40 years later, Still Captive?

A review of the state of high school journalism reached its third iteration with the recent publication of Still Captive: History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism.

The book, a collection of analyses from 14 editors and authors published this spring, looks at how the field of high school journalism has continued to evolve into the digital age. Many concerns remain the same 40 years after Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America first exposed the challenges that student journalists face in keeping their First Amendment rights, which led to the creation of the Student Press Law Center.

“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,” co-author David Burns said.

The biggest contribution of the book might be a survey conducted by the Society of Professional Journalists’ education committee, which asked high school journalism advisers about the state of high school journalism today. The committee received 258 responses, which together paint a picture of a national scene where journalism programs are fighting to stay relevant.

Many journalism advisers still lack journalism training, and while minorities are becoming more represented within the field of journalism, there is still a gap in representation. Program funding, lack of professional support and censorship remain key concerns for journalism programs today.

Captive Voices emphasized the fight against censorship in high schools that is still ongoing today. The book, published in 1974, was one of the first to argue that direct administrative censorship has a chilling effect on students and stops the free discussion of controversial issues.

Some of the main challenges listed in the original book include censorship from high school administrators and advisers, the lack of support from professional news organizations for high school journalists’ free speech and the lack of diversity in professional and student newsrooms.

Still Captive dives into many of the same concerns, albeit against a very different backdrop of waning financial health for scholastic and professional journalism.

The purpose of high school journalism

So what does the modern high school journalism adviser look like today? Nearly 80 percent are female, with an average age of 44. Almost 25 percent took no college journalism courses, and 43.3 percent have no previous professional journalism experience.

“What amazed us was that nearly one-fourth of all high school journalism teachers who we surveyed have had absolutely no journalism training,” co-editor and project coordinator Rebecca Tallent said.

She added that some advisers hadn’t even heard of Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 Supreme Court case that ruled the First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles.

One significant change between the 1994 book, Death by Cheeseburger: High School Journalism in the 1990s and Beyond, and the new Still Captive study completed in 2014 has been how advisers view the core purpose of high school journalism.

In 1994, 36.5 percent said that teaching and learning skills was the primary purpose, followed by 34 percent who said it was a public forum for student expression. About 16 percent said the purpose was to report good and bad news, 7.6 percent thought it was for publicizing school events, and 6.7 percent said the primary purpose was to promote positivity.

In 2014, the percentage that focused on teaching and skill-learning was bolstered to 63.5 percent. Those who said a public forum for freedom of expression was the primary purpose dropped to 22.8 percent and the remaining categories constituted under 3 percent of respondents.

Closing high school newspapers

Tallent, who is a professor at the University of Idaho, believes the skills that an individual learns in journalism can carry into a number of professions.

“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,” Tallent said. “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, as an engineer — whatever it is you go into being, journalism helps.”

Still, across the country, many high school newspapers and journalism programs have closed down.

“What we have is a lot of schools that don’t have papers at all,” said attorney Chris Fager, who served as the first full-time director of the Student Press Law Center, from 1975 to 1978. “Oftentimes there are schools where there were papers, but they no longer have them.”

Tallent said students who come to college seeking to do journalism can be ill-prepared due to a lack of journalism education in high school. She said principals sometimes see newspapers as dangerous or perceive newspapers as dying, but overlook the changes in mediums of storytelling and the critical thinking skills that can come from having ownership in a newspaper.

“Principals still have the right, under the ever-so-lovely Hazelwood decision, to review newspapers before they go out; they have the right to censor,” Tallent said. “Principals can still have all these students learning all this great stuff, learning how to write, learning how to think. They can still have the newspapers keep going, but they aren’t thinking along those lines.”

Fager said he thinks the focus on obtaining higher standardized test scores has caused some of the elimination of journalism programs, along with other non-core subjects.

Fager now serves on the board of directors for the Student Voice Project, a group that supports journalism education and student media in underserved schools.

“Journalism isn’t the only thing that has gotten whacked, it’s arts and sports and extracurriculars — anything perceived as not having an immediate impact on test scores,” he said. “We’ve had papers that were really successful that didn’t bother school administrations at all, but they didn’t choose to continue with journalism education because it wasn’t close enough to their priorities with test scores.”

Diversity in student journalism

Lee Anne Peck, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado rado and one of the co-authors, noted in the book that high school newsrooms still contain a gap between minority and majority students and that gap continues at the professional level.

Peck estimated that among all high school media, 25 percent are nonwhite as compared to 37 percent of the general United States population. The original Captive Voices survey did not measure minority representation in high school journalism programs. In 1992, a JEA survey found that white journalism students made up over 80 percent of journalism staffs.

“Although the percentages seem a bit better than 20 years ago, more recruiting still needs to be done,” Peck wrote.

This imbalance remains pronounced at the professional level today, although there has been marked improvement since 1973 when the then-American Society of Newspaper Editors found that minorities constituted only three-fourths of 1 percent among professional U.S. newspaper staffs.

Now, 15 percent of newsrooms have a minority journalist in a top-three leadership position, according to the 2014 Newsroom Census survey by what is now known as the American Society of News Editors, though that still is not fully representative of the general population.

A lack of professional support

“In the survey we found that when we asked, high school advisers said 56 percent had no outside help from professional journalists,” Tallent said. “And colleges and universities don’t fare much better — 53 percent said they had no outside help.”

Professional media involvement is important at the high school level because that’s when most media professionals began their careers in journalism, Tallent said. But now, there are not as many opportunities for high schoolers in professional news organizations, she said.

Professional journalists are also important messengers who can effectively convey the educational benefits of journalism to high school administrators, Fager said. But donations and partnerships with professional news organizations are more difficult to come by now.

“One of the difficulties is that the journalism profession itself has been wracked with layoffs, with contractions, with the erosion of the print audience,” Fager said.

“Here in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times has lost half of its editorial workers in the last five years, so one of the difficulties with student journalism is the perception that there are a lot less jobs. We would like to see everybody have some journalism education, because it will really promote media literacy.”

Going forward, Tallent said she hopes that the new book can be a resource to journalism advisers, especially those who do not have previous experience with journalism.

“We have to teach the teachers, and that is one of the reasons we wrote the book and put it together the way we did,” she said.

The book, Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism, can be found on Amazon and the New Forums Press website for $34.95.