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SPRINGDALE -- The Springdale School District has developed a code of ethics for student journalists in the wake of a controversy surrounding articles that a high school newspaper published last fall.

The 14-page Student Publications and/or Broadcasts Protocol is still in draft form. A committee of about 27 student media advisers worked on the document in December and January.

Protocol excerpts

Excerpts from a draft of the Springdale School District’s Student Publications and/or Broadcasts Protocol:

• Strive for substantive stories that produce insight, generate accountability and inspire reader interest and engagement. Do not yield to those who would suppress such insight or resist accountability.

• Know when to show restraint in pursuing stories. For example, a spontaneous demonstration in the cafeteria by three students protesting the in-school suspension of a friend may receive notoriety, but its news value likely is insignificant. Furthermore, coverage of the incident may bolster the participants and embolden others to disrupt the cafeteria too.

• Begin the search for truth with a neutral mind. Do not prejudge issues or events; wait until the facts and perspectives have been gathered and weighed.

• Review story to make sure information is presented completely and in proper context that will not mislead the news consumer.

• Recognize inherent differences between the professional news media and the student news media, and understand that the latter will always be subject to some oversight by school administrators. Show administrators how it is in their best interests and the school community’s best interests to recognize student independence, within the parameters of the law, in controlling the content of their news medium.

• Be especially sensitive to the maturity and vulnerability of young people when gathering and reporting information.

Source: Staff report

The committee has submitted its work to Superintendent Jim Rollins and Deputy Superintendent Jared Cleveland and is waiting on input from some outside advisers, said Trent Jones, the district's director of media and head of the committee.

The protocol would apply to student newspapers, yearbooks, literary magazines and video production.

The document is a combination of best practices from around the nation and conversations among staff members, Jones said.

Springdale drew national attention in December after administrators removed a news story and an editorial from the website of The Herald, Har-Ber High School's student newspaper. Critics accused the district of censorship.

The articles, which appeared in The Herald's Oct. 30 edition, had to do with the transfers last year of several football players from the Har-Ber school to Springdale High School. The transfers were approved based on students' stated desires to be in an academic program at Springdale High that Har-Ber High didn't offer, according to the article.

The article quoted two of the six students, who implied that football played at least a part in their decisions to transfer. One student said he could "showcase my talent more" at Springdale High, according to The Herald's article.

"Specific curriculum or instructional opportunities" is listed as one of several acceptable reasons for students to seek transfers to a different school within the Springdale district, according to district policy. Athletic or extracurricular opportunities are not listed.

Karla Sprague, a teacher and the newspaper's adviser, was reprimanded for refusing to allow Principal Paul Griep to review the article or the rest of the content before it was published, according to Sprague's attorney.

After receiving national media attention, the district allowed the articles to be re-posted to the website Dec. 4. The protocol committee was organized soon after and held two meetings. Members held many more conversations via email, texts and phone calls, according to Jones.

Sprague was involved in the writing of the protocol. She did not return an email message seeking comment for this article.

The district provided a copy of the proposed protocol to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It begins with a one-page introduction on the importance of students understanding and applying ethical standards when practicing journalism.

"Developing a sense of ethics is essential for student journalists, who learn to distinguish right from wrong and good from bad in their work," the document states. "The power of news media can be used in good or bad ways, and young journalists must be nurtured to develop the self-discipline to choose what's right and good -- even when the right choice may cost something in the short run."

The protocol goes on to explain seven main things that journalism teachers and students should keep in mind: be responsible, be fair, be honest, be accurate, be independent, minimize harm and be accountable.

There also are guidelines for interviewing juveniles and a publication checklist that asks questions such as, "Is the publication well-researched and factually accurate?" and "Will the publication have a lasting negative impact on our students?"

The protocol raises the subject of prior review -- allowing administrators to review a student media production before it is released. Prior review "dilutes student responsibility and puts more responsibility in the hands of administrators," the document states.

Instead, teachers should build and sustain a healthy relationship with administrators, and collaboration with the administration should be encouraged, the document states.

Jared Cleveland, deputy superintendent, said collaboration should be encouraged so administrators aren't caught off guard by any potentially controversial topic addressed by student media groups.

"Administrators don't want to teach the class," Cleveland said. "We want all of our staff members to be able to do their work. But if there is a tough issue, I think it's common sense to give people a heads-up."

Two student leaders of Har-Ber High School publications voiced concerns about prior review at a School Board meeting Dec. 11. Having to submit articles for administrators' review would reduce time for meeting already strict deadlines, they said.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said there are different ways of engaging in prior review, none of which advocates of student journalism support.

"Every journalism education association has said it's simply the wrong way to teach journalists," Hiestand said. "It would be like a principal stepping in and telling the chemistry teacher how to teach chemistry or telling the football coach what plays to run."

Hiestand said the proposed protocol contains a lot of good guidelines.

"A lot of the terms used in the code I saw were nice aspirational kinds of things, but they're very vague," he said. "There's no legal definition of fairness, for example. There's so much gray area in these codes. I think if [administrators] are planning to use these as actual enforceable regulations, they're probably looking at a legal challenge."

Most school districts have policies on student media publications, often a version of one recommended by the Arkansas School Board Association.

The Journalism Education Association offers a code of ethics for advisers of student publications. It is much shorter than the one Springdale has compiled. Many student media programs work off the association's code, Jones said.

Cleveland, Springdale's deputy superintendent, said the district went through a tough time last fall with the issue surrounding The Herald.

"There was a learning process we all had to go through," he said. "You either move forward in a positive way, or you mess up again. The effort is not to mess up again."

The rights of student journalists have to be weighed against the rights of all students to a safe environment at school, he said. Certain things published about students could be considered bullying, for instance, so student media must be responsible about what they do, he said.

The issue has reached the state Capitol.

One Arkansas legislator has filed a bill that would strengthen the protection provided to student publications.

A state law passed in 1995 provided student journalists an extra layer of protection beyond what the First Amendment offers. The law states that each school board shall adopt a student publication policy that includes the recognition that "students may exercise their right of expression" in school-sponsored publications, regardless of whether those publications are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, or are produced by a class.

A school may censor a student publication only if the material is obscene to minors, if it is libelous or slanderous, if it constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or if it creates a "clear and present danger" of the commission of crimes on campus or disruption of the school's operation.

In the current legislative session, House Bill 1432, sponsored by state Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, asserts that expression by a student journalist in school-sponsored media does not reflect a school district's policy, and that district and school board officials shall not be held legally responsible for any such expression.

The bill also makes clear that student journalists may not be disciplined for exercising their right of expression, nor should a student media adviser be "terminated, transferred, removed, or otherwise disciplined" for refusing to suppress a student's expression.

The bill has been referred to the House Education Committee.

Metro on 02/27/2019

Print Headline: District submits journalism ethics draft

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