Does Censorship Destroy Stories?

One of the main arguments against prior review from those outside the newspaper staff, is that it is a slippery slope from there to censorship. While I certainly don’t condone censorship, I do think that a story subjected to review or censorship can still be meaningful, relevant and engaging depending on why/how it is censored/reviewed.

If a student journalist writes a story that is well researched, sourced and written article that is reviewed but not censored it would still contain meaningful, relevant and engaging information, assuming it was there to begin with.

Articles that are not just reviewed, but that are subject to censorship are a little trickier. Obviously if a story is censored to the point it changes the narrative then the story itself would lose meaning, relevance and ultimately be less engaging. However, the story could also gain meaning, relevance and engagement in another way if the story of the censorship is brought to light and used as a tool for change. There are many examples of this throughout scholastic journalism history from Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier to Dean v. Utica. While the impact of the original stories was lost due to administrative censorship, the stories gained larger meaning, never-ending relevance and have been engaging students in journalism classrooms across the country since.

New examples of this pop up every year. One of the more recent occurrences comes from Steinmeitz College Prep in Chicago when a story about a change to the school’s  start time resulted in censorship by the principal and accusations that he intended to cut the program next year as a result of the censored story.

Ultimately the story in question was published on the front page of the January/February print issue of the Steinmeitz Star along with an article about the censorship issue. Additionally, the coverage promoted benefactor and alumnus Hugh Heffner to pledge a yearly donation of $7,500 for the next five years to support the paper’s printing costs.

This story is a perfect modern example of how a censored story can in fact result in meaningful, engaging and relevant journalism that destroys the idea of censorship rather than the other way around.


Balancing Responsibilities

There’s no doubt that sensitive issues often make compelling stories.  However, when perusing these topics it’s essential that journalists examine how to effectively balance their responsibilities. One one hand is the publics need/want to know information. However, on the other hand is the ethical responsibility to minimize harm.

It seems that ever since the media followed OJ Simpson in a white bronco this equation has been off balance. This constant stream of information and attempted analyzation of  sensitive issues often leads to national notoriety for alleged and convicted perpetrators of crimes. Does the world really need continuous coverage on court cases like Casey Anthony’s or events like the Sandy Hook shooting?

While the circumstances are compelling and make for good ratings/high readership, what is the cost to the families and people involved? What about the message that it sends … that by committing a violent act you can become famous or get your message out there. The media often doesn’t report the details of suicides, except by famous people, based on ethical considerations  perhaps it needs to examine its reasonings for not limiting its reporting when other sensitive issues are involved.

Word Choice is Crucial

One of the articles that caught my eye in our assigned reading this week this one discussing the importance of word choice. While my students may not spend a great deal of time covering topics like the ones referenced in the Al Jazeera memo, there is still an important lesson they can learn – WORD CHOICE IS CRUCIAL.

Too often I find my students relying on the trusty ole’ thesaurus and stringing together complex sentences full of flowery language that would make their AP English teacher proud. Their journalism adviser not so much.

I try to teach my students the importance of using concise, precise language.  While fisticuffs is a fun word to use simply saying punching or hitting may be more appropriate and reader friendly.

Censorship Takes Alternative Form

In 1992 the state of Kansas took a stand for student journalists’ rights by passing Kanas Student Publications Act, which states that:

…student editors of student publications are responsible for determining the news, opinion, and advertising content of such publications. Student publication advisers and other certified employees who supervise or direct the preparation of material for expression in student publications are responsible for teaching and encouraging free and responsible expression of material and high standards of English and journalism. No such adviser or employee shall be terminated from employment, transferred, or relieved of duties imposed under this subsection for refusal to abridge or infringe upon the right to freedom of expression conferred by this act.

However, while the leaders of Kansas schools may not be able to engage in censorship through prior restraint as in states without an anit-Hazelwood law, they can use other methods.

This week members student newspaper at my alma mater, The University of Kansas, sued the chancellor and the vice provost for student affairs after that paper received funding cuts to the program this year. According to the Kansas City Star, “The suit says a $45,000 annual reduction in student fees for the newspaper was retaliation for an editorial criticizing the Student Senate.”

This $45,000 dollar loss cut the funding the publication received in half and as a result the University Daily Kansan was forced to eliminate 13 paid student positions and leave its news adviser position unfilled according to the an article published by the Student Press Law Center.

This is censorship plain and simple. By cutting funding the university is giving students less opportunity to be educated as citizens by reading a campus paper free from the chilling effect the UDK claims this action has caused.

As a result of defendants’ actions, plaintiffs [the Kansan] have been chilled in the exercise of their fundamental rights under the First Amendment,” according to the complaint. “Plaintiffs, therefore, have suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy of law.

Additionally it is hurting the students who are paying to attend the William Allen White School of Journalism to receive their education. The loss of positions eliminates opportunities for the students to get practical experience in their field of study, and the loss of the advisory position leaves students without a trustworthy professional to advise them.

In fact, the university’s actions seem to be in direct contradiction with its published values that state:

The university is committed to excellence. It fosters a multicultural environment in which the dignity and rights of the individual are respected. Intellectual diversity, integrity, and disciplined inquiry in the search for knowledge are of paramount importance.

If the university itself and the student senate truly valued intellectual diversity and disciplined inquiry in the search of knowledge, it would be proud that members of its student press are willing to the pursue tough stories as it shows the J-School is doing what it was established to do – train good journalists.

The Role of the Media

When introducing news writing to the introductory class, I always tell my students that the role of the media is not to tell the public what to think, rather to tell them what to think about.

Technology allows journalists and the public instant access to an unbelievable amount of information; however, the average citizen doesn’t have the desire, time or capability to sift through and decipher that information. This is where the media comes in. The topics that are brought to the public’s attention and those that are ignored are largely determined by the media’s decision on what it covers as well as when and how it is covered.

This weekend Kansas City star columnist, and former reporter, Mary Sanchez spoke to this idea when she talked at a brunch I attended Saturday for the Journalism Educators of Metropolitan Kansas City. One example she spoke about was a column she recently wrote regarding the water issues in Flint. When packaging the column for the web, she was able to include links to the several of the sources she used to support her piece – most of which were available to anyone, not just journalists. However, most people would not have taken the time to find the research themselves – instead they rely on the media to do it for them and trust that what they read is accurate.

This is why the media regardless of niche or format has a responsibility to report what they write about accurately, but also use good news judgment in determining what they will report as what is in the news is also what is in American’s minds.