I taught journalism in the Frederick County schools for 14 years and am certain I was a thorn in the side of many administrators. However, journalism, the fourth estate of a functioning democracy, is important practice in exercising civic duties and rights. Objective reporting allows voters to form opinions, any of which can be shared on the editorial page. Speech is protected—for everyone.
As an English major, a journalism minor, a sometime practicing reporter at WINC, and a part-time copy editor and freelance writer, I felt well trained to lead novices through the laws and practices of a newspaper. None of the 10 different principals I worked with had that training.
The first lesson was the law. Even though school writers are students, they are still vulnerable to libel charges. Understanding the gravity of their words means being responsible for clear, factual reporting gained through interviews and research. Beginners were routinely sent back to ask more questions, find more sources. We stored reporters’ notebooks all year as the legal documents they are. Once, in a highly publicized murder case, those notebooks were referenced. We belonged to the Student Press Law Center and accessed their free legal services on many occasions. The county code was a resource in the lab.
The class operated like a real newspaper: reporting news of our school community, the larger community, and teen life in general, taking and placing photos, soliciting ads, laying out pages with state-of-the-art software, meeting pre-determined deadlines, and holding regular staff and editorial meetings. Two students went on to be award-winning journalists. (Shout out to Caitlin Davis and Rachel Brant). At one point, James Wood alumni simultaneously served on the newspaper staffs of five different state universities.
School newspapers are the original project-based learning forum. The work is real, and students are highly engaged and motivated. With those two conditions, a lot of teaching will occur. I’m certain I taught more English in journalism than in the regular classroom.
I am sorry that the state of Virginia has chosen to align schools with the ruling of Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier and designate principals as editors. Our paper had student editors who managed reporters, assigned and edited stories, and wrote the editorial.
Fourteen U.S. states have superseded Hazelwood by writing publication policies in line with the previous ruling of Tinker vs. Des Moines. Under Tinker, censorship occurs only if writing could potentially disrupt the school day—such as announcing a walkout or a lunchtime free-for-all. The Hazelwood decision is more restrictive with its squishy language of “pedagogical reasons.” The pedagogy is teaching how a newspaper functions in a democracy. That can’t happen with routine censorship. Administrators often axe stories because they might make the school look bad—not a good enough reason if you are practicing journalism. But a pretty good reason for public relations.
Public schools in a democracy should permit students to practice their rights. Unfortunately, schools often operate more like autocracies than mentoring arenas for the newest citizens. All students are capable of more than we ask of them.
Yes, there were mistakes in our paper, but never ones which put students at risk. The entire staff was learning, and each mistake led to more diligence the next time. It always interests me that a community will absorb the performance mistakes made in basketball, football, or soccer but that publications must always be pristine. That speaks highly of the strength of written word — and more reason why students should be practicing with authentic opportunities for written expression.
Mary Tedrow is a resident of Winchester.