“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell,” Chicago Times publisher Wilbur Storey declared in 1861. Those functions are not guaranteed to please everyone. Either is bound to occasionally dismay or infuriate some readers, as every journalist learns. The ones at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Ark., learned it earlier, and more painfully, than most.
In October, the Har-Ber Herald published a story based on months of investigation by student journalists after five varsity football players transferred to Springdale High School, in the same school district. Students are not allowed to make such moves to play on a different athletic team.
Parents of the students had written letters (obtained by The Herald staff through Freedom of Information Act requests) asking for the transfers for academic reasons. But the student paper interviewed two players who admitted on the record that they switched in pursuit of major college football offers.
“We just want to go over there because we have a better chance of getting scholarships and playing at D1,” said one, referring to the top NCAA division. Another expressed the same hope and thought “going to Springdale would be the best like to kind of get there.” That issue of the paper included an editorial criticizing the transfer system.
It was an expose worthy of professional journalists, and it generated a flurry of attention for the newspaper. But, like exposes by professional journalists, it angered some people. The district’s deputy superintendent ordered the faculty adviser to remove the story from the website.
Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins, reported Buzzfeed News, said the story would remain banned because it was “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles,” as well as “extremely divisive and disruptive” — adjectives that bear no resemblance to the careful, thorough case made by The Herald. Henceforth, all stories will have to be reviewed in advance by administrators.
These were brilliant responses, if the intended lesson was that the truth can be told only if it doesn’t upset anyone. The student reporters uncovered a story — you could even call it a scandal — that was important to the two high schools and the community. They appear to have done it in a careful, thorough way. And their reward was to be shut down
Student journalists, of course, need the guidance of adults as they learn the craft, just as professional reporters work under editors and publishers. But they should be judged on whether their stories are accurate, relevant and important, not on whether they successfully avoid controversy.
What the administrators did may not even be a legal response. Arkansas has a law protecting the free expression of public high school students, as long as their stories don’t involve obscenity, libel, invasion of privacy or incitement to violate laws or school regulations.
The ultimate outcome is yet to be determined. A school district spokesman said the entire matter is still under review.
Good journalism assumes that knowing the truth, however uncomfortable it may be, is better than not knowing. The Har-Ber Herald staff seems to understand that premise, even if some adults don’t.
— Chicago Tribune