Interview by Emily Hickey, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In SPLC’s series, Behind the Story, we highlight examples of bold journalism produced by high school and college students across the country.
SPLC spoke with editors from Coppell Student Media at Coppell High School (Texas) about their story “‘We have the right to read.’” Executive News Editor Sri Anchanta, Executive Editor-in-Chief Angelina Liu, Executive Editorial Page Editor Manasa Mohan and Executive Design/Interactive Editor Srihari Yechangunja discuss how they explored the reality of book censorship in Texas and how Coppell Independent School District has withstood state and nationwide pressure to censor potentially controversial content.
While their district does not do school-wide bans, the students share more about why it’s important for student journalists to cover these issues of censorship.
Emily Hickey: How did you first learn about this story, and what inspired you to pursue it?
Sri Achanta: In November, Keller Independent School District voted to ban books about gender identity, and Keller ISD is super close to us. We were like, “this is really impacting our community” and we wanted to see how that would affect our school because it’s so nearby.
Angelina Liu: Our principal, Ms. Springer, she’s a really great person and really advocates for student individuality and things of that nature. The views of the people on our school board aligned.
What we ran into is that Coppell actually doesn’t really ban books schoolwide, it’s on an individual basis. Like, if a parent wanted to challenge a book in the library, that student specifically, not every student, wouldn’t be able to read that book.
Editor’s Note: Coppell High School librarian Trisha Goins noted in the story that, while a parent can prevent their child — but not the entire school — from reading a certain book, “[i]n all my years of being here, that has not happened at our high school.”
EH: So one of the issues in reporting this story was Coppell not having its own or as many book bans. How did you all navigate that as you’re trying to report on this story from your school’s perspective?
Manasa Mohan: So I did some digging. I found that in the most recent 20 years, the only book bans that had happened in Coppell ISD were two book bans at Coppell Middle School East and they were from the early 2000s, so it was very long ago. Coppell High School itself hadn’t banned books in a very long time, and like Angelina said, it’s probably because they go on a per-student basis.
We had to figure out how CISD was responding to the controversial books that the state had recommended be taken out of classrooms. And they were allowing those books to still be present because Ms. Springer was allowing students to read what they want to read and learn about what they want to learn. She doesn’t advocate for keeping certain parts of history away from students, and so we had to find a way to figure out how CISD was being affected, if at all.
SA: I was able to interview the Black Culture Club president. Her name is Sedem Buatsi, and she had a really great response: In her AP English class, she was able to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and that was actually one of the books that Matt Krause, former Texas state representative, had wanted to ban. She told me that that book had changed her entire perspective because she’d been alive for 17 years but she never learned that part of history until she read that book.
I think that’s when we realized how important the books that we were able to read are and how Coppell ISD had done a great job not taking out the recommended banned books.
EH: We’ve talked a little bit about your research and reporting process, but can you walk me through what that process looked like for you all as a team?
SA: We basically had a very brief outline and we split it up into sections. We were like, OK, Manasa will write about “The history of Texas Censorship,” Angelina will write about “Texas censorship in CISD Libraries,” and then I would write about students “Vocalizing Censored Topics” at CHS.
Then we went our own way. We interviewed students and parents. We collected all of our interviews, and then put them together and read each other’s interviews to see how they would connect, and then formed a story like that.
AL: An issue that we faced when we were writing it was whenever we put everything together, our writing styles kind of differed. So Sri’s more of a news person; I’m more profile-y. And so putting them together was a little bit of a challenge; just making it flow and seem like it’s all part of the same story and not like you’re reading three different things.
MM: I feel like my part of the story was the information-heavy part, so if readers didn’t really know what was going on in the state of Texas and neighboring districts, they could use that intro section to figure out why this is such a big problem. And then we could transition into Sri and Angelina’s parts about how CISD specifically is being affected. And so I think that sectioning off worked out in our favor because not only did it make the story way more digestible to look at, but it really helped to flow into each other.
EH: Why do you think that it’s important for student journalists to report on issues of censorship, such as book bans?
SA: I think it’s super important because as journalists we use the First Amendment. We’re trying to write and portray the things that are happening in society, but obviously there’s going to be that person at the top who doesn’t want that out because it may showcase the bad side that they don’t want showcased. So it’s so incredibly important for student journalists and journalists in general to speak about such topics because it truly affects us. And it’s something that everyone should know, and we’re able to let everyone know by writing about it.
MM: To add onto that, this was a very hard-hitting topic for student journalists to take on, but I think it was really important for us to do it because it made everyone aware of what was happening. Whenever I talked to people about this, they were not fully aware of what was going on and what the Texas representatives were trying to do with trying to take these books out of classrooms and out of libraries. So I think we made it very much a priority of ours to inform everyone as journalists — as student journalists — of what was going on in our state and what was going on in our district and how we were all reacting to it and how the school was reacting to it.
EH: How have you seen the story’s impact play out following the publishing of this article?
SA: I think on a staff level in our newsroom, this story was brought up multiple times as something to look at and something to try to achieve. It was a story that our adviser really advocated for because it related to journalism and censorship.
It was also one of the first stories this year where we actually went out to the community and talked to a lot of members about such a hard-hitting topic. And it was really cool to see other staffers, especially our first-years, come up to us and say, “Oh my God, this story was phenomenal, how do you do that?” So it impacted our staff on that level.
MM: I remember we actually made this the center spread of our Issue 3 because we felt like it was such a strong story and it had to be told. I had one of my teachers in class talk to me about this story and talk about some of the anti-CRT bills that we had mentioned in it, because that was also a huge part of the censorship. He was very passionate about critical race theory and what the Texas representatives are trying to do with it.
He had a very open conversation about what the story did and how he agreed with what we were saying and how it was an informative piece — even telling him things that he didn’t know before. And I think that was incredibly powerful because sometimes as a student journalist, you don’t really get that respect in high school. People don’t really see the work that you do, but this was a perfect example of someone reading your story and us finding out that our work really does matter and our voice really is heard. That was just such an incredible thing to remember.
EH: What do you feel like you learned about student journalism as you were reporting on this story?
SA: You definitely shouldn’t go into an interview thinking, “Oh, this is what my source is going to tell me because I know this source or I know that this is what the source does for their job.” The story can unravel just through talking to members of the community and just asking them questions constantly to see how the perspective kind of shifts from person to person.
MM: I feel like the biggest takeaway for me from the story was how in-depth the reporting really has to be and how one thing can lead to another and you have to be ready to report on that because as soon as I found one document, it led to other documents and other documents. It created kind of a mess at first, but then once you actually put it into the story it created this fabulous outline of information so that everyone could see what the full picture was. I don’t think I would have gotten that or would have been able to report that if I didn’t follow the trail and make sure that every piece of relevant information was part of the section that I wrote.
EH: As you all look back on this experience and your experience as student journalists in general, what advice would you give to other student journalists who are looking to report on an important story like yours?
MM: I would say don’t be afraid of the hard-hitting topics. The key to finding a story like this and being able to execute it in a successful way would be to go in and be bold with what you’re saying. It may get a little backlash, you may get some apprehension, which we did receive to some scale at first. But obviously, we were very blessed with a very nice administration who don’t really have concerns about what we’re writing, who don’t really express any wishes to stop what we’re producing. But that nature of being bold and being willing to take risks is really important.
AL: One thing is to always try to localize a national issue. I think for many students in Coppell, you see these book bans happening in Florida. You see them happening in other districts and you’re like, “That’s so horrible, but it’s not really affecting me.” Obviously not every student thinks this. But then with a story like this, we localized the issue and brought it closer to home. These are very real things that can actually impact you and affect you and it’s in ways that you probably wouldn’t expect.
SA: For me the biggest advice is if there’s a story that you really want to write about and it’s huge, team up with a couple of writers to write about it. This was actually my first in-depth story and obviously it was very scary going into it. But then, as the younger one with less experience, it was really nice working with Angelina and Manasa, and we kind of became a trio who continued to write stories like this. You’re going to gain that experience and you’re going to be able to write in-depth stories afterwards.
EH: Srihari, do you have any reflections or anything on your experience as the designer on this story?
Srihari Yechangunja: There were two main things that we wanted to hit with the visual media on this. The featured image is this stack of books. Those are books from our library that were in that list of books that Matt Krause wanted to ban. We were looking through that list and checking which ones were in our library. We hadn’t even gone a little bit through the list until we discovered like 10 of the books — 10 books that were already in our library, available for people to read, that were already in that list. I find it kind of wild that we hadn’t even gotten so far into the list, and we had already found a good portion. We found a lot of books that could be banned, so it’s a big issue that such a large list and a lot of those books could be in our library. So we wanted to include one of those visual elements.
EH: Do you have any advice for student journalists who are specifically interested in design that you have taken from this experience?
SY: I think the main thing is whatever story you’re working on, there’s always an aspect of it that you can highlight visually to get the impact out. That little bit for this story was that we actually have these books in our library that could be banned. Visuals are a great complement to any story, so making those stand out, making those hit really hard, I think that’s the main thing that people should take if they want to go into design as a student journalist.
EH: Do you all have anything that you would like to add about this story or about student journalism in general that we haven’t covered?
SA: To become a better student journalist, you should read other student journalism. I think the biggest thing that you should do if you’re aspiring to be a journalist is just read, read and read. Read every single thing you can find about a certain topic that you’re interested in, for example, or just on journalism sites in general, to expand your vocabulary, expand your knowledge, and just become a better journalist.
MM: I like to take inspiration from what other high school publications are doing and see how we can make our publication better and I find that it’s never failed me. I’ve always gotten a new idea, like a new column or a new story or anything from another website and find a way to make that local to Coppell.
AL: Practice makes perfect. Picking up different stories, like news stories, features — just really anything that you can like — it really helps build your writing skills. The constant repetition of writing a story is what I think made me capable of writing this.
SY: Keep pursuing a story if you think it’s a good topic, a topic that people should know about. Even though I didn’t write the story, I saw from the outside how many versions and iterations, how many roadblocks they hit. Even design wise, there were a bunch of iterations until we hit what we thought was the right one. I think the main thing is: don’t give up pursuing a story that you think should be heard by everybody.