Sex, drugs and the news

When it comes to running risqué content in publications, journalists say administrators, parents (and sometimes students) can be 'blinded by the sex'

Every journalist looks for the money quote — the soundbite that will put the whole story in context. Student journalists at a Puyallup, Wash., high school had no issue gathering such quotes; their war of words would come later.

“I was 15. I was horny. It wasn’t really a relationship at that point. I’d known the guy for a week.”

Those words from a senior at Emerald Ridge High School — and similar sentiments from four other peers — hurtled the Puyallup School District into a 2008 legal battle that remains active today.

The February 2008 issue of the high school’s newspaper, The JagWire, focused on an issue that the student staff thought was important for their audience — casual sex among teens. Content was diverse, ranging from the biology involved to debates over morality.

“In general, those are really real issues for high school kids,” said Lauren Smith, one of the editorial board members at the time. “It’s important they know what they’re getting themselves into.”

The notion of serving the audience often gets college and high school publications in hot water when their relevant content runs afoul of what administrators, parents or even other students deem good taste.

Risqué content can quickly become risky for student journalists. A few bleep-worthy words or a more-than-suggestive sex column can earn editors and reporters anything from an inbox flooded with angry emails to an earful from school officials to threats to the publication itself.

So how to handle it? Students and advisers dished on the agony and ecstasy of pushing the limits in campus journalism.

‘Is it too risky?’

The idea to cover oral sex arose from a brainstorming session at a journalism camp. Three JagWire editorial board members were throwing out story ideas, and that one stuck, Smith said.

The trio brought the idea back to the other board members, and with their support, presented it to the newspaper class.

After an hour-and-a-half discussion about the pros and cons, the students reached an accord — they would run it.

“We expected people to be like, ‘Whoa, can’t believe they covered this,’ at first,” Smith said, adding that they never anticipated legal ramifications.

What the journalists deemed relevant to their peers was not what parents considered appropriate. And what raised the most eyebrows, and eventually a lawsuit, were five testimonials from students who were quoted by name about their experience and views on oral sex.

The students and their parents cried foul, alleging the reporters had identified the interviewees without their consent. The students and their parents sued the school district for invasion of privacy, while the paper’s staff countered that the students had given their consent to be interviewed.

In 2010, a jury ruled that by talking openly with clearly identified student journalists, the plaintiffs had given consent to have their information published.

One month later, the students filed an appeal, which is headed for oral arguments in January.

But even as its lawyer argued that the newspaper was a public forum that should be free of administrators’ meddling, the school district handed down a new policy the following academic year that placed every publication under prior review.

Under Regulation No. 3220R, the principal would be allowed to restrict student expression if there was reason to “forecast that the expression is likely to cause material and substantial disruption of, or interference with, school activities” or if the speech was “offensively lewd or indecent.”

It was a reversal that took the students by surprise. Smith, who had graduated by the time the policy took effect, said Principal Brian Lowney had always been supportive of their free-press rights.

“He was never trying to impose prior review,” Smith said. “When he came in the newsroom, he would cover his eyes.”

Despite protests from students and free speech advocates, including the Student Press Law Center, the prior review remains in effect, even after the school’s legal victory last year.

Students like Allie Rickard, who joined the JagWire after the oral sex issue, say the policy has had deep consequences on what issues the paper covers and how it covers them.

On certain topics, editors thought they should hold off and “be more conservative,” said Rickard, now a freshman at Barnard College.

“We were under the microscope,” she said. “It was like, ‘Why don’t we just not take chances?’”

The impulse to self-censor was frustrating to students who had little experience with journalism. What was more frustrating was the continuation of the policy — something students considered a reaction to the lawsuit — after the district and the paper had been cleared of wrongdoing, Rickard said.

The high school problem

High school journalists undoubtedly walk a finer line than their college counterparts, and the Supreme Court cases governing school expression haven’t made the waters any less murky.

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” reads the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling.

Tinker is often called a beacon for the rights of high school students; the Supreme Court confined schools’ ability to regulate speech or expression on school grounds to “carefully restricted circumstances.”

Yet, nearly 20 years later, the Court would take a step back from Tinker in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed school officials to censor publications not deemed public forums for “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

There is no denying Hazelwood’s continued impact. In May, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went so far as to cite the Hazelwood standard in legitimizing the censorship of a non-curricular, independent high school newspaper in R.O. v. Ithaca City School District.

Sexually suggestive stick figures may not seem like a major First Amendment fight, but they became one when staffers at Ithaca High School’s The Tattler newspaper were barred from running an editorial cartoon in 2005.

The cartoon, riffing on sex education, depicted stick figures in various sexual positions.

To get out from under the restrictions, the students opted to publish an independent, underground paper with the cartoon – which the school then banned from campus.

The students sued, alleging the school had violated their First Amendment rights. But the appeals courts sided with the district, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene, meaning the precedent will stand in New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

Show good taste

Even as the courts battle over legal standards, the issue of whether students should run controversial content remains separate and distinct.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics doesn’t discuss covering taboo topics specifically, but it does encourage practitioners to “show good taste” when compiling articles.

But that tenet shouldn’t lead administrators or students themselves to believe school publications should shy away from touchy subjects, according to experts.

“If student journalists have solid reasons to publish profanity or sexually suggestive content, they should consider it, but they need to carefully weigh the potential benefits against the potential harms,” said Neil Ralston, SPJ’s vice president of campus chapter affairs and assistant professor at Western Kentucky University.

Those benefits may include relevance to the audience.

The pages of Texas Tech University’s La Ventana yearbook have been graced by everything from STDs to the stomach contents of a student who had, perhaps, too much to drink. It’s not your stereotypical yearbook fare, but adviser Andrea Watson said the content reflects the campus experience.

“They’re college kids. They drink,” Watson said. “They see these things on a regular basis. More power to them for wanting to show this is part of college life.”

Watson, who has been La Ventana’s adviser since 2002, said she’s never steered her students toward or away from subjects. Instead, she’s tried to “empower” them to cover what they think is relevant.

“We try to make an effort to look at other aspects of college life,” she said. “It’s not all football games and classes.”

Not everyone loves the book’s inclination to push the envelope. The 2009 book devoted a spread to STDs and tackling the “Raider Rash” stereotype. They caught some flak from students and parents, Watson said.

But La Ventana staffers have been lucky to avoid run-ins with school administrators, who “understand that our publications are student-run,” Watson said.

“In some respects, our students are a little spoiled by that,” she said. “I don’t know what they’d do if they had to face that situation.”

Of course, there can be other consequences for risky content, as the editors of East Carolina University’s newspaper found out this fall.

Around 600 of the 9,000 copies of The East Carolinian’s Nov. 8 issue were stolen from racks. The reason? Likely the front-page, full-frontal photo of a streaker that the editorial board opted to run.

There were multiple reports of filched copies, and a large stack of papers was found in a trash bin in an on-campus parking lot.

The photo came from a home football game three days earlier, where the streaker was detained.

“We decided that we wanted to, as an editorial board, publish the uncensored photos to give our readers, which are primarily college students, access to unedited photos,” editor-in-chief Caitlin Hale told the SPLC in November.

Hale said reader response was mixed, though the theft was something they didn’t expect.

“We’ve heard from not only students but professors affiliated with the university, a lot of communication journalism professors who have talked to us about it and maybe not necessarily would have made the same decision but still support it because they do understand the journalistic integrity that goes with the decision made,” she said.

A mounting trend

While streakers on front pages may draw the ire of parents, students and faculty, few things result in more letters to the editor than good old-fashioned sex columns.

Little more than a decade ago, sex columns in college newspapers simply did not exist. Today, they’re often some of the most talked about and widely read pieces in the papers in which they run.

What’s the reason?

“Four words: Sex in the City,” said Dan Reimold, creator of the College Media Matters blog and author of Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Journalism Revolution.

While listing Carrie Bradshaw as the sole reason for the rise of sex columns is an oversimplification, she remains undoubtedly an influence, said Reimold, also a journalism professor at the University of Tampa and adviser to The Minaret.

Reimold has found columns, ranging in tone from salacious to studious, in 48 of 50 states and, at any given time, around 100 to 150 sex columns run in collegiate newspapers, he said.

More and more papers that have never before run a column of this type are stepping into the arena. The most recent of these belongs to Penn State’s Daily Collegian.

In Mounting Nittany’s September debut, under the headline “Let’s talk sex, hugs and handjobs,” Kristina Helfer explained to readers that she likes to have sex. She likes to talk about sex. And she likes to write about sex.

“The thrill of having sex is like nothing else. It’s exciting, and everyone’s talking about it,” Helfer wrote. “College is the time when those whispers become a reality, when people take others’ virginity and roommates are sexiled. And it’s time we start talking about it.”

Shortly after the column’s birth, news of the allegations of child abuse and sexual assault against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky broke. And then exploded. Coverage of the scandal has dominated Collegian front pages since.

And in an example of the many ethical considerations that accompany content decisions, Mounting Nittany was pulled from the print edition for the time being in light of new community standards.

“Based on the current situation and mood at Penn State, we have decided to remove the column for now,” Collegian Editor-in-Chief Lexi Belculfine wrote Dec. 1.

The return of the column is being considered on a week-to-week basis, Helfer said.

During its run, Mounting Nittany has covered wink-and-a-smile topics like the hookup campus culture and also addressed the importance of health and safe-sex practices. Reimold said it’s typical for columnists to cover both ends of the spectrum; columnists’ motivation may vary, but they often share the same goals.

“I think in some cases it’s to shock. I think in some cases, it’s for students to build up personal brands,” Reimold said. “I do think at their heart, in the most idealistic sense, there’s a rebelliousness of the student writers of, ‘Yes, it’s OK to talk about sex. We’re having it. Adults have to wake up to that.’”

The life of independence

“If it’s happening, we need to cover it,” said Rachel Bowers, editor-in-chief of the Red & Black newspaper at the University of Georgia. “That’s the bottom line for me.”

As editor of the Red & Black, an entirely independent newspaper operation, Bowers knows a few things about running content outside the norm.

Before Sept. 25, it was conceivable many on Georgia’s campus did not know the term “sugar baby.” But on that day, the Red & Black defined it for them as “a young person who provides companionship to an older sugar daddy or mommy in exchange for money and gifts.”

What’s more, the paper showed that there were more than a few sugar babies roaming its own campus.

“We got a lot of letters to the editor saying ‘you’re degrading women,’” Bowers said. “And it’s like, no, we’re covering women getting degraded.”

The story, pitched by a crime reporter, generated a lot of conversation on campus and an ample amount of criticism from staff and alumni.

But Bowers and her staff didn’t flinch. Just as they didn’t shy away from running documents this spring detailing a sexual harassment complaint against a professor – above the fold. Without censoring any of the profanity or vulgarities.

“If a professor is saying these things, the university community needs to know about it,” Bowers said. “It’s important. It’s relevant. And it’s pertinent to the audience we’re supposed to be catering to.”

Confidence in content, of course, is made much easier when none of your funding is provided by the university. Red & Black went independent in 1980; completely self-sustained, the operation even has a “nice little moneymaker” in an AT&T cellphone tower on its roof.

What that means is a freedom from worrying about cuts to funding and concern about making the wrong people angry, Bowers said.

‘It’s a conversation’

No matter the setup or campus, however, all controversial stories should start with the same thing — careful discussion.

“The bottom line is they’re all ethics discussions,” Bowers said. “I encourage each decision to be a discussion among our desk editors.”

When someone pitches a story that is likely to cause a stir, Bowers said the editors discuss the pros and cons as a group.

“In your gut, if you feel like it’s the right thing or wrong thing to do, listen to your gut,” she said. “But you can’t make these types of decisions alone.”

The same rule applies to columns — everything starts with a conversation.

“The biggest thing is to sit down with the editors and columnists and figure out what your limits will be,” Reimold said. “Are you going to deal with some of the more graphic sexual issues and behaviors, or do you want to veer more toward love and sexual health scope?”

Understanding of your audience and the community standards that come with them is key to making those decisions.

“Teenagers and young adults — despite what old people might like to believe — sometimes have sex, and they sometimes use shocking language,” Ralston said. “And sometimes a student newspaper is properly serving its audience by addressing those facts or taking on the issues that stem from this supposedly ‘adult’ behavior.”

Often, if you look past the taboo language or topic, the message isn’t controversial at all, Reimold said.

“The students use the phrase ‘blinded by the sex’ to describe many critics’ reactions upon simply seeing a more scandalous topic in the paper and screamed out in a headline,” he said. “If you actually look at a number of the columns, many of them are dealing with these issues that they’re bringing up in more conservative ways, where they’re acting as a voice of reason for students.”

At Emerald Ridge, the staff of the JagWire knew the students on their campus had misconceptions of the consequences of oral sex. So they ran a story. And even with the ongoing tumult of a court case and the subsequent microscope they found themselves under, staffers like Smith said it was worth it. In the ensuing years, the school district has put oral sex in the health curriculum.

“Know that what you’re doing does make a difference,” Smith said of reporting on taboo topics. “Know that you are getting through to other people and helping kids make more educated decisions.”

By Nicole Hill, SPLC staff writer

reports, Winter 2011-12