Who controls the content in high school journalism?
The issue came up again recently when a media adviser in an Indiana high school was in jeopardy of disciplinary action over a magazine published by students in her class.
The first issue of “The Shakedown” headlined “Plainfield High School’s Dating Survival Guide Declassified.” Produced by the students of Michelle Burress, it is a 24-page, stylishly designed, well sourced, professionally reported publication.
The publication includes issues that every high school student today knows about and talks about, such as sexting and “friends with benefits.” But those topics are dwarfed by discussions of dating violence, lasting relationships, cheap date ideas, surviving a break-up, meeting parents and cheesy pick-up lines.
It is not sensational or gratuitous in approach or content, although some social media criticism made its way to school administrators who believed it worthy of their attention. A disciplinary hearing was scheduled for Burress, Plainfield High School’s Teacher of the Year for 2017, but it’s unclear if it has taken place. No punishment has been made public, although the Indy Star quoted a school spokesman saying the high school principal would approve future topics and might read over stories.
Ryan Gunterman’s name should be familiar in Bloomington. He still lives here and for 12 years was the journalism teacher and adviser at Bloomington High School North.
He’s now the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, located at Franklin College, and has talked to the student editors at Plainfield since the dust-up began.
“They purposely went out of their way to make sure it wasn’t anything sensational,” he said. The students wanted to write about things that are relevant to what is going on in their high school, he said, including the important subject of how to have a healthy relationship.
What really gets Gunterman going is the idea that a school would say it wants to teach journalism and then be upset when students produce good, solid journalism. He noted in an interview Friday that in Indiana, teachers have to be certified in journalism education to teach the subject.
Thus, a principal or superintendent should trust the teacher to do what he or she is trained and qualified to do. There’s no reason for an administrator to approve stories or photos when there are student editors with a qualified journalism teacher overseeing their work.
He offered this analogy.
“The principal doesn’t go and ask the football coach for the game plan to approve it before the game is played,” he said.
There are many benefits to teaching journalism and the responsibility that goes with it.
“It sometimes gets lost that we are talking about the First Amendment,” Gunterman said. Journalism instruction trains young people about having civil conversations, even with people who disagree with them. It allows young people to engage with issues of importance, to research topics of interest to their peer group, to participate in democracy and to be a responsible citizen.
Journalism, Gunterman noted, allows students to participate in expressing opinions and exchanging ideas.
“If you get rid of that, or involve a principal in a prior review process, you aren’t allowing them to really participate,” he said. “I call it educational malpractice. If schools decide they want to teach journalism, then put a principal in charge of the process ... you’re saying that you are (teaching journalism), but it’s a lie.”
The issue of student press freedom will likely be a topic at the Indiana General Assembly, as it was last session.
A “Young Voices” bill that would have protected the free expression of student journalists didn’t make it through the legislative process last spring, even though it had sailed through committee votes and passed the Indiana House by a vote of 88-4. Last-minute concerns were fueled by unfair and unwarranted claims that the bill would open the door to publishing irresponsible or inappropriate information that would threaten educators.
Misused in the debate was a case in Kansas in which student journalists uncovered that a principal had misrepresented himself on documents that led to his hiring. The revelation led to his resignation. The students served the school community with the story.
Another part of the argument against the bill in the last session was that student journalism isn’t threatened in Indiana. Gunterman said the Plainfield case shows that isn’t true. There are other cases that haven’t made headlines.
“We can show them (legislators), this is happening, and it’s just the one you are hearing about,” he said.