Student journalists work around Internet filters to reach audiences

Though social media and the Internet in general have become inseparable from modern journalism, student journalists are not always allowed to use them.

School Internet filters can block numerous content categories, from pornography to games to social media. And while schools that desire government funding for telecommunications services and Internet access must block certain categories on websites, they also have the freedom to block more — a freedom many use.

It often leads to frustration for high school journalists and their advisers, who try to teach students the skills of modern journalists — how to promote their newspaper on Facebook, break news on Twitter, and experiment with other new social media sites and Internet tools.

With many school districts continuing to block social media websites, some student journalists must turn to their 3G Internet access or wait until they can access the Internet outside of school to promote their newspaper on social media.

Foothill Technology High School journalism adviser Melissa Wantz’s students publish online only, supplementing their newspaper’s main website with Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Those sites, however, are off-limits when using the school’s Internet, and students must update them from home.

“From a journalistic standpoint, the social media is critical to be able to publicize our content and to draw in readers,” Wantz said. “There’s a big difference between a digital publication and a print publication. In a digital publication, you’re trying to lure them by some kind of little tidbit of information that crosses through their social media pathway.”

Because social media has become a necessity in getting the attention of readers who believe if the news is “important enough, it will find them,” Wantz said it’s frustrating to have those sites blocked.

Carmel High School student newsmagazine adviser Jim Streisel agreed that simply having a website isn’t sufficient for journalism organizations these days.

“You have got to be where your readers are, and where are your readers? They’re on social media,” Streisel said.

But for some student journalists, even putting their paper online is out of reach.

“It’s pretty much understood that it’s just not going to happen,” said Caroline Stewart, who was editor-in-chief of Chapman High School’s student newspaper last year.

Stewart said she’s asked about using social media to support the paper, but hasn’t been allowed to do so. Her school’s computers are heavily filtered, and school officials have expressed concern about how the student journalists’ posts might reflect on the school, Stewart said.

With a black-and-white, print-only newspaper, Stewart said she feels like The Prowl is stuck in the past.

“I feel like we can’t move forward until we get where modern technology is,” Stewart said. “We’re not up-to-date at all, and I feel like students are bored by that … They’d rather go online and do something interactive and do polls and see videos.”

Not being able to go online with their newspaper also keeps Prowl staffers at a disadvantage, Stewart said.

“When we go into the field, or even just into college, everyone’s going to have these experiences that we’re not going to have,” Stewart said. “We’re not going to be as prepared, I feel.”

Chapman High School’s assistant principal, Ricky Pace, said he hopes student journalists at the school will have access to social media in the future. However, the school wants to ensure it maintains the ability to review any content the students publish.

“Students don’t have free reign to just go out there and post something about anything at any time without first being approved by the teacher in charge of the class,” Pace said. “We would not want students to create an article and just post it onto the Internet.”

Stringent Internet filtering policies are in part a product of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law in 2000. CIPA stipulates Internet safety measures school districts must abide by to receive E-rate funding from the government. Schools use the money to pay for telecommunications services and Internet access.

Under CIPA, schools must have an Internet safety policy that says minors will be monitored online and that requires schools to “block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors),” according to the Federal Communications Commission website.

Under the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, an amendment to CIPA, schools must also teach “minors about appropriate online behavior,” the FCC website states. Minors are children younger than 17.

But free speech advocates say it can be a problem when schools filter more than the CIPA guidelines mandate.

Hillary Davis, a policy associate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, published a report in February examining Internet filtering in all 39 of Rhode Island’s cities and towns.

Hillary Davis said she discovered through the study, called, “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education,” that “all districts are filtering tremendously more information than what is required by law and more than what is appropriate for schools to be filtering out.”

Over-filtered Internet access keeps students from information they have a right to view, makes learning on the Web difficult and puts some groups of students at a disadvantage, Davis said.

“Students whose only Internet access is at school are essentially denied equal access to information,” she said.

And many districts use CIPA as a scapegoat, she said.

“What they’ve done is they’ve taken the opportunity to say ‘great we have these filters, now we can control the children’s behavior in the classroom,’” Davis said.

She said the ACLU is calling for districts to change their filtering parameters to give students the Internet freedom they need.

“One of the things we recommend time and time again, that these schools return to using the bare minimum categories that they need to,” Davis said. “There are options to block out things like the pornography…but when you’re talking about school districts that block something like 40 or 50 categories, they’re clearly going above and beyond.”

Staff at the Federal Communications Commission said schools do not have to block social media sites to be CIPA-compliant. A spokesman provided the following statement in an email:

“Although schools and libraries are free to block social media websites such as Facebook, the FCC does not require schools and libraries to block these websites in order to receive E-rate funds. Whether content other than the visual depictions specifically mentioned in CIPA — obscenity, pornography or those that are harmful to minors — is inappropriate for and should not be accessible to minors is a decision left to local school and library authorities.”

In a report and order released in 2011, the FCC wrote that Facebook and MySpace are not “per se ‘harmful to minors’ … Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education recently found that social networking websites have the potential to support student learning.”

Dana Moore says she’s started seeing more districts want to open up access to social media sites over the last year.

Moore is the director of Community and Government Relations for Education Networks of America, which offers CIPA-compliant filtering services to 555 school districts in nine states, according to its website.

“It’s all over the map right now,” Moore said. “But you can really feel the trend toward allowing more use of social media. The time has come.”

Kecia Ray, the executive director for learning technology and library services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools system, said parents don’t seem to mind the filters used in her school district, but they do want their children to know how to use social media responsibly.

“As a district leader in Nashville, I’ve never had a parent come to me and say ‘I really wish you wouldn’t filter the Internet,’” Ray said. “I have had them say, ‘Can you make sure they are familiar with the tools of social media and that they know the responsible ways to post?’”

Districts use various methods to teach students to be safe online, from providing training to having students earn a “digital driver’s license,” said Ray, who is also president of the International Society for Technology in Education.

In her own district, social media use is incorporated into the curriculum, Ray said, and some students also help manage their schools’ Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“They work with our communications department and our communications department trains them on this is how you post and this is what you post,” Ray said.

Though Ray said she believes “there are mechanisms in place that make social media a very usable tool in most school districts,” such as cyberbullying policies and filter overrides, she said it is also “a school district by school district decision.”

Wantz said she understands the concerns of allowing young students to access the “the unprotected wilderness of the Internet” and had some of her own concerns about having her students’ work open to comments.

“My concern was that people, basically that the students who read this or even people from our community, that they were going to act like the people that I see commenting in our local newspaper or the [Los Angeles Times] newspaper, which is racist, mean-spirited, nasty,” Wantz said.

But very few comments have been problematic so far, Wantz said. And those that are questionable provide a learning experience for the paper’s editorial review board, which is made up of 12 students.

Streisel acknowledged that the Internet can be scary, but said kids need to be taught to use it responsibly.

“You either block everything … or you look at it, you explore it, you embrace it, you learn from it and then you grow from it,” Streisel said. “I think the kids come out much better for it as well.”

Streisel said he provides a model for his students through his own social networking, including his public Twitter account, and tells them cautionary tales of the mistakes others have made. He doesn’t expect his students’ social media use to be flawless, either.

“We have to be willing to accept some of those mistakes along the way in favor of the learning environment that’s happening,” he said.

Striesel said he tries to build a “sense of responsibility and ownership” within his students, which discourages them from being irresponsible online. The peer pressure of knowing they’re representing a product that’s valued by their whole staff makes them want to be careful, he said.

Social media also allows students to develop a “voice of authority,” a personal brand and a readership that can follow them into a job, Streisel said.

“They’re going to leave your high school,” Streisel said. “If they’ve developed a great brand, they can take that with them … and that does nothing but make them more marketable.”

For student news organizations that haven’t gotten started using social media, Streisel recommends polling or surveying readers to determine which is the most popular site to use.

“Figure out what your community is and just explore that one option for awhile and see if you can build some traction with that,” Streisel said. Then, try adding something else new.

Hillcrest High School broadcast journalism adviser Dave Davis said he “can’t imagine” trying to send passionate students into great collegiate journalism programs without having taught them about social media.

His lessons about Twitter and Facebook are discussion-based because his students can’t access those sites on school computers. Like Wantz’s students, though, Dave Davis’ students still use social media in their work.

“I just think I’m being irresponsible as a journalism teacher if we don’t use those tools,” he said.

His students have had some complications with blogging and posting videos though, having to switch from Tumblr and Vimeo to alternate blogging and video sites when the two services were filtered by the district.

“We’re always trying to hit a moving target, it feels like,” he said.

Still, he and his students are moving forward. In the spring, they produced a trailer to a half-hour documentary that reached more than 28,000 people —mostly the result of vigorous promotion on social media.

“The power of social media — you can’t deny it,” he said. “You better learn how to use it or you’re going to get left behind.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer.