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Home > SPJ News > SPJ Supports High School Newspaper Facing New Content Guidelines

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SPJ Supports High School Newspaper Facing New Content Guidelines

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
12/11/2001


ATTENTION:News editors, Assignment desks

CONTACTS:
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@spj.org
Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is urging Omaha, Neb., school officials not to turn one of the best high-school newspapers in the nation into a public relations tool.

SPJ President Al Cross sent a letter to Omaha Central High School Principal Gary Thompson last week asking the school to teach students what real journalism is like – and maintain its long tradition of aggressive reporting on the world inside and outside the campus.

“Real journalism can be messy and difficult, and sometimes even we professionals don’t make the right calls. But students need the right to be wrong. They need the freedom to learn from their mistakes,” said Cross, political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “That is why professional journalists abhor the notion that any student newspaper should be censored. And it’s why we protest loudly when the target is a newspaper that has developed in students a tremendous dedication, passion and responsibility. These are not just good lessons for journalism. They are great lessons for life.”

The high school’s student newspaper – The Register – came under scrutiny from school officials after Oct. 31, when it reported that a football player had played in five games this fall after being charged with assault. The article published the student’s name and pointed to a district policy that should have made the athlete ineligible for playing time.

“While most general-circulation newspapers would not have used the student’s name, many Central students already knew about the charges,” Cross said. “Thus, some students were informed, at least partially so, and others were not. Publishing the name made the same information available to the entire campus; pulled back the veil of rumor, gossip and mystery; and avoided improper reflection on other student athletes. While this is a debatable decision, school officials are using it as a pretext to impose their public-relations philosophy on the newspaper, which will defeat much of the purpose of having a newspaper in the first place.”

Principal Thompson said the school should not have published the student’s name and then told the paper’s adviser that the publication needed to follow new guidelines, reconsider the paper’s variety of stories and exhibit caution in handling controversial topics. Thompson has said The Register staff needs to spend fewer hours on the paper, publish fewer hard-hitting stories and write more about school activities. The Register took home “best of show” honors this November in a National Scholastic Press Association competition.

The Omaha World-Herald reported Saturday that Thompson says he has no desire to censor or edit the paper but feels responsible for setting guidelines.

SPJ has long been an advocate for excellence in journalism education programs – in both college and high school curriculums. But part of that excellence, said SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-Chairman Charles N. Davis, is allowing students the freedom to practice journalism without any form of prior restraint – just as professional journalists do.

“Football coaches certainly don’t ask their teams not to aspire to a professional level of play, nor do band leaders or English teachers, for that matter,” said Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “Yet high school journalists across the country are being muzzled, threatened and even censored. What are we teaching them? That if the truth hurts, suppress it?

“The principal has told the newspaper staff that they will ‘take a look’ at the next issue, post-publication, and then decide what action to take,” Davis continued. “The threat of censorship is in the air, and it creates self-censorship. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that school officials can exercise control over high school journalists only for pedagogical purposes, and nothing that is happening at Central High is related to anything other than administrator self-interest and spin control.”

SPJ encourages its members and other interested parties to contact Principal Thompson and voice their concern over the impending content control of the student publication. Thompson can be reached at 402/557-3300 or thompsog@ops.org. Letters may be sent to 124 N. 20th St., Omaha, NE 68102-4895.

The letters SPJ sent to Principal Thompson are as follows:

LETTER 1

December 3, 2001

Dr. Gary Thompson
Principal
Central High School
124 N. 20th St.
Omaha, NE 68102

Dear Dr. Thompson:

As you know, members of the Omaha journalism community contacted the Society of Professional Journalists about the Register's fine work and the increasingly threatening series of actions taken by your administration with regard to student journalists. The Society is deeply concerned about the meeting you and Register representatives are to have with Renae Kehrberg, the head of secondary education for Omaha Public Schools, this Friday, Dec. 7.

Friday's meeting concerns me greatly, because it resembles so many meetings between high school administrators and journalism staffs in recent years. Administrators, often upset with truthful reportage, seek to "redefine" journalism. The problem is, you can't redefine journalism without turning it into something akin to public relations.

High school journalism is journalism, and the truth is the truth. Any journalist - student or otherwise - who seeks to report the truth should be lauded, not criticized by those officials stung by the coverage.

I have read the Register, from cover to cover. It is better than most college newspapers, let alone high school newspapers. It is a jewel, a proud product that a school administrator should hold up to the community as the way journalism is to be taught. Its adviser is a tireless student advocate and a marvelous teacher, from all reports, who deserves nothing less than the gratitude of the entire community.

When I called to ask you about the criticisms of the Register for publishing a story about a member of the Central High School football team -a story no one has claimed to be false - you asked me what right I had to even ask questions. This reveals the true problem here, Dr. Thompson: a public official, working with taxpayer dollars, who has difficulty understanding why anyone outside the high school system might question policy. It suggests an unwillingness to discuss differences with critics, and it led directly to this letter, and to my vigilant activism on this issue.

I am equally worried by the idea that you and Renae Kehrberg - who, by the way, graciously returned my phone call, although we failed to reach one another - may well be called upon Friday to make a decision regarding the Register in a process seemingly designed to forestall public debate. A meeting between high school journalists and administrators certainly is not the proper forum for such sweeping changes.

I close by saying that I trust in your deep-seated convictions about truth, accuracy, fairness, decency enough to know that in the pinch on Friday, you will not abandon those principles and their very noble, laudable working in your journalism classroom.

Sincerely,

Mark J. Scarp
Region 11 director
Society of Professional Journalists
Scottsdale, Arizona


cc:
Matt Deabler
Journalism Adviser
Central High School
124 N. 20th St.
Omaha, NE 68102

Matt Wynn, Editor, The Register
5315 Jackson Street
Omaha, NE 68106

*********************************************

LETTER 2

Dec. 5, 2001

Dr. Gary Thompson
Principal
Central High School
124 N. 20th St.
Omaha, NE 68102

Dear Dr. Thompson:

If the Oct. 31 edition of the Register sitting on my desk is a reflection of the quality of journalism practiced on a regular basis at Omaha Central High School, you have much to be proud of. I’ve seen daily
papers that don’t rise to this level of visual sophistication and courage of coverage. I have shared this copy with my colleagues, all of whom react with an incredulous “this is a high school paper?”

I understand a meeting is scheduled Friday where changes in the journalism curriculum will be discussed. I would urge you to make no changes – especially if they are being provoked by the story about the student athlete charged with assault or the 1A centerpiece about methamphetamine.

The SPJ code of ethics calls on journalists to seek truth and report it. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” the code encourages. “Diligently seek out
subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

This is exactly what Matt Wynn did in writing the athlete story. It is balanced, with opportunities for many voices to be heard. I have seen college student journalists who could not have handled this story as well.

I’m sure the meth story made some administrators uncomfortable. Some probably wondered: “What kind of image does this give Central High?” We have quite a meth problem here in southwest Missouri, which the News-Leader has covered in great depth. We have done stories similar to the ones in the Oct. 31 Register, which lead to a greater awareness throughout the community. The prosecutor’s office was invited to make more than 100 presentations about the signs of meth use after one of our stories. That’s what journalism is supposed to do. We never worried about what kind of image we were giving this area; we were more concerned in giving readers information they could use to protect themselves. If we worried about image, we would no longer seek truth and report it. We would no longer be journalists.

The Register’s reporters have performed the same sort of public service with their meth story. They have increased awareness among your students; they may have saved a life. They should be commended, not berated.

I urge you and other administrators to retreat from any efforts to change the mission of the Register. It is doing quality work. It is giving your students an idea of what journalists really do. Avoid the temptation to demand prior review, which will only turn a fine newspaper into a propaganda tool. You surely teach the Bill of Rights in your civics classes. At the Register, your students are putting those lessons into practice. I would hope your actions would support the lessons you teach.

Sincerely,

Robert Leger
President-elect
Society of Professional Journalists


cc: Matt Deabler

*********************************************

LETTER 3

December 6, 2001

Dr. Gary Thompson, Principal
Central High School
Omaha, Nebraska
Via fax 402-557-3339

Dear Dr. Thompson:

Thanks for taking time to speak briefly with me today about the Register.

As you explained your main concerns to me, they are (1) that some students have become so obsessed with their work for the newspaper that their work in other areas is suffering, and (2) that the newspaper published on Oct. 31 the name of a student athlete who had been charged twice with assault but was allowed to play football, in violation of school policy.

According to Tuesday’s Omaha World-Herald, you have already addressed the first issue by imposing a 10 p.m. curfew for use of school facilities. This appears reasonable, if the curfew applies to all school activities and not just the newspaper – and if it is being done only to protect the students’ well-being and academic interests.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case; the curfew appears to stem from the second issue. My understanding is that after you were interviewed about the student athlete but before the story was published, you initially imposed a 7:30 p.m. curfew. Then, on Nov. 6, at a meeting you called to discuss the curfew, you mentioned the second issue and said the newspaper had “persecuted a young man.” Thus, the issues of curfew and content seem to be related. The curfew appears to be a back-door method of censorship, incompatible with the proud history of the Register and the First Amendment principles it has instilled in generations of students. That would be a sad legacy for you to leave in your last year as principal of Central High.

You are to be commended for not exercising prior restraint on the Register, particularly on the student-athlete story, in which you were a key player. But you still have a conflict of interest, because the story remains an issue between you and the newspaper.

It also appears, though, that school officials see this episode as an opportunity to make the paper generally more to their liking, with more “positive” news. I didn’t see any shortage of positive news in the Oct. 31 edition, and if school officials make the paper a public-relations tool of the school and the district, they will be defeating much of the purpose of having a newspaper in the first place – teaching students what real journalism is like.

Student journalists should be free to report on the world beyond the campus, and the hidden world inside it. That means they should be free to report and publish stories like the Oct. 31 articles about the student athlete and about methamphetamine. Stories like those pull back the veil of gossip and rumor that can do more damage than the truth, and the aura of mystery and allure that can lead young people astray.

Real journalism can be messy and difficult, and sometimes even we professionals don’t make the right calls. But students need the right to be wrong. They need the freedom to learn from their mistakes. That is why professional journalists abhor the notion that any student newspaper should be censored. And it’s why we protest loudly when the target is a newspaper that has developed in students a tremendous dedication, passion and responsibility. These are not just good lessons for journalism. They are great lessons for life. Please let the Register keep teaching those lessons.

Sincerely,

Al Cross
President, Society of Professional Journalists
Political writer and columnist,
The Courier-Journal



cc:
Renae Kehrberg, Omaha Public Schools
Luann Nelson, OPS

-END-

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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