Hypocrites: why prior review is journalism hell

There is nothing as devastating to a high school journalist as seeing the quality work of other high school newspapers on tough topics like sex, drugs, self-harm, and porn that you can’t do. By quality work, I mean in-depth articles on real students and their experiences and well-placed photographs and graphics that bring the issue the correct light to get the point across. I am amazed by the gory photographs and the emotional stories other schools do.

JagWire used to have issues like that. It has published its share of sex issues, drug issues, and pornography issues, which may have ventured into questionable territory. Each time, however, the point came across clearly to those willing to see it: these issues are not as one sided as schools want you to believe.

We were known as a racy and edgy publication across the nation. We won countless awards, including the 2006 NSPA Pacemaker Award, the Pulitzer Prize for high school journalists. We were respected and the hard issues were taken to new levels unseen by high school students. We were mature on these issues.

That all changed in 2008, when JagWire’s infamous edition on oral sex was released and subsequently sued by the students who were interviewed. This issue cost JagWire its credibility to this day, and imposed tight restrictions on student work across the school district.

The cover of JagWire 8.5.
The cover of JagWire 8.5.

Students and staff were outraged by the content of the issue. They, for the most part, couldn’t get past the images and graphics on the cover and in the middle of the issue. Honestly, I don’t think the images were that bad, since more graphic displays are allowed on daytime television.

The topic was good. It revealed that high percentages of high schools were engaged in oral sex, including students at my school. The stories were of the utmost quality, but the student interviews were not. Four students sued because the issue revealed that they had oral sex and sex. They had AGREED to be interviewed and willingly gave up the information. Now, the staff at that time should have offered anonymity to these students and then had them review what they had said about the issue. They didn’t. That was the only falling point of the issue.

We ended up winning the case, which is well documented in national student journalism archives, because the jury decided that because we were an open forum and no adult input was imposed, we were not liable.

The district should have stood behind the publication after the trial, but instead it punished the entire school district. The open forum policy that had existed for many decades was gone in an instant. To this day, every newspaper, yearbook, school play, assembly, poster, and art display must be reviewed and approved by the school administration.

This prior review policy is a violation of our rights of free speech. Even more important, it prevents us from  publishing the quality work and controversial topics of the old days, for the most part.

This is where I get to the district being hypocritical.

This year and for the last two years, former administrators and current school staff members have expressed that they miss the “edginess” of the old days. We primarily were publishing issues on video games and comic books and intelligence and nutrition, but nothing that really stood out. As a result, we stopped winning awards. Every wants to see the old paper return, but we just turn around and tell them “then stop censoring us.”

Every time we try to bring back the edginess, we are censored. In 2009 we want to cover the fact that we are being censored. The entire issue got SEIZED by the school district and never returned, resulting in a loss of ad revenue. In 2010 we wanted to cover the JagWire trial. Censored. In 2013 we did an issue on homophobic bullying. It wasn’t as good as it could have been because the school was worried it could “hurt someone.” In 2014 we did an issue on pornography. All student quotes were forced to be removed, even though we had their written consent this time and audio recordings, and all photographs were prohibited, resulting in the lamest JagWire cover ever.

If they really want to see us do good again, they need to stop censoring us completely. We may be high schoolers, but we know what is right and what is wrong.

This year, since I’ve been Co-Editor-in-Chief of JagWire, we have seen a bit of a rollback on prior review. Our website is only being reviewed by our adviser, not the administration, and our principal has not censored us yet on our issues on veteran mistreatment in the United States and on cancer. But, the policy still exists and it may get in the way of our next two issues, in which we shall attempt to focus editions on self-harm and sex-trafficking.

Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of prior review is self-censorship. We often throw out ideas or articles because we are afraid it will be censored. This shouldn’t be a thing, and this year, we are challenging the school. We want to show them that doing hard topics PROPERLY will result in edgy issues and no lawsuits.

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Author: Chase Charaba

Hello there! I'm Chase, an ambitious, aspiring young novelist and YouTuber who hopes to get a novel published one day. I'm also trying to produce the highest quality YouTube videos by constantly learning new ways to film and edit. I've been involved in journalism for 5 years, including 1 year as co-editor of a national award-winning high school newsmagazine and 1 year as the co-editor of an award-winning college newspaper. I write mainly epic/high fantasy, but I also mess around with science fiction, horror, and realistic fiction.

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