Active voice: SPLC project strives to empower women in student media

When Gillian McGoldrick and other student editors at The Playwickian banned the publication of a word they found offensive — their school’s mascot — she didn’t think she’d be suspended.

Tanvi Kumar observed students in her Wisconsin high school often joked casually about rape. When she wrote about the issue — from the perspective of sexual assault victims — she, too, was punished. Her principal instituted a new prior review policy for the student publications at the school because, he said, her story made the school look bad.

Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld — co-editors-in-chief of their Community High School newspaper The Communicator — wanted to tell stories of students who had mental illness and addiction, but the school’s dean told them they weren’t allowed to publish the stories of Community students.

Instead of giving up, Halpert and Rosenfeld wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that talked about their own experiences with depression and the school’s unwillingness to print the stories. Halpert and Rosenfeld’s stories about mental illness — both their own depression and other Community students’ stories — appear in The Times, NPR’s Weekend Edition and The Huffington Post.

McGoldrick and Kumar didn’t give up, either.

On Oct. 16 the Student Press Law Center celebrated its 40th anniversary at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Since Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson published Captive Voices in 1974, the SPLC has fought censorship in student publications and violations of students’ free speech rights.

And in that time, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the non-profit organization has noticed a trend: girls most often stand up and report on serious issues within their schools and communities. They’re also the first to be shut down.

Nabiha Syed, a media attorney for Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, and a member of SPLC’s Board of Directors, introduced Active Voice, an SPLC project that aims to help young women who face challenges in speaking out. Along with providing content on cyberbullying and online speech, Syed said she hopes the project will empower women in journalism to act as mentors and to share their stories of censorship and self-censorship.

Syed said the project will feature a spring summit of advocates, students and academics to identify specific problems and develop a strategy to address them, research issues the summit identifies and develop a web outreach program for resources and mentorship.

“There’s something happening here on a social level that we want to examine and we also want to be positioned to equip young women to deal with everything that happens that comes with speaking out,” Syed said, “whether it is backlash online or censorship from your principals or other authority figures.”

Women in student media

During the 2013-14 Tinker Tour, a nationwide tour featuring First Amendment advocate Mary Beth Tinker, young women frequently thanked her for fighting for student free speech rights, often sharing their own stories of censorship and retaliation from authorities.

Tinker was suspended when she wore a black armband to school in protest of the war in Vietnam and took her case to the Supreme Court in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which defined students’ Constitutional rights to free speech in U.S. public schools.

Student experiences on the Tinker Tour, the backlash women, such as Anita Sarkeesian in the GamerGate controversy, often experience for speaking out online and the ouster of Jill Abramson as The New York Times executive editor prompted the Active Voice project, Syed said.

When Abramson was dismissed as executive editor in May, three of the largest 25 newspapers in the U.S. by circulation had a woman as top editor, compared to seven in 2004, according to a Nieman Reports masthead survey.

Although data on how many young women lead their high school and college media organizations isn’t available, LoMonte said young women “dominate high school journalism, particularly in the highest levels of management.” Girls made up 75 percent of the crowds at Tinker Tour speeches at high schools around the country, LoMonte said, and there were times when all editors — sometimes up to 10 on 12 on the paper — were girls.

The American Society of News Editors’ 2014 census of newspaper employees reported women make up 35.4 percent of newspaper supervisors, up from 33.8 percent in 1999. Women made up 20.4 percent of television general managers and 18.1 percent of radio general managers in 2013, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association’s 2014 survey of the industry’s workforce.

Women hold more of the journalism and mass communication degrees but fewer of the supervisor positions. A study from the University of Georgia Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication found women have earned at least 59.2 percent of journalism and mass communication each year since 1988. The study reported women received 63.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted, 69.3 percent of masters degrees and 58.7 percent of doctorates in 2013.

Reporting on ‘sensitive social issues’

Schools often censor stories about mental illness, racism, contraception and rape culture. Stories about homosexuality are “probably the single greatest magnet for censorship” in student media, LoMonte said.

“I think there’s no doubt that young women are bearing the disproportionate brunt of censorship because they are the ones that want to write about sensitive social issues,” he said.

LoMonte described one instance when administrators at an Arkansas high school pulled a yearbook profile of a gay student who came out the prior year, citing concerns students would bully him. Hannah Bruner, who was assistant editor of the Yellowjacket yearbook at Sheridan High School, wrote the profile for the 2013-2014 yearbook, and the student profiled wasn’t worried about repercussions because his classmates already knew.

“Girls are more likely to identify with the underdog and with the marginalized minority, and they want to give those students a voice,” LoMonte said. “Oftentimes the schools are on the side of marginalization.”

At SPLC’s anniversary dinner, Audie Cornish, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, had a panel discussion with McGoldrick, The Playwickian editor, and Kumar, the Wisconsin student punished for writing about rape jokes.

McGoldrick, co-editor-in-chief of Neshaminy High School’s student newspaper The Playwickian in Pennsylvania, described the school’s opposition to a 14-7 Playwickian editorial board vote in October 2013 to ban the word “Redskins,” their school mascot, from the paper.

“We didn’t ask for the name to be changed,” McGoldrick told Cornish. “We just said we’re not going to publish it.” Students who ripped up and threatened to burn copies of The Playwickian didn’t realize “we have the right to do this and we’re allowed to oppose the term,” she said.

Neshaminy High School Principal Rob McGee told The Playwickian adviser Tara Huber the staff must print the word in letters to the editor and accept advertisements with the word. In June 2014 the staff decided to pull a letter to the editor that used the word after McGee said they had to print the word in full or the paper wouldn’t go to press.

In response, the Neshaminy Board of School Directors implemented a 10-day prior review policy.

In September 2014, Huber was suspended for two days without pay. McGoldrick was suspended for a month as an editor at the paper. More than $1,000 was deducted from the paper’s budget to cover printing costs for the unapproved issue.

McGoldrick said she understands the importance of “having a social conscience to be able to ask questions about what’s going on around me” after more than a year of fighting with the school district.

“I’ve learned that I not only have a voice, but all of the other students can have a voice, which is amazing and something that’s not being taken advantage of,” McGoldrick said.

Kumar, now a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., spoke about the story she wrote on rape culture at Fond du Lac High School for the February 2014 issue of Cardinal Columns.

For the story, Kumar conducted a survey that found 80 percent of students had heard a joke about rape in the last month and 30 percent believed a woman was somewhat responsible for being sexually assaulted if she had been drinking or wore revealing clothing.

Although the article prompted classroom discussion — and a teacher even talked about her own sexual assault with Kumar — former Fond du Lac High School Principal Jon Wiltzius instituted a prior review policy in March because he said “The Rape Joke” and another article on students’ rights to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance were explicit and inappropriate for high school students. Kumar said Wiltzius told the journalism class that her article on rape culture made the school look bad in the community.

“Of course it does,” Kumar told Cornish. “That’s kind of the point.”

In August the Fond du Lac Board of Education reversed the prior review policy.

Kumar said the experience “reiterated the fact that there definitely needs to be a divide between those in charge and the press” because journalism isn’t about “propaganda, it’s about telling the truth.”

During a Journalism Educators Association conference panel discussion in November, Syed moderated McGoldrick, Kumar, Tinker, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld as they discussed experiences with censorship.

Halpert and Rosenfeld, co-editors-in-chief of their Community High School newspaper The Communicator, spoke about their experience writing an op-ed for The New York Times after the school’s dean said they could not publish stories about students with mental illness, addiction and homelessness. Halpert and Rosenfeld, then managing editors, said they wanted to produce a mental health-themed issue to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We wanted people to know it was okay to have a mental illness, and it’s okay to talk about it,” Halpert said.

The Communicator staff interviewed students, who agreed to let the paper use their names and whose parents signed consent forms, but the Community High School’s dean said they could not publish the students’ stories and suggested a profile of a University of Michigan football player who had talked about his depression. The managing editors said publishing a college student’s story instead of the Community High students’ stories would reinforce the message that there is shame in talking about mental illness.

Halpert and Rosenfeld wrote an editorial and submitted it to The New York Times, Yahoo! News and Slate, and The Times published “Depressed, but Not Ashamed” in May 2014.

“It ultimately got a lot more people talking about this issue than just publishing it in our school newspaper would have, so it was a really effective way to get the message out,” Rosenfeld said.

Halpert said students can cover issues deeper than football games and homecoming if they get the chance.

“Before, just writing for my school newspaper, I never really understood that what I write can affect people and situations,” Halpert said. “I never really understood that I have a lot of power as a journalist, and all journalists have a lot of power with the words they write.”

Incubation of ideas

The SPLC isn’t the only organization that recognizes the need for personal and professional resources for girls and women in media.

Although possibilities for partnerships do exist, Syed said Active Voice fills a need for young female journalists that other organizations, such as Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the party and the Online News Association-Poynter Institute’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, don’t address.

Smart Girls aims to build girls’ self confidence and curiosity through community service and online projects, but isn’t focused on journalism. The Leadership Academy, a four-day conference to increase support for women and increase women in leadership positions in media, doesn’t address the needs of young women who do not yet work full-time in the industry.

Syed said Active Voice is in an “active incubation” phase of preparing to identify problems young women face in journalism before researching the issues and developing tools to help.

“The worst thing would be to create solutions to questions and problems that people don’t have,” Syed said. “We want to make sure it’s actually responsive.”

Syed said Active Voice’s goal is to provide young women with resources to handle retaliation or online threats and help others to speak out for what they believe like McGoldrick, Kumar, Halpert and Rosenfeld.

“The job of a journalist is to speak truth to power,” McGoldrick said, “and I’m so lucky to now be able to do that and have found my voice to speak the truth.”