Girl Journalists at Forefront of School Censorship

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LONGWOOD, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS) — Grace Marion is disgusted by the 10-day prior review policy of her school paper The Playwickian.

The policy, determined by the district school board of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and in line with federal rulings, allows the principal to cut any work he or she "reasonably believes should be prohibited."

This can prevent Playwickian staffers such as Marion, the paper’s entertainment and multimedia editor, from breaking news about teen pregnancy or even talking about their mascot in its opinion pages.

"These policies affect every inch of our production process," Marion said in an email interview. "Looking to gain more experience in journalism, and not being able to report on events immediately as they happen as a result of our 10-day prior review, I have often been driven to write for other publications, as have one or two other editors. I want to be a journalist for the rest of my life, but not the kind that always has to have an out-of-date story."

The prior review policy was set in 2014 after student editors stirred controversy for trying to either ban Redskins, the name of the school mascot, from the paper or treat the term as a slur.

Marion still works for the paper, but said she gets more real world experience through freelance work, including Teen Voices.

While administrative oversight is federally sanctioned on school papers, it’s a contentious issue for journalism educators and it affects female students disproportionately. Fifty-nine percent of students participating in extracurricular journalism programs are female, according to the Student Press Law Center. And the numbers may be even higher, according to a soon-to-be released study from the University of Kansas.

Active Voice

This fall the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, which provides legal support and guidance on First Amendment freedom of expression concerns, launched a campaign called Active Voice to help female student journalists contend with censorship in their newspapers or news sites.

"Young women are overwhelmingly the ones wanting to push the envelope in raising important social issues for discussion in student media, and they are the ones absorbing the brunt of school retaliation merely for trying to educate the community about issues of public concern," Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in an email interview.

LoMonte said the Active Voice campaign grew out of a string of cases during 2014 involving young women and school censorship cases that were especially severe and ill-founded.

"At times we encounter situations that fall into a gray judgment-call area, but these were not ‘gray’ cases at all," said LoMonte. "They were cases of schools losing sight of their educational mission and using their censorship authority for the purpose of beating down these young women to ‘show them who’s boss.’"

The Active Voice program urges young women to find support in online communities and educational partnerships. This includes connecting with Student Press Law Center college students who will create service learning projects to address the underlying cause of administrative push back. Teaching high school and college students to be advocates of a free press on a local and state level is the leverage the press law center is hoping will strengthen girls’ leadership ability on a personal and national level. By bringing their stories to Active Voice, girls in turn help the program influence public policy and address the direct concerns of the silenced voices.

"These programs can set a precedent for future generations of empowered journalists, specifically female empowered journalists, by eliminating the taboo around engaging topics," said Jillian Reavis, a junior in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and editor in chief of her school paper, The Prospector, in an email interview.

"So many journalists, especially females, are afraid to write about topical issues within education, for the backlash that will inevitably come back to them [in the press or in public]. When I heard that our principal asked us to take down a photo from our website because the girl was out of dress code, our photography editor and I scheduled a meeting with the principal and immediately re-posted the picture. This spun into a month-long conversation between an SPLC spokesperson, my principal and me. It ended up that he understood our rights as journalists, and he doesn’t try to get involved anymore."

Still Scarce

While girls may be taking the lead in student newsrooms, they are still scarce in professional newsrooms.

In fact, an analysis of female reporters and presenters worldwide in the last four Global Media Monitoring undertakings — in 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 — finds North America the only region in the world with a decrease (minus 8 percent) in the number of women delivering news.

When women do have a bigger role in newsrooms, Marion said, it is often in front of the camera in short skirts.

By not having the freedom to properly lead her staff, Marion feels she is losing out on the opportunity to become skilled in her craft.

"What it is doing is taking away the freedom of many adolescents to speak out," she said. "I won’t pretend that teenage journalists are always logical and professional, or journalists of any age for that matter, but it should be in their hands to mess up and print something poorly written, if they are going to do it. The thought of prior review definitely limits my own ability to write."

Combined with the male dominance of the professional landscape, she said this could hinder her ability to get ahead.

"If the second guessing that comes with prior review becomes a habit, many young journalists will face struggles if they peruse a career in journalism as a result of it," Marion said. "They will be afraid to cover hard hitting stories."

Marion sees a danger of girls developing a habit of unintentionally self-censoring their work. "When you’re picking out something to cover you’re always worried that it will be too inappropriate, that it will be censored and it will have been a waste of time. I think."

LoMonte, at the Student Press Law Center, expects the impact of Active Voice to become apparent in the next school year after they hire the first class of college student fellows, for which they are currently looking into grant funding.

In the meantime, LoMonte will be presenting with Peter Bobkowski from the University of Kansas at SXSWedu on the gender gap in high school journalism participation and censorship.

"Right now, way too many young people — and again, they’re overwhelmingly young women — go to school in fear of being punished just for speaking their minds about an issue of public concern and importance," said LoMonte. "That fear deters them from bringing the community important information and insights. If we change that mindset and make schools into supportive and open-minded places where all voices are respected and valued, we send young women out into the adult world equipped with the confidence to take on leadership roles in law, business, government and media."

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