As mentioned in the previous post (thanks to Storify), some of my students won recognition from the SPLC and my favorite media critic for their creation of The Red Pen. When students at our school win a significant national award like this, it seems like a no-brainer for our student press to cover the award.
But this was different. The students had won an award for essentially doing a defiant end-run around administrative censorship. To cover this story would bring up past controversies and possibly cause a new one.
As their adviser, it’s not my job to tell my journalism students whether or not they should run a story about this award. It’s up to the students themselves to decide. I will remind them of the principles and ethics of journalism; I will ask them to consider all of the stakeholders involved; but ultimately the decision is up to them.
In some ways, journalism educators and journalism students work in an environment very different from professional journalists. We have a captive audience, no competitors, and (in many cases) don’t rely on advertising. Student journalists don’t get paid and they can’t get fired. But there are a lot of similarities: high school journalists and professional journalists cover real people and real issues; their coverage can have a real impact on people’s lives; and they have publishers who can either be a boon or bane to the journalistic process and integrity of the publication. While it’s true that journalism students can’t be fired, journalism advisers certainly can (one recipient of the SPLC’s award is an adviser who was reassigned as punishment for supporting his student journalists), and I would argue that journalist students ought to take that into account when considering controversial topics.
No matter what happens in high school, the student journalists will eventually graduate and presumably head off to college and/or the workforce. But the adviser has to keep working there with the same administration; she or he has to keep paying their mortgage, feeding their children, and otherwise maintaining a livelihood.
This is one reason why student journalists ought to be responsible for their own content (and fighting their own censorship battles): they have less to lose than the advisers. The other, equally important reason is that student journalists learn nothing from having adults make their decisions and fight their battles for them. Dealing with controversy is part of being a responsible, professional journalist; the actions of the Red Pen’s editors demonstrated that they’ve learned quite a bit along those lines. For that reason, I couldn’t be prouder of them. But I’m still not sure how the other student journalists in the building should cover news of the award. We don’t want to be seen as poking the administration in the eye, and yet at the same time we don’t want to completely avoid the issue out of fear (that darn chilling effect).
Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.