Are yearbooks “fake news”? Navigating sensitive issues and differing expectations for yearbook coverage
What is the purpose of a yearbook? Should it be a scrapbook of memories highlighting only the good times from the year, or should it reflect the full year’s story, including the rougher bits?
As a newspaper adviser, the answer seems simple: we tell the whole story, even when it’s not pretty. Only reporting on the positive isn’t journalism — it's PR. And as I argued in my previous post, our students need to learn the habits and purpose of authentic journalism in their schools if we want them to understand the role of the professional press as a watchdog over the powerful after they graduate.
True, a yearbook is not the same as a school paper. Many stories that work beautifully in the newspaper will not fit as well in a yearbook, But yearbooks are journalism, and yearbook staffers are journalists. If we treat our books as scrapbooks or collages, we miss an opportunity.
Sally Renaud, writing for the publisher Walsworth, hates hearing, "Our school doesn’t have journalism. I just advise the yearbook.” She writes, "The fundamentals of journalism involve telling the story of communities, and no one does this better than the school yearbook.”
Staffers need to understand basic news values — timeliness, proximity, prominence, impact and novelty — in order to determine what deserves a spread and what does not. They also need a solid foundation in journalistic skills: reporting, interviewing, writing, editing, graphic design and photojournalism, to name a few. Add to that a solid dose of journalistic ethics, and we have the recipe for a yearbook that tells the truth in a responsible and unique way.
Aaron Manfull argues that a yearbook’s role in a larger school media program should be to serve as a recapper for the year — as the “historical record of the school,” yearbooks should take a broader view. "While there is definitely a place in the book for profiles and features,” he writes, "event recap coverage in the yearbook can take a little extra time and include a little more perspective of how the event played into the year as a whole."
With that in mind, how should yearbooks recap sensitive topics? If we only include the positive — obfuscating the fact that the soccer team didn’t win a single game, for example — are we creating books that are, in essence, “fake news”? John Bowen, director of scholastic press rights for JEA and my current professor at Kent State University, posed this question to me recently, and it stopped me cold. I know that we should never lie in journalism, yet I am acutely aware of the pressure most independent school advisers feel to create a book that looks good on an admissions waiting area coffee table, a book that highlights everything positive about the school rather than focusing on the negative.
Is there a middle ground?
Walsworth’s protocol for covering sensitive issues offers some good suggestions, but it is also problematic. Should the students consider the relevance of the topic and whether it could potentially harm or endanger others? Absolutely. Should they be thoughtful and proactive in determining their approach? Definitely. But should they only publish what the community “accepts” and only tell the story if they can make it “hopeful”? Yikes.
This advice makes me think of Ross Szabo’s book Behind Happy Faces, which examines the complexity of mental health in teenagers. "It’s far too common for people to hide their true feelings, go through the motions and put on a happy face to make others think everything is OK,” he writes, but "emotions can only be hidden for so long before they come out in negative ways.... It’s time to stop hiding behind a happy face and start talking about these issues.”
Teenagers, and especially teenaged girls, are pressured to smile, be happy, buck up, little camper. I can’t help but feel that a yearbook that only highlights the positive reinforces this unhealthy message.
I think the way to address the tough stuff in a yearbook is to reframe the outcome. Walsworth suggests the students “look to tell a story with a hopeful angle. How can this story be told so that it makes the student body and school community feel good about themselves, despite the negative or tragic issue?” [emphasis mine] What if instead of forcing “hope” into a story that may not have much, we instead look at solutions journalism? Let’s rework that advice: “Look to tell a story with an informative angle. How can this story be told so that it makes the student body and school community see potential solutions, despite the negative or tragic issue?"
When they crack the spine open for the first time on distribution day, I want the yearbook to make our student body feel good — to smile and enjoy happy memories — but I don’t want them to be reading another form of fake news. We shouldn’t make the whole book a Debbie Downer, but it has to be all right to acknowledge the year had some bumps. I hope this is how we find a middle ground that honors both purposes of a yearbook: as a source for happy memories and an accurate historical record.
Pop quiz: can you name the five freedoms of the First Amendment? According to the Newseum’s 2016 State of the First Amendment Survey, 39 percent of Americans can’t name a single one.
I couldn’t name more than a few when I left high school, but my current high school student journalists know all five. (For the record: speech, religion, petition, assembly and press.)
Knowing these rights is especially important for high school students on the cusp of adulthood, ready to leave the school bubble and embark on lives as citizens.
How can we inculcate a love of citizenship in teenagers who are already cynical about the mess left behind by adults? I believe a place to start is allowing them to BE citizens within the school walls.
I’m not going to give an entire overview of the First Amendment in public schools here, but I will say it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Heading over to the Student Press Law Center’s Top 10 High School FAQ’s is a place to start, but it’s not a stopping point.
A student’s free speech rights depends not only on the First Amendment and the major Supreme Court rulings (Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, to name the two most impactful), but also on individual state laws, which may expand those rights beyond the Hazelwood standard. The first of these was the California Student Free Expression Law, enacted before the Hazelwood ruling, but many states have added statutes like this in years since. To find out whether an instance of censorship of the school press is legal, I recommend using this helpful SPLC First Amendment Rights of High School Journalists chart.
But for students in private schools — unless they attend a non-religious school in California, in which case Leonard Law offers unique protection for their speech— the First Amendment is irrelevant. Faculty and staff at independent schools are not representatives of the government, so they are not governed by the First Amendment.
And honestly, though the law is a compelling reason, it is in some ways a much less compelling reason than the pedagogical and national benefits of freeing our scholastic presses. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in the 2002 film Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and therein lies the heart of this lesson: if student journalists don’t have real power, they will not learn the real responsibilities of citizenship.
"Without journalism, democratic life dies from lack of oxygen,” Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Pointer Institute, writes. "Without democracy, journalism loses its heartbeat. Without a serious study of journalism there can be no understanding of citizenship, democracy or community."
I am fortunate to work in a school that honors student journalism and gives our student editorial board the final say in all content decisions for their publications, and I’ve seen the lasting benefits of this firsthand.
Student journalists need guidance, no doubt, but that is why it is so crucial to hire a knowledgable journalism adviser who can teach not only core journalistic skills — interviewing, reporting, research, writing and editing — but also values and ethics. My role as an adviser is not to tell students what they can and cannot write, but rather to provide context and conversation to help them to see the tremendous responsibilities they take on and opportunities they have as journalists.
If students are subject to prior review, where someone other than the staff and adviser reads their work before they are allowed to publish it, they lack a sense of ownership. Why should they worry about making sure a story is ethical or thorough if an adult is going to do it for them? But when students know that they are fully responsible — ethically and legally — for everything they publish, editorial conversations become much richer.
I see this in action all the time with my own staff. Recently, one of my students wrote a column about her personal experience at the Los Angeles Women’s March. In this piece, she referenced putting on her “pussyhat” before leaving for the Metro. As the editors and I gave her feedback, a thoughtful conversation about the term and our student audience emerged. Was the p-word too controversial to print? Would following their own staff manual guidelines and using "p----hat” diminish the historical relevance of the movement? Should they just allude to the hat (“my pink knitted hat”) rather than naming it? Did the fact we are a grades 6-12 school (though the staff is entirely upper school) matter in this conversation? Did censoring themselves in this way set a bad precedent?
This is their paper, and this was their decision. Those facts meant that this conversation had real weight. It wasn’t just a hypothetical situation — their decision would have real impact and consequences. In the end, they decided to keep the reference and follow their staff manual guidelines (“p----hat.”) but hyperlink to a source explaining the Pussyhat Project. No adult in the community needed to censor them; they reached an ethical decision on their own, and, more importantly, they will remember this conversation far longer than an adult’s lecture.
The authors of the McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for a Free and Responsible Student Media argue that “good journalism energizes school culture. It integrates every dimension of school into its function and engages the entire school community in democratic participation.”
These benefits go beyond the student participants, they say: “Its peripheral effects on the school community strengthen partnership, participation, accountability, transparency, trust and all other essential components of a democratic school system. Student news media can be a bridge that connects administrators, students and the community in ways that profoundly benefit school culture.”
Again, I have seen this in practice. My student journalists, especially the editors, have built trusting relationships with our administration. We have invited them into our classroom to see our staff at work. We have sponsored group discussions about how to cover controversial issues and explained the ethical processes editors use to make difficult decisions. We have put systems in place to ensure accuracy, yet also shared our corrections policy when, inevitably, mistakes happen.
This doesn’t mean that the adults in our community always like the students’ coverage. For example, they have published editorials critical of various policies and changes at the school, and criticism is never easy to read.
But that, too, is a crucial democratic understanding.
One of the most cherished roles of the United States' free press is as a watchdog of the powerful. In the ruling for Dean v. Utica, the judge wrote that a key role of journalism, whether professional or scholastic, is to provide independent information so citizens can reach their own conclusions.
"It is often the case that this core value of journalistic independence requires a journalist to question authority rather than side with authority,” the ruling states. "Thus, if the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists — including student journalists — must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves. Without protection, the freedoms of speech and press are meaningless and the press becomes a mere channel for official thought."
Do we want our students to learn to accept authority without question, or do we want them to learn to think critically and dig deep to find answers? If we want critical thought and decision-making as citizens, we must model this in high school.
The core values that lie behind this watchdog role are, according to journalist and professor Lou Ureneck, idealism and skepticism.
"I try to teach students to challenge authority by asking hard questions," he writes. "I want them to develop a strong sense of skepticism. In a sense, I’m trying to acculturate them into the profession of journalism. [Idealism and skepticism] may seem oppositional, but in our craft their pairing can offer us a potent way to engage the world. For young journalists, these two values inspire as well as energize them to do useful, even penetrating, work."
In the Protocol, Frank LoMonte argues that a free student press brings grievances to the surface and promotes civility: "Students seek out the uncensored venue of social networking sites to criticize school policies and personnel because schools offer no meaningful alternative forum for them to be heard. Online ‘drive-by’ grievances can and should constructively be channeled into peer-moderated student media where discussion can occur civilly but without undue restraint."
And what happens if the students mess up? What if they misreport something or fail to seek the other side or make a choice to report on something that perhaps is a bit much for a high school readership? A good adviser will raise red flags throughout and offer suggestions, but ultimately the students make a choice and must live wth the consequences. Not in terms of punishment, but in terms of having to be accountable and make amends. Mistakes are powerful. We learn the most when we fail, and we owe it to our students to let this happen.
A free student press is a powerful tool. Whether uncovering difficult truths in the community that adults may not want to hear but probably need to or reporting on the latest softball triumph, journalism students are learning how to be citizens and modeling citizenship to their peers.
And as far as I’m concerned, informed and active citizens are the only superheroes we need.
Over the past five years, I’ve made a dramatic shift in my teaching focus. Half of my teaching load is still English — writing and literature — and I love that part of my job. As I’ve taken over and my school’s publications program and embarked on a new Masters program in journalism, however, my focus on scholastic journalism has opened my eyes to the importance of teaching our students about their role as citizens — the importance of a free press and their duty to be informed and to inform others, ethically and responsibly.
We’ve talked a lot in my high school journalism classes about the challenge of balancing the responsibilities of the four ethical pillars of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics: to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, be accountable and transparent, and act independently. That first pillar of truthfulness is arguably the most important of the four, as most journalists place the search for truth above all else. But how can we talk about this pillar with our students when the current political rhetoric puts the very nature of truth in question?
In the third edition of their seminal text The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel pose a simple question: “What is journalism for?” Should it be a mirror that simply reflects society as it is, or should it be a candle illuminating dark corners to make the world a better place? Can it be both? “The primary purpose of journalism,” they write, “is to provide citizens with the information they need to be self-governing.”
But in an era where the president of the United States makes so many false and misleading statements that the Washington Post has created a spot for weekly fact-checking and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway refers to Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s incorrect data about inauguration crowds as “alternative facts” — in an era when the president states he has a "running war with the media” and says that “they are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” how can journalists fulfill this crucial role as trusted informants? If the default is to assume journalists are liars, can our student journalists still see purpose and take pride in their work?
There are plenty of think-pieces already about the potential consequences of the era of Trump for the professional news media, but I’ve been thinking about the impact this will have on scholastic media programs across the country. If the social role of journalism is to inform the public as truthfully as possible, yet our president refers to some of our most venerable and respected news media institutions as “dishonest” or “fake news,” we journalism advisers need to find a way to have a meaningful discussion about the purpose of student news media in our communities.
To do this, we must first have a conversation with our students about truthfulness. What does it mean to be truthful? Is truthfulness accurate numbers and statistics? Multiple points of view? Context to help the reader understand the time and place and other circumstances? All of the above? Kovach and Rosenstiel write that journalistic truth “means much more than mere accuracy. It is a sorting-out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers and journalists.” To tease out what this means, they quote Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times: “We strive for coverage that aims as much as possible to present the reader with enough information to make up his or her own mind. That’s our fine ideal.”
In other words, the facts — as best as they can be determined by reliable, reputable sources — are where a good journalist starts. “If the foundation is faulty,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write, “everything else is flawed. A debate between opponents arguing with false figures or purely on prejudice fails to inform. It only inflames. It takes the society nowhere.”
It is not, however, where a good journalist ends. "It is more helpful, and more realistic," they continue, "to understand the truth we seek or can expect from journalism to be a process — or a continuing journey toward understanding — that begins with the first account of an event and builds over time."
This kind of truthfulness is not easy. It means paying attention for a sustained period of time, making connections, re-evaluating previously held opinions, and constantly seeking new information. It means admitting when we make mistakes, as Time reporter Zeke Miller did when he incorrectly tweeted that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Although it is good Miller retracted and corrected this statement within an hour, it would have been better if he’d fact-checked the inflammatory claim in the first place. It also means not simply repeating what authority figures say, but holding their statements to the same level of scrutiny and making an informed decision about how to report inaccuracies and lies.
It may be difficult to have these conversations in our classrooms knowing that our students come from diverse social and political perspectives. In 20 years of teaching, I have always striven for political neutrality. Regardless of my personal feelings about candidates or elected officials, I want to provide my students with an open forum where they feel safe expressing differing views on issues — to do as a teacher what Keller says is the job of an ethical news media: to present each student "with enough information to make up his or her own mind.”
But an understanding of truthfulness is not partisan; it is foundational to a healthy democracy. The fact that the president and his spokespeople are Republicans is beside the point. There’s a reason FactCheck.org wrote about every 2016 presidential candidate during election season and organizations like National Public Radio brought out their entire political staff to do a live, annotated fact-check during each debate.
What is unique about this new administration is its level of animosity towards the news media as a whole and the messaging that the press can’t be trusted, and that is the conversation we must have with our students.
As Washington Post political commentator Chris Cillizza wrote after Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes’ speech: regardless what you think of journalism or the media in general, “you should root like hell for people who are paid to keep tabs on the promises our politicians make, on the people they surround themselves with and on the policies they choose to pursue. Without such a check and balance, the powerful become ever more powerful and the powerless have less and less recourse to do anything about it. That's a bipartisan reality."
Journalists, professional or scholastic, are human. Sometimes, they might settle for a more superficial story than is ideal due to lack of time or effort. Frequently, they will have to confront their own biases and purposefully set them aside. Undoubtedly, they will make mistakes.
But we need to reassure our student journalists that what they are doing is still important and still has value, perhaps now more than ever. If their goals are lofty and they keep reaching for truthfulness — even in a time when our highest officials say the media is incapable of truth — they are serving an important role in their communities: as mirrors, as candles, as reflections and illuminations of the world.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream