It seems like every time someone blinks, someone tweets. Social networking sites are now being used by major news organizations and publications such as The Washington Post and Time Magazine, and even the president has a Twitter account. But during the school day, high school journalists are often excluded from this trend.When social media sites like Facebook and Twitter fall victim to high schools' internal filtering software, it can be particularly unfortunate for students who work on publications, especially in an age where social media is sometimes referred to as the future of journalism.
"I think we under-utilize technology in school," said William Wilcox, editor-in-chief of The Falconer at Virginia's Fauquier High School. "I think it would be a much more effective way to teach us how to use journalism."
After he utilized social media sites to quickly circulate messages to people on his own time, Wilcox realized how beneficial networking would be for The Falconer.
"We would be able to drastically promote the paper," Wilcox said. "We could post a bunch of articles on Facebook. We could probably more easily try to run an advice column too."
Mark Webber, student newspaper adviser at Vidal M. Trevino School of Communications and Fine Arts in Laredo, Texas, finds lack of access to social media sites very limiting. Since social media Web sites are blocked from students at his high school during the school day, Webber felt the need to establish a social online presence for his publication. He bought a pay-by-the-minute phone that he stashes in the journalism classroom so his students can post updates to Twitter whenever the school has breaking news.
"We text our messages to Twitter," Webber said. "I'll pick students at random and ask them to send a tweet about what we're doing right now. For example, Friday the newspaper held a Halloween costume contest for the school, and we tweeted about it."
Webber said he recognizes the value of publications using social networking for promotion purposes and to get the word out. The newspaper's Web site address and its Twitter account name are included on the front page of each edition. Administrators have not mentioned anything about the newspaper's Twitter account, Webber said.
"I want to see if the school administration will contact me concerning Twitter," Webber said. "If they don't then I'll assume it's fine. If I see that the Twittering is going well, then my next thing would be to say 'let's see how we can take advantage of a Facebook or Myspace site for the paper.' "
If his school allowed social networking access, Webber would constantly be able to link his students' online articles to Twitter and Facebook ' almost every publication out there is doing it, he said. It would also provide a hands-on way to educate his students about news media convergence ' the fusion of several media outlets into one.
"I want to get them used to the idea of it's not something that's necessarily difficult to use, but it's just part of what's expected of journalists nowadays," he said. "A lot of what we do is ethical behavior and I'd like to do be able to show an appropriate way to conduct yourself on Facebook, and how not to."
Though sites like Twitter and Facebook are unavailable at Vidal M. Trevino, students are allowed access to blogging sites, as part of their class assignments.
"Everyone in the actual newspaper class has to blog a couple times a week," said Linda Rodriguez, one of Webber's students. She said Webber is teaching them to blog to highlight how journalism is going digital. "I think in the future we're not even going to have newspapers printed, it's all going to be online," she said.
Because blogging has helped her get used to the idea of social media, Rodriguez said she wishes she and her fellow newspaper staff members could have access to more sites during the day. The sites would not only help them promote the paper, but it would also be useful when writing articles.
"There's an article in our paper about YouTube," Rodriguez said. "It's a student analyzing videos on YouTube, and criticizing them, but the YouTube Web site is blocked, so we can't actually look at the videos to see what he's talking about. [Administrators] might think they are protecting us, but they are deterring us from learning more."
Webber's high school district will soon be revising the state curriculum guidelines, called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), for English and language arts classes. A public hearing is scheduled in late January. Webber said he is hoping the revisions will include new converging media elements like Web journalism. Once the new TEKS is complete, he plans on petitioning administration to grant he and his students access to social media Web sites during his journalism class.
"I would want to see if I could have one computer only that I could have access to, to go onto a social network site, and then from there we could do social networking," he said. "I'd want to see how that would go over. It would be under my supervision, and everything I'm doing I'm trying to tie into educational goals. I could teach [the students] appropriate behavior for online uses."
Having increased access to certain Web sites is particularly important to Webber because few students at Vidal M. Trevino have access to the Internet at home, he said.
"Getting the word out" is no longer limited to flyers and word of mouth. Since the take-off of social networking between 1997 and 2006, promoting, marketing, journalism and education have taken on a whole different meaning, according to social media expert Meg Roberts, promotions associate for New Media Strategies, a company that describes itself as the market leader in social media marketing and measurements.
Around 2000, America was introduced to the first social networks and live journals, like "Xanga" and "LiveJournal," Roberts said, then Facebook came out in 2004 and Twitter emerged in 2006. But social media Web sites expanded their footprint in the last two years when every company and publication started trying to get on board because that's where their audiences are looking, according to Roberts.
"It's become the place that people go to find breaking news because it's instant," Roberts said. "If you can put yourself out there as a publication that has instant access to publishing, then you're going to be ahead of the competition, and that's so important in this day and age as publications are competing with each other on and offline."
For many journalists, careers start at the high school level, when they start building their reporting resumes. Making use of social media sites can open up lines of communication between high school journalists and the adult media.
"Through social media, you get to network with not only people in your own area, but people across the country," Roberts said. "Never before has a high school senior been able to jump on Twitter and engage with a prominent reporter from the New York Times."
Roberts argues that if schools are concerned students will get on social media sites to goof around, then it's on the school's shoulders to educate them and show them how it can be used professionally.
Jen Tambellini, publications adviser at Old Mill High School in Millersville, Md., has a Facebook account for Old Mill's yearbook, but can update and check it only from home.
"We have a Facebook page for our yearbook just to get the word out," Tabellini said. "We put lots of info out there ' and we have a Web site where people can upload pictures. It's actually become really useful. But sometimes, because the editor doesn't get home until late at night, we'll go weeks without checking it because we can't check it at school. That is what bothers me."
She said that not only would it be a great way to get the word out quickly about book and ad sales, it's also a big school, and social networking is where the kids are. But it would not be easy to get around the filtering software used by her school.
Because of restrictions tied to federal technology funding, high school administrators are not in the position to grant students unlimited access to the Internet ' and social media sites can fall victim to schools' Web-policing.Old Mill High School uses a filtering software to get E-rate funding, a program through the Federal Communications Commission. Greg Barlow, chief information officer for Maryland's Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said filtering software is used in the district because of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), signed into law in 2000, which requires high schools to use filtering software to receive E-rate funding. The school's software filters out depictions of visual obscenity and child pornography.
CIPA states, "The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors," according to the FCC's Web site.
"We get funding through E-rate that can give you discounts on telecommunications services, and if we don't filter against inappropriate material on the Internet, then we are not able to get that funding," Barlow said. "Funding is very important to us, as is protecting our students from inappropriate material."
Aaron Caplan, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Calif., said CIPA requires any library that accepts subsidies for its Internet connection to use some kind of Internet filtering software. The question then becomes whether some filters are so overbroad that they cause free speech problems.
"The statute doesn't specify which kind of filter, but it has to be something that blocks visual depictions of obscenity and child pornography," Caplan said. "If [it] is a pretty good software that filters out obscenity, that would be constitutionally acceptable. If, on top of that, the school says there are certain other sites that they don't like and they don't let [students] look at them, then there would be an argument [for teachers who want access]."
Caplan also compared Web sites accessed on school computers to books in a school's library. The school has authority to build its own collection of library books, but its authority is limited. The school gets to decide what books can and cannot go into the library, and most likely choose the books that are most suited to educational purposes. But if the books are being removed from the collection for illegitimate reasons, it can be a First Amendment violation, which makes having access to particular Web sites during the school day an arguable aspiration.
"If we accept the analogy that the Internet is similar to the school library, when the school filters out specific Web sites, it is as if they are removing them from the collection ... they have to prove that they are doing so for legitimate reasons," Caplan said. "The school needs to have a legitimate reason for the filtering."
With the Internet comes a new kind of learned behaviors, and learned normative conceptions of privacy and regulation, said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). And until it becomes more commonplace, high schools across the country will continue to have limited access to social media Web sites.
"A teacher could have said 10 years ago 'no cell phones in a classroom' ... but in 10 years they could say 'turn your iPhones off and no Twittering in class,' " Creeley said. "The reassuring thing about all this is that in terms of the law, the First Amendment has proven to be tremendously adaptable to every communication revolution it's been faced with. So too will it adapt to social media, and all the various wonders of the Internet."
According to Creeley, the general trend is increased regulation of school speech, particularly when the speech is at the school during school hours and online. But freedom of speech must always be the guiding consideration, he said.
While Mark Webber is hoping to gain access to Twitter and Facebook, Tambellini is hoping for more Internet access in general.
"Every year our art teachers can't even pull up images to show in their art classes," Tambellini said. "Any place where the kids might upload their photos is blocked. Everything is blocked. It's pretty crazy. Anything with the word blog near it is blocked. If we're supposed to be teaching them literacy in the digital age ... why are we not teaching literacy in the digital age?"
reports, Winter 2009-10