“Real journalism isn’t always positive;” student reporters desire protections

A controversy is beginning to boil over at Savannah High School.

The year-new principal is breaking from Savannah graduation tradition by assigning a different method to how students will choose walking partners — rather than having students sign up to choose their own partners, students will simply line up alphabetically the day of graduation.

This did not go over smoothly with students.

“A lot of students were really upset with the new line up idea,” said Lilly Hegeman, a student reporter for Savage Media. “It’s been a really big controversy.”

As a student journalist for Savannah High School, Hegeman say it as her duty to report on the issues surrounding the new policy — student reactions, justification for the policy, any updates or changes.

But legally, she doesn’t have the right to. Since 1988, student journalist in Missouri and a number of other states have not had the full first amendment protections that are prized by professional journalists. The Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruled that high school journalists do not have first amendment protections.

Instead of covering standard news around the school, like controversies and school-wide issues, students must focus on the positive stories.

“Unfortunately, we have to be very careful with what we do cover,” says Amanda Wilmes, journalism teacher at Savannah High School, “because we have to make sure that it’s not going to put the school in a negative light.”

For many states like Missouri, school administrators have the legal right to prior review and the right to simply say “no” to a story without reason.

The practice has resulted in weekly stories about recent band competitions and how awesome Homecoming will be this year; but student journalists see through this superficial level of reporting.

“It’s all highlights; it’s all showing the good things our school is doing; and that’s great,” says Lilly Hegeman, a student journalist for Savage Media in Savannah. “But we’d like to practice real journalism and real journalism isn’t always positive.”

A recent bill in the Missouri General Assembly could address the free expression issues. If passed, the Cronkite New Voices Act would overturn the decision in Hazelwood and allow students a greater sense of journalistic integrity.

“So what it does is it does guarantee first amendment rights for students’ publishings,” says Robert Bergland, professor of journalism. “There are some restrictions — especially at the high-school level — there are provisions for obscenity, obviously anything that would be libelous or anything that would be invasion of privacy would be cut.”

Robert Bergland, professor of journalism at MWSU, has been one of the most vocal proponents for the Cronkite New Voices Act. Bergland says that the bill would allow students more rights to express themselves.

The New Voices campaign is not a Missouri-only idea; in fact, a majority of U.S. states either have journalistic protections, or are discussing changes to the law.

High school journalists across the U.S. are paving the way in design and investigative work.

Missouri itself is bordered on the north, south, east and west by states that protect student journalists. Seven other states have such first amendment protections.

And 16 more states have New Voices campaigns actively working to change the law.

There are 17 states (blue) nationwide that have New Voices campaigns actively working to change the laws within their states, while 11 states (gold) already protect first amendment rights for students.

Student say, the protection is necessary to establish real journalism in schools.

“It allows us to not pretend like everything’s perfect and that there aren’t any problems,” says Rob Hendericks, student editor for Savage Media. “It will really allow us to discuss the problems at Savannah High School and then from there, it will help us try and reach solutions.”