Advisers under pressure

Journalism teachers find themselves clashing with their colleagues

The old saying “any press is good press” is no longer true, according to some high school coaches and teachers.

Besides being historical records for their schools, student newspapers and yearbooks serve as educational tools about the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and press. However, according to some journalism educators, many people within the educational system itself don’t always seem to understand or uphold these rights.

While it is well-recognized that administrators often pressure student editors and journalism advisers to censor their publications, sometimes the pressure comes from other sources within the school.

Melissa Dixon, a teacher at Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, Ala., met resistance this year from a basketball coach at her school when she tried to get the team’s scores for the yearbook. In her 12 years advising the yearbook staff of the Paragon, she hadn’t come across that problem before.

The coaches hadn’t kept track of the freshman team’s scores, so Dixon asked a parent for the win-loss record. After she had gotten that information, the coach asked her not to publish the record at all.

“He just decided that he didn’t feel like it was appropriate to make the team look bad,” she said. “When I explained to him that it was a historical record, he said that the parents are very upset with the coaches because of the [season] and he just asked that I didn’t put it in.”

Because Dixon is friends with the coach and sees him at the school often, she worried about their future relationship. After corresponding with other advisers by email, she ultimately decided to publish the win-loss record in the yearbook.

Tom Gayda, Region Six director for the Journalism Education Association and a teacher at North Central High School in Indianapolis, said whenever teachers have issues within their own schools, he encourages them to explain the role of the press to those in opposition.

“I find [not giving scores] silly, because at the end of the day it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad season,” he said. “I don’t know why they think that by not giving that information or acting like it didn’t happen it makes the truth go away. Had the kids been keeping track themselves, they wouldn’t have had to ask and it would’ve been included anyway. Situations like that are a little bizarre.”

Bizarre as they may be, situations where journalism advisers are pressured by those within the same school system to withhold certain information or publish favorable facts aren’t uncommon.

Dana Juenemann, teacher and adviser to The Stampede newspaper and Bison yearbook staffs at McCook High School in Nebraska, dealt with a similar situation this school year. A student working on the swim team’s page for the yearbook went to the coaches to get the scores and was told she couldn’t have them.

“I honestly never thought it would be a problem to get scores, ever,” she said. “Our swim team improved a lot, but they didn’t win, and they don’t want that in the yearbook. My thought was, ‘Don’t ever tell a journalist that they can’t have something, because they will find a way to get it, especially if it’s factual information.’”

Juenemann turned to the community newspaper to get the scores. When it comes to being pressured, she said, more often it’s requests for stories that show the school in a favorable light.

“Overall, they want us to make them look good,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s newspaper or yearbook. It seems like coaches, the administration, anybody gets upset if we bring anything to their attention that is not only controversial, but might show there are problems.”

Juenemann said she’s also dealt with comments from community members and those within the school who’ve said they can’t believe the staff writes articles about a team not winning.

“I really preach to my sports writers that ... it’s an article, it’s not ‘Yay team let’s do better,’” she said. “That’s not your job, and if you want to be a cheerleader, go try out for cheerleading. In here you’re a writer and I need you to be objective and tell it like it is, as long as you back it up.”

Trying to find a balance

Oftentimes many bright-eyed, fresh out of college journalism educators and publications advisers are plopped into unfamiliar school systems and wished good luck. In response, the Journalism Education Association started a mentoring program through its regional organizations to help support those teachers in their first two years.

Georgia and Wayne Dunn taught journalism in Ohio for 28 and 30 years, respectively. After retiring, they began working with the JEA’s mentorship program in their area when it began five years ago. While mentoring the teachers lasts only two years, the Dunns said they continue to provide help and advice thereafter.

Wayne Dunn said it can be precarious for new teachers who are trying to find a balance covering the school while also trying to avoid trouble.

Georgia Dunn said the impulse to give in to censorship pressure can be especially strong when journalism programs are endangered. “Here in Ohio, as in many other states, we’re having tremendous financial problems for schools. They’re cutting teachers right and left, and programs like newspaper are being dropped,” she said.

She said one of the most important things she and her husband tell teachers is to educate students about their rights, because the students may have to fight the battle. With many teachers starting off with one-year contracts, sometimes they can’t afford to push back because “if he or she is given a direct order not to do something they have to follow it or risk being fired for insubordination.”

While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and press, student journalists aren’t necessarily afforded the full extent of those freedoms. The 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision by the U.S. Supreme Court gave public high school administrators greater ability to censor school-sponsored student publications, unless policy or practice indicates that the publication operates as a “public forum” run by students.

In the years since, seven states — California, Oregon, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado and Kansas — have passed laws giving high school students stronger protections for freedom of expression than under Hazelwood.

While the First Amendment and state law may protect student journalists against official acts of censorship by principals, superintendents or school boards, there is not necessarily a First Amendment right to be free of harassment by peers and community members – and that is sometimes where journalists suffer the most severe backlash for what they write.

In a particularly extreme case, student journalists at Muncie Central High School in Indiana who broke a story about a 2004 scandal involving allegations of illicit payments to members of the school’s popular basketball team found themselves targeted for retaliation both officially and unofficially. Their photo credentials for several sporting events were yanked, a writer received a threatening text message, and the editor’s car and home were vandalized.

‘Bodies to be controlled’

Experts in student journalism say it’s important to educate the whole school community, from administrators to students, about the constructive role that an uncensored news outlet can play in bringing problems to light to be fixed.

SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein said it’s often “controversial” articles about problems within the school or with athletic teams that inspire things to go right in the future.

“From the perspective of a coach who has never had to teach journalism or never had to be a journalist, writing about how the team lost just feels mean,” he said. “Journalism students don’t report these things to antagonize the athletic teams or to make anybody feel bad about themselves, they report about these things so people can adjust and people can change and offer more support.”

Juenemann, the adviser in Nebraska, said it’s usually the articles that don’t seem controversial that end up being problems.

“It’s kind of a deal-with-it-as-it-comes type of thing,” she said. “When it happens to my kids, if they are going to do something controversial in our newspaper, they have to be able to defend it to me and a couple other teachers before it’s going to go to press. Because I teach in Nebraska and we don’t have a Student Freedom of Expression Act, we have to be very, very careful. I just prepare my kids the best I can so that [censorship] doesn’t happen.”

In a time when schools are being criticized for lackluster test scores or for wasting tax money, “student journalists researching or writing a truthful story can be seen as damaging a school’s public reputation,” said Edmund J. Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in New York.

“Few teachers other than journalism advisers have a real interest in helping student journalists practice those rights,” Sullivan said. “Too many adults in schools look at students as bodies to be controlled and not young minds to be educated.”

Image isn’t everything

Dixon, the Alabama adviser, has been able to face down peer pressure to censor because of a supportive relationship with her administration, which she cultivated over years of successfully advising the yearbook staff at Oak Mountain. By demonstrating she was capable of dealing professionally with controversy in the yearbook program, Dixon was able to avoid the mandatory prior administrative review imposed on the newspaper under a previous adviser.

This doesn’t mean that the yearbook always runs without a ripple. In one instance, a student in Dixon’s yearbook class asked a football coach for confirmation of a player in a photograph for a spread. She said the coach saw a prominent quote on the page that he didn’t like.

“The coach asked them to pull it out,” she said. “I stood my ground there and said something to the effect of, ‘I don’t go on your field and coach your kids and tell you what plays to run, and so you won’t be telling me what goes in the yearbook.’”

Dixon said dealing with pressure, especially from those within the same school, isn’t something you can be trained for — it’s about learning from mistakes.

Ultimately, it’s not the job of student journalists or journalism educators to provide public relations material for the school, Goldstein said. The most important message journalism educators can impart to administrators, coaches or fellow teachers is the need to educate students is greater than the school’s image, he said.

“When you’re educating them in journalism, that means writing about things that aren’t always good,” he said. “Go out and pick up any newspaper and you’ll see stories about athletic teams that lost and, you know what, people still love the team. Every year, every newspaper in Chicago has been writing about how the Cubs lost, but there are still a ton of Cubs fans.”

By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011