Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another high school journalism teacher lost

School paper loses adviser after issue about sex by Jeff Long

(Note: this post was written 20 minutes after a breaking news post on the Tribune's site– changes & updates may have occurred or been added.)

Here is the sort of story that sends bloggers to their keyboards. Barbara Thill, the adviser of Stevenson High School's paper, is stepping down from the post next year because the school made changes to the way the paper was structured after an issue about hook-ups at school.

Censorship!, comes the cry. Down with content control! Sex among high school is an important issue, and the sqeamish school principle needs to get over it!

Well, yes. But there is definitely more to the story. From the article:

The January "hooking up" issue described casual sexual encounters among students. Officials said the paper recklessly exposed the identities of the students by using their first names and graduation year and failed to achieve balance by omitting those opposed to hooking up.

Definitely an important part of the story. It continues:

The administration had voiced concerns about the Statesman to Thill for a year, a spokesman said later.

In the two issues published since then, the school's director of communication arts, David Noskin, and other administrators have reviewed the paper before it went to print, Selman said.

So far, administrators have not censored the paper's content, but Selman thinks the students' journalism has suffered because the review requires earlier deadlines. That leaves less time for reporting, editing and layout, she said.
...and a little later:
Administrators told students that two journalism classes will work on the Statesman next year, instead of one. Ribot said administrators told students that Thill was offered the chance to teach one of the classes but declined.
At this point in the article, I felt a whole lot more sympathetic to school administrators. Yes, we can talk about censorship and the "chilling" effect it has on the press and on the free exchange of ideas. Long, the reporter, includes that with comments from students about the effect the school's response has had on the reporting.

But reckless treatment of sources on such a sensitive issue? Well, I feel like Long could have bumped that up a bit– I had to chide myself for jumping to conclusions about the fairness of the situation too soon. I feel like the fifth graph is a little low. Additionally, it's hinted at, but not explained, that Thill was offered her post again by the school and chose to step down anyway. An important detail. Of course, not everything can be at the beginning of the story, but a 'voluntary' wedged into a sentence would have been clearer. These are crucial details that someone who doesn't read on will miss.

I think most readers at least skim to the end of this one, though– it is a compelling story. I want more information. The publication is now newsworthy and, with my limited knowlege of First Amendment law, I think it would be legally fine to run parts of the paper in question to let readers draw their own conclusions about the administration's response, perhaps blacking out the names of students in the article to avoid further exposure on the part of the sources.

The story reminded me of a situation from my hometown of Naperville, IL, and Long doesn't miss the connection. Linda Kane was fired from her long-standing position on Naperville Central's award winning paper after a controversial issue about drug use.

Thill's resignation comes less than a year after a journalism adviser at Naperville Central High School was fired after publicly criticizing the principal for his response to the school paper's controversial stories about drug use, including one column containing profanity.
Kane still works at Naperville Central. I suppose the article could mean 'fired' as in 'fired as newspaper adviser'– but it's not clear enough for comfort. This story from the Tribune about the events also says "fired" in the lede but clarifies a sentence or two later. (Coincidentally, the archived story is by the journalist I interviewed for our assignment for Friday– kind of cool.) EDIT: I e-mailed the reporter to see if this was a misunderstanding or if the correct phrasing is just, well, confusing– he said it was the latter and that because it says the adviser (not teacher) was fired, it was correct. I still think it's confusing, but it's not an error, per se.)

Bottom line: the story does a good job presenting both sides of the story with supporting information, but I'd organize it differently.


  1. I'm with you about judging the administration too harshly...when I saw the headline I immediately started thinking angry thoughts about how school officials are trying to take away all our rights (particularly after my high school superintendent started censoring our paper last year). But I think the administration could have had good reason for this one...sex and minors is always a sensitive issue and the paper may have crossed the line. Unfortunately, it's too tough to make a decision without actually reading what was in the paper. I agree that the reporter presented both sides of the arguement well and managed to avoid putting blame on any one side.

  2. Though I am unable to read your article because the link you provided is no longer working, I too would stress that reading beyond the opening paragraphs is always critical. However, I'm not sure that the school offering Thill the job back paints the administrators in a more positive light. Perhaps Thill turned the job down on principle. If you fall on Thill's side of the argument, the offer doesn't change the fact that the school violated her free speech.