“We cannot make good news out of bad practice.” -Edward R Murrow, as director of the U.S. Information Agency, in response to Senate critics who wanted him to ignore racial problems to promote a better public image abroad. (From Life May 7, 1965)
America’s forefathers knew the importance of journalism. It is the only profession protected by a constitutional amendment. And indeed, it is the very FIRST amendment. Before they abolished slavery, gave the right to bear arms, and women the right to vote… it was journalism that was the very first constitutional amendment. A long, rough road to walk when teaching journalism… what applies as constitutionally protected thought, what we ask our students to memorize and recite… is NOT a right within the school walls.
The Big Chill
I have been teaching broadcast journalism for 17 years at three different schools. While all schools did not require prior review of our television news broadcasts and while I never felt “censored,” they all made it clear that my role as teacher/advisor was strictly academic. The purpose of our weekly broadcast television news show was to “practice” journalism. Any story that was risky or perceived as bad for school PR (sex, drugs, teacher incompetence) was to be avoided. Even though the story may raise awareness of HIV, teen pregnancy, or teen suicide for example. This unspoken pre-censorship results in a day in day out “chilling” effect. I, of course, push the envelope and allow my students to produce controversial stories, not to attract attention or to be edgy, but to provide real-world experience. I also ensure these stories are well-produced and thorough; they are fair, honest, and unbiased as possible – covering not just two sides, but all sides of an issue.
For job security and in order to stay in good favor with administration (who control our budget, our event access and for all practical purposes – our success), I have had to play the “game” and submit any “questionable” stories for administration approval. After all, censorship happens in the real world too. Even professional journalism media outlets have gatekeepers - producers, executive producers and corporate owners. A professional journalism operation worries much more about accuracy, fairness and public trust. While doing their best to avoid lawsuits, they strive to “reduce harm” with public figures. In our case, we do not have advertisers that can be replaced, but a teacher that can be, and a school administration that cannot.
In my experience, nine times out of ten – the story airs. I think administrations’ fears are worse than reality. Of course, in order for this to work, administration needs to trust their journalism teacher and the teacher in turn needs to be respectful of administration/school policies, goals and vision.
The Story that Got Away
There was one incident many years ago that landed me in the principal’s office. Students at my school were calling in bomb threats, which resulted in student and staff evacuation. Of course, ding…ding…ding… story! So, in the middle of producing the story, one of the bomb threats was so plausible that the bomb squad arrived. Of course, a journalist’s first thoughts are to grab the camera gear and get b-roll. And that’s exactly what we did. However, when administration learned we acquired the footage, they not only confiscated it, but put the kibosh on our bomb threat story. Administration claimed it was a “safety issue” to have the student that close to danger. While I didn’t disagree about that (especially considering that this was in the post-Columbine era), it was clear to me that it was more about protecting school image. It didn’t address why the footage already obtained was confiscated, and why we couldn’t use the b-roll to produce the story. For me, this was the story that got away.
More recently, a student approached me about producing an issue story about community misconceptions about the two local high schools, pinning one as “the ghetto school” and the other as “the druggy school.” I loved the idea, but was skeptical about tackling such a controversial subject. After all, this was not your typical “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” story. For the first time, I felt the need to get both schools’ principals to approve the story idea before producing it. Fortunately they did, and it was a very successful story.
In the end, if the story is accurate and just paints the school in a less-than-favorable light…then Hazelwood stands in the way of the freedom of the press and citizens’ right to know, not to mention potentially damaging the education, motivation and attitude of our future career journalists, and as a result it weakens the journalism industry as a protector of our society.
Haley Brueck is a National Board Certified Teacher, one of the highest certifications/honors a teacher can achieve. She earned a Master of Education and a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism and Communications with a news emphasis from the University of Florida. During her 17 years in education, she's received many district, state and national recognition for her teaching, including two Teacher of the Year awards. Her students have been recognized for producing award-winning programming and many enter college with more knowledge and experience than most others, giving them the competitive advantage.