Four Steps Toward a High-Caliber Journalism Program

Even with state laws that support student journalism and superintendents who believe in protecting student voice, it can be hard for scholastic publications to navigate controversial stories, often amid pressure from the school community.

Superintendents and school journalism experts recommend taking steps to create a high-quality scholastic journalism program where students can learn skills that will serve them in their college and career readiness.

»Hire publication advisers with experience and rely on their judgment.

Develop a trusting relationship with the adviser and keep lines of communication open. “The role for the adviser is to see those train wrecks and prevent them before they happen,” says Christina Levinson, student publication adviser at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, Calif.

Train wrecks don’t refer to students’ reporting on sensitive topics that might spark outrage in the community, but rather stories that might be libelous or that don’t meet journalistic standards, Levinson says.

»Create an open relationship with student journalists.

Michael Richards, superintendent in Harrisonburg, Va., gives student journalists in his district direct access to talk about stories they’re working on, and he is willing to discuss coverage of subjects that might be controversial.

Be a participant in the process, Levinson adds. “The smart thing to do is always engage with the student press, always,” she says. “Once students are running with a story, the best thing to do as an administrator is to manage the story without infringing on kids’ rights. If you’re not transparent, it looks like you’re trying to hide something.”

»Don’t shy away from controversial topics and stories.

“For administrators, the No. 1 thing is often that you want the school to look good,” Candace Perkins Bowen, director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, says. “But it can make it look worse when you’re censoring legitimate stories that would eventually make the school better.”

» Set clear and objective standards for what is not permissible.

Students must understand where the legal lines are. Then stick to those lines, says Michael Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center.

— Michelle R. Davis