seem (and be) dangerous.
“It’s a really awkward position that the adviser’s in and I’ve been there. Administrators are signing your check and they’re writing your reviews,” Winter said. “But ultimately, it’s hard to teach students to be journalists, to work in the public forum, to understand the First Amendment, if you’re not exercising your right to use it.”
Winter said he tells students he’ll support them, but they have to take stand up for their work themselves.
It’s also helpful to get high school administrators involved in celebrating the newspaper staff’s successes and understanding its mission, Winter said.
“You have to build those relationships with those people and make it clear to them what you’re trying to do,” he said. “Let them see the interesting questions the students are asking, let them see we’re not just trying to burn the school here.”
When controversial news comes up, give administrators the courtesy of a heads-up after the reporting is complete, he said.
“My big thing was to encourage them to do the story, don’t get permission to do the story,” Winter said. “Force the hand of an administrator to censor you, don’t censor yourself.”
While students may have to fight tendencies toward self-censorship and passivity, adults need to find the courage to let go of censorship and prior review, Cuillier said.
“I think we need to … get some backbone as educators and adults and let students speak their minds, let them express themselves,” Cuillier said. “Sure, what they say often is stupid and immature and offensive, but they’re kids. And they’ve got to learn and there’s nothing wrong with encouraging them to express themselves and letting them live with the consequences. That’s how we learn best — we learn by doing.”
By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer