Censoring student journalists can suppress learning, educators say

Giving student journalists leeway, how censorship backfires, preparing for controversy
By: | March 20, 2017
Students who write news stories at Kirkwood High School have freedom. Writing without needing administrator approval on stories teaches the full scope of the First Amendment, the principal says.Students who write news stories at Kirkwood High School have freedom. Writing without needing administrator approval on stories teaches the full scope of the First Amendment, the principal says.

Neither Principal Mike Havener nor any of his administrators preview stories the students at Kirkwood High School produce for their TV broadcast, or for The Kirkwood Call newspaper or its website.

Giving the high school journalists in the suburban-St. Louis district leeway to create stories that occasionally upset readers (even administrators) teaches them the full scope of the First Amendment, says Havener, adding that he prohibits content that’s hateful or hurtful.

“We have stories some see as controversial and some see as inappropriate at the high school level” says Havener, who was named the Journalism Education Association’s administrator of the year in 2015.

“Our editors have to make sure the stories are accurate and truthful so they can justify and defend those stories being published.”

Students learn more about journalism, communication and leadership when—under the guidance of advisors—they decide what stories to write, says Diana Hadley, director of the Indiana High School Press Association.

“If students can’t write about challenging topics, they don’t get the full experience of being a student journalist” Hadley says. “They’re not tested to present information in a responsible way because they’re not given the freedom to be responsible.”

In Indiana, for example, one such challenging topic is opioid addiction. When school media outlets cover the problem, she says, it creates a more supportive environment for students impacted by drug abuse.

“Censorship limits engagement within the school community” Hadley adds. “If students are doing a really good job of covering events and issues that their readers care about, there will be interaction that makes the school better.”

How censorship backfires

Indiana and Missouri are among several states where campaigns have sprouted to pass “New Voices” bills that would bar administrators from censoring student journalists. The proposals do not provide an “anything goes” level of freedom—they do not protect defamatory speech, for example.

Some subjectivity also remains—administrators would still be able to block stories they consider libelous, an invasion of someone’s privacy or likely to cause a significant disruption of the school.

Lawmakers in several “red” and “blue” states have enacted or introduced New Voices laws since early 2016.

“Schools say they want to produce civically engaged graduates, and having a source of information is the first step toward civic participation” says Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and a founder of the New Voices movement.

“But you can’t create an informed citizenry if all of your news is being filtered—if it looks like a PR newsletter for the school.”

Attempts to censor stories often backfire, as articles that have been quashed will appear almost instantaneously on social media or on the website of a local newspaper. Plus, censorship sometimes make administrators look worse than what the story they were trying to suppress would have, LoMonte says.

Once a story hits Twitter, Facebook or another social network, the facts can quickly become corrupted by sensationally inaccurate information. “Schools are figuring out that journalism is a solution and not a problem” LoMonte says.

“Students can take those discussions of issues like substance abuse and sex education into newsrooms where they can talk about them in a supervised and accountable environment.”

Ready for controversy

At Chantilly High School in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, Principal Teresa L. Johnson receives updates on the planned coverage during monthly meetings with the journalism students and advisors.

Johnson never reviews stories, but asks for a headsup from the editors if they expect an article to be controversial. She wants to be prepared for the phone calls from disgruntled readers, whether they are from staff, students or parents.

Johnson says she will also have student editors meet with those disgruntled readers, so both sides can share their views and potentially learn something from each other.

“The key here is to have advisors who are active in the publication world, aware of journalism ethics, and very informed about any county and state policies” she says. “My expectation is they will teach our kids real-world skills—how to communicate and collaborate, and leadership through the experience.”

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