California high school journalists honored after invoking state shield law

A trio of student journalists who fought to protect confidential sources while investigating events surrounding a peer’s suicide earned recognition this month from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The team from Saratoga High School’s The Saratoga Falcon — Samuel Liu, Sabrina Chen and Cristina Curcelli — were honored in the high school category of the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards. They’ll be formally recognized alongside other winners at an upcoming banquet, according to an online announcement.

But, as Liu stressed in a recent interview with The San Jose Mercury News, the students are trying to handle this honor sensitively because of the nature of the issues involved in their reporting.

“You don’t come out of this with a badge or an award,” Liu told the newspaper. “It was such a serious issue, to say we came out triumphant would be inappropriate and offensive because there are no winners.”

The sources the student journalists fought to protect, in this case, were other students who spoke on the condition of anonymity about events surrounding a classmate’s suicide. In 2012, Audrie Pott committed suicide after attending “an unsupervised house party” at which she was assaulted and photographed while unconscious, according to the Falcon’s reports. Three boys who were accused of sexually assaulting her would later admit to doing so, the Mercury News reported last month.

Initially, the virality of the photos was also a central question. Narratives in national media outlets following Pott’s death perpetuated the notion that illicit photos of of her “went ‘viral’ among students at the school,” as explained in an April 2013 Falcon story. But the Falcon reporters’ interviews with a handful of students close to the situation (who asked to remain anonymous) suggested that this was an exaggeration. According to the Mercury News, it was eventually determined that “prosecutors did not have enough evidence to prove the boys circulated the photos widely.”

Several months after the Falcon’s story with the anonymous interviews was published — on their first day back from summer vacation, in fact — the students were served subpoenas. They successfully held their ground on protecting their sources’ identities with the help of the Student Press Law Center and its volunteer attorney referral network, as previously reported when the subpoenas were withdrawn later that month.

Talking to the Mercury News, Liu said the students tried to handle both the subpoena and their initial reporting on their classmate’s death carefully. The editorial decisions surrounding their coverage required “a lot of second-guessing and introspection,” Liu said, adding that criticism that the reporters were being insensitive to the Pott family left him “completely wracked with self-doubt.”

“We felt beyond terrible for this family and how they suffered,” Liu told the Mercury News. “In our stories we published, we realized we were in some ways refuting their claims and we were bringing more trouble to a family that had suffered so much already.”

In their efforts to correct a misleading narrative — and to protect their sources in the process — they helped to establish an important protection for their state’s student and professional media alike.

“All three successfully resisted the subpoenas by invoking California’s reporter Shield Law,” the SPJ chapter explained in its announcement of the award. “In so doing, they highlighted that the Shield Law is for all journalists, not just those working for pay.”

More information on the legal guidelines surrounding the protection of journalists’ sources and information can be found here.