October 2014 podcast: High school journalists' voices 'Still Captive'

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By Student Press Law Center

Rebecca Tallent and David Burns of the Society of Professional Journalists discuss their sequel to Jack Nelson’s book Captive Voices.


Frank LoMonte: The Student Press Law Center celebrated a very big birthday this fall, turning 40 years old since our founding in 1974. The origin of the Student Press Law Center dates back to a landmark book by author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson, the book called Captive Voices We’ll talk a little bit about Captive Voices and a modern-day sequel that is set to be released under the auspices of our friends at the Society of Professional Journalists.

I’m Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and the SPLC is a nonprofit advocate for the rights of student journalists and advisers everywhere. You can find out more about our work at www.splc.org, and we hope you’ll take advantage of all the free legal and educational services we offer.

Today on the SPLC podcast we’re joined by two eminent journalism educators who are active in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Journalism Education Committee. That committee decided to undertake a reexamination of the research that Jack Nelson and his committee on the study of scholastic journalism undertook 40 years ago when, after a nationwide tour across the country looking at the state of scholastic journalism, they concluded that censorship was the primary cause of the irrelevance of scholastic journalism and the frustration that young people experience as participants.

Professor Tallent is here with us from the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media. Professor Tallent has a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University, her doctors in education, she has specialty in issues about media ethics, about the Native American Press, she’s been a widely-published writer on the subject of media ethics, and has 12 years of professional newspaper experience, including serving as a newspaper ombudsperson, and so we’re delighted to have Professor Tallent.

Also with us on the podcast is Professor David Burns, who is here in the D.C. area at Salisbury University in Maryland. professor Burns has his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, also has a degree from my favorite school, University of Georgia. Professor Burns is associate professor of communication arts at Salisbury University and his specialties include electronic journalism and new media production, as well as international reporting.

So thank you, Professor Tallent, Professor Burns for being here with us, and for this really, really valuable new piece of research. And I guess Becky Tallent, let me throw it to you first, just to kind of explain the book that is coming out, it’s called Still Captive: History, Law and Teaching of High School Journalism. So, I guess sort of, how did the idea for this project get hatched, and how did you go about conducting the research?

Rebecca Tallent: Well, this was interesting. This started off with a very simple question that came to me as chair of the committee back in 2011, and it was then-national SPJ president John Ensslin asked “Well, what’s going on with high school journalism? I keep hearing that schools are closing their journalism programs because people think journalism is dying.”

I took it back to committee, we began discussing it, we began researching it a little bit because we’re all college professors, and we came back and we said “well, you know, there is Captive Voices. Twenty years later, in ’94, there was Death by Cheeseburger, and all of a sudden we started saying “well is anybody else going to be doing this every 20 years to see what is happening now?”

You could hear the crickets, just resounding silence. So, we began looking, first, at the idea of “how do we figure out, is this notion that journalism is dying, really impacting high school journalism?” We went through a number of different things trying to figure out how to do it, and finally we said “you know, we need a survey of high school journalism teachers,” and we began working with our friends at the Journalism Educational Association and began bothering the SPLC and asking questions.

And suddenly we found, not only were we doing this survey, but we began breaking up areas and saying “well, we need somebody writing about the law and how the law is changed, we need somebody to write about how to really teach an effective class and let’s bring in the ideas of how journalism teaches creative and critical thinking, collaboration, communication, all the things that are core elements that principals say they they want, and other things.” And all of a sudden we were doing a book.

LoMonte: Right, and you went about actually surveying 200 and some odd journalism education members representing quite a divers array of teachers across the country, and I guess let me ask David Burns, you are one of the co-authors of one of the chapters in this book where you talk about some of the results of this survey research. What to you, I guess, were the more important or more eye-opening take-aways from the research?

David Burns: We asked one open-ended question, and that was “do you have suggestions on how scholastic journalism can be improved,” we asked all the respondents that question, and we got some very, very interesting answers. But I think the thing that sort of came out of this was this idea of, they would use terms like they felt they were feverishly peddling but going nowhere in the process. It became quite evident as we looked at these responses versus what was polled 40 years ago and 20 years ago, and it seems like everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Although the journalism industry itself and the education systems are very different than they were 20 years ago and 40 years ago, the way journalism is considered, the way it is treated, the way it is supported, has changed very little when we talk about high school journalism and high school education.

LoMonte: One of the interesting statistics that I’ve seen in sort of a preview of the forthcoming book talked about mandatory administrator oversight and review pre-publication. Your statistic was actually remarkably consistent with what the SPLC and our partners at Kent State University have found when we’ve done some surveying on this of students and journalism advisers, which is about a two-thirds/one-third split, that about one-third of high school journalism programs are under mandatory prior administrative review and about two-thirds are not. So that was an interesting finding. I guess, either of you, starting with David, was there a takeaway from that, was that in any way noteworthy or surprising to you?

Burns: That came up repeatedly in respondents. in their responses, what they talked about is, for example, more than one-forth of the people who answered the question said that comprehensive training needed to be done and they singled out administrators in that list, that we need to teach administrators about freedom of expression and First Amendment rights and this kind of thing, and the important role that it plays in high schools and what kind of information to be taught to students about free expression, about the First Amendment as they work in their media organizations, in their student student and school function media organizations.

Absolutely, that was a huge response by the participants, that they are being stymied in a lot of ways by the administration, that they’re not understood by the administration, that they’re not supported by the administration and sometimes they’re punished financially by the administration, too.

Tallent: And it’s not just in terms of the fact that the teachers feel like they’re in the right and they know what they’re doing and that they know that they have certain rights and responsibilities. One of the things that we found is that a lot of teachers were feeling overwhelmed because they didn’t understand a lot of the background, they didn’t understand the laws. In a couple of cases they had not even heard of Hazelwood, so what amazed us was that nearly one-fourth of all high school journalism teachers who we surveyed have had absolutely no journalism training. They’re English teachers, they’re librarians, they’re historians, and they were offered the chance to either earn more money or they were just simply asked by their school to run their student media, and they absolutely don’t know what distinguishes journalism, good journalism, bad journalism, they don’t understand that there are some laws that they need to be taking into consideration and thinking about when they’re working with their students.

One of the things that really surprised me, probably more than anything else, was that, in addition to one-fourth of the teachers have had no training, only 30, about 38 percent, have had at least a class in college. But 98 percent of the teachers say that they only get additional training from attending journalism workshops in the summer when they can find them, and that to me was just astounding, especially since colleges and universities seem to be sort of getting rid of those programs because the attendance has been low.

LoMonte: Very interesting. And one of the recommendations that the education committee makes as a result of this research talks about the involving colleges, universities and the journalism profession more actively in supporting journalism programs and journalism advisers in particular. How do you envision that working, I guess, and what are the sorts of support that would be most needed?

Tallent: One of the things that we are talking about quite seriously, a lot of the SPJ chapters are already working at looking at their local programs, where can those professionals go into those classrooms and help out? I know specifically in places such as New Jersey and Florida, they are being very proactive with some of the chapters. One of the things that came out not very good for colleges and universities where in the question we asked, 50 percent of the teachers said they received no support from professionals. Fifty-six percent of them said they received no support from colleges and universities.

Well, that puts the colleges and universities in a bad light, and now some are starting to look around and say “well, how can we cure this?” Although not as quickly as the professionals. And I think that if we could get the colleges and universities to start looking at bringing back courses in how to teach high school journalism, that would be a huge first step.

Burns: I wanted to point out, by the way, that this issue of not having enough support outside the school was reiterated 40 years ago, it was mentioned 40 years ago and it was reiterated 20 years ago and we’re still seeing it today, that they would like more connections between public schools, people that are peers, local journalism colleges, absolutely, more connections, and these kinds of things.

I think that some journalism professors are actually participating in high school training and so on, sometimes formally. The Maryland Scholastic Press Association, I would go and teach there in the summers, but just two weeks ago I was at a high school talking about media literacy and journalism courses and so on, so maybe informally they do some of this stuff, but I think it needs to be more institutionalized for sure.

LoMonte: Well I guess one of the saddest single statistics that I saw in the summary of the forthcoming book was — and Becky I think you’ve actually been quoted addressing this — that more than half of all journalism advisers say that they go to work in fear of being disciplined by their supervisors for something that their students publish.

Tallent: Yes, it’s really very sad, and lately some of the cases that we’re hearing don’t help that. The Pennsylvania case, I’m going to mispronounce the name of the district, Neshaminy.

LoMonte: Neshaminy. This is the offensive nickname for the school mascot, right, and the students are embroiled in a still ongoing controversy in which both the student editor and the journalism adviser have suffered discipline simply for enforcing an editorial policy, voted on by the student editors, that says “we will not use this racially-offensive term in our pages.”

Tallent: And the principals, I’m sure, around the country hear about that and say “well we have a right to promote our school the way we want through the student newspaper.” Unfortunately they’re seeing the student newspaper as a public relations tool. They’re not seeing it as a journalism learning tool, and teaching children how to think critically and strategically, how to think about the news and how it impacts people, so I think that that is really something. If I could change three things, if I ruled the world and could change three things of the things that we found in the study, that would be one of them — helping take the fear away from teachers so that they can go out and teach what needs to be taught without worrying about “well, am I going to get into trouble because I told the students ‘it’s OK that they want to do a story on X or Y?’” It’s just so important because the students feel that fear.

I’ve taught high school, I know that students feel that fear and understand that I’m scared that I’m going to get my teacher in trouble. We shouldn’t live in that kind of society. We should be able to allow the students to go out and be reporters.

Burns: This, too, is where I think the profession can help by, when they are aware of these cases, stepping up and going on the record in support of these young journalists and their supervisors. I think that is key, the more light we can shine on this kind of the thing the better off they are going to be.

When I’m confronted by what administrators sometimes see as a factual errors or so on, I just tell them “you have a way of voicing those, of stating your facts as you see them and go ahead and exercise those. You see that makes a heck of a lot more sense and, public relations wise, it looks better for the institution when you address them in those ways instead of trying to put gags on reporters and gags on newspapers. That doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever.

LoMonte: Sure, but of course fixing factual errors is often cosmetically the reason administrators claim they need the authority to pre-approve content. In our experience, it is the very rare person who can resist temptation to do more than that and certainly when students call the SPLC hotline looking for help from an attorney, it’s not because a principal fixed a mistake in their copy. It is because, invariably, the excuse that students are given over and over again by schools, is that “you’re hurting the image of the school, you’re making the school look bad and you’re being bad citizen of the school by criticizing our policies or by portraying us in an unfavorable way,” which of course is unteaching good journalism. It is actually affirmatively teaching bad journalism. So the rationale given for the censorship authority often diverges from the way that it is actually used in practice.

Let me ask, as we’re sort of wrapping up, David, and I think I should applaud the book by naming it, Still Captive: History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism, David, now that this research has been gathered and is about to be published, what are you hoping that will happen next? What are you hoping that people will do with the benefit of this information?

Burns: Well I think I would like to see journalism become more of a part in high schools again and one of the things that sort of came up in our survey was that the best and the brightest were no longer gravitating toward journalism classes, they were gravitating toward AP classes, and because AP classes help give them college credits and so on and a journalism program does not fit in. So I guess if I were to hope and wish for something, it would be that journalism-type courses would be recognized as an English class or something like that as part of AP credits, and I think that would go a long way. It certainly promotes media literacy, it promotes critical thinking, and all the thing we would like our college students or graduating high school students to have in their toolboxes.

I guess one takeaway I would like to see happen, one change I would like to see at an institution, that would be it. As far as, just within society, what I would like to see happen is people need to recognize that really in this day and age, today’s elementary school students and high school students have never really known a free press in action. It’s been hobbled by free press restrictions and so on, so we need to incubate this free press, free thinking type of person in our society in order for democracy to thrive and in order for democracy to survive.

that, in and of itself, is a real worry for me, that I see these students without really a history, a personal history, in free press, and I worry about that.

LoMonte: Well let me leave the last word to Becky Tallent. Same question, I guess what are you hoping to provoke or to prompt by publication of this book, and do please finish up by telling us where and when people can get their own copy of Still Captive.

Tallent: What I’m hoping, and I think this is just the educator inside of me, I really hope that high school journalism teachers can get copies of this, read it, it will help their teaching, it will help give them a better understanding of journalism, how they can teach it effectively, give them some great, great things for the classroom, give them some hope that “yes, this stuff is worthy of AP or worthy of being able to shine in a school as opposed to being pushed back into a dark corner and being heavily regulated.

Another think I hope this does is I hope that administrators can see that journalism is important. It teaches four core concepts and that they should support it, not just verbally, but they should support it by helping find ways to fund it better so that the students can have better equipment. Hopefully the pros will come in and colleges and universities will come in and help with that as well. It is just incredibly important that we foster our best and brightest youngsters who are currently in high school and junior high to come forward and learn what journalism can help them do, not only in high school, even if they don’t go into journalism, but in life as a lawyer, as a doctor, as a mechanic, whatever, as an engineer, whatever it is you go into being, journalism helps.

And you can get Still Captive: History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism, starting in January. It will be available through New Forms Press, it will be also available on Amazon, and I believe the price is going to be somewhere between $25 and $50. It will be available as both a soft cover book and as an ebook.

LoMonte: Great, well Professors David Burns and Rebecca Tallent, we are so grateful for you and all the researchers who’ve put your time and your talent into the study that is getting to be published in January, Still Captive, we hope that anyone who is experiencing a problem with freedom of expression in schools or colleges, especially student journalists and their journalism advisers, will contact the Student Press Law Center through our hotline (703) 807-1904, or by email splc@splc.org.

We hope you’ll check out all the legal and educational reference materials that are free for your use at splc.org, and that you’ll join us each month for a new edition of this podcast.

Thanks again to Professor Burns and Professor Tallent, and to all of our good friends at the Society of Professional Journalists, and thank you for listening.