By Anu Nattam
Plainfield High School
Earlier this year, five of my classmates and I sat down and started brainstorming about what topic we could cover for the very first issue of our publication’s special edition magazine. We asked ourselves, “What is most relevant to our classmates, and how could we best cover it?”
After a thorough brainstorming session, we had the answer to our question – a guide about high school relationships. We chose this topic because we felt like there was so much we could do with it – plus, relationships in high school can be confusing and tricky at times, so we thought we could provide valuable information to the student body.
We made sure to cover a wide variety of subjects, including topics such LGBTQ+ relationships, being single and loving yourself, dating safety and good first date ideas. After spending three months writing and rewriting, we received our completed issue and distributed it to all our peers with nothing but pride in our hearts.
Many students embraced it. They were excited to see such a relevant topic covered in such detail.
But then, the criticism came. I remember seeing the Facebook posts the following day and feeling my heart just sink. Unfortunately, this came from a source with influence in our school corporation, and this individual started blowing up social media with inaccuracies and fear-mongering.
“Parents need to be aware that Plainfield High School has published and distributed to students a magazine telling our children that casual sex and even group sex is OK,” said one post.
“If people do not complain to the school then this trash will continue. And, why doesn’t the church get involved?” said another post from the same person.
I was shocked. When my team and I put together that issue, we weren’t trying to persuade our peers to have sex. The word “sex” never even appeared in the issue.
Not ONE, SINGLE, TIME.
Yet the family member of someone in power within our own school district was using sensationalistic tactics to provide parents and local churches with misleading information about what we had produced. We did not promote irresponsible behavior. We presented facts and ideas focused on relationships, not sex, and impacted our fellow students – like any professional news outlet would do for its audience.
All of the sudden, we were all over the news. Media outlets picked up our story and ran with it – some with the whole story, others with partial truths and misconceptions. The bottom line: We ran an issue about relationships, a school official’s family member became vocally opposed to it and, out of nowhere, we found ourselves “in trouble.”
As a result, for the first time in the 20 years my adviser has been in her position, our publication came under prior review. Everything we publish must now go through an administrator and an advisory board for approval before printing. None of these people have any credentials relating to journalism, but if they see anything that might result in a phone call from the community, they come up with an alternative or strike it completely.
Since prior review was put into place at our school in November 2017, we have had to change the picture on the cover of our magazine, blur out a student’s shirt in a photo, change a headline, remove a sentence about health insurance and delete firsthand accounts about a specific class in which students played on their phones more than they listened to the teacher.
Worst of all, we had to change the name of the magazine from “The Shakedown” to “The Shakeout” because administrators felt that “The Shakedown” had “mafia connotations.”
Not one of these changes was based out of journalistic concern. They all originated from a hypothetical response the public might have.
That same month, the dating issue was awarded seventh place in the Best of Show contest at the national high school journalism fall convention in Dallas. Professional journalists applauded the issue for being balanced and informative, touching on a wide range of issues that are relevant to, and very real for, teens. It was the first time our magazine won a national award, yet we received no praise or acknowledgment from our administrators.
Even though parents called and requested that we be acknowledged at the school board meeting in the same manner every single member of the Plainfield High School band had been for winning a state championship, we were shut out.
The Plainfield School Corporation declined to provide any explanation as to why.
Instead, they treated, and continue to treat, a student-led publication as a public relations tool. Anything that could possibly reflect poorly on the school cannot be discussed in the magazine. They do not understand that this is not real journalism.
This is not our First Amendment.
Journalism, by definition, is the production and distribution of events, facts or ideas that impact today’s society. Filtering these reports and restricting these ideas is not only an injustice to student journalists like myself, but to the people reading the stories we write.
When I want to write an important, life-altering story, I cannot just write it. I must stop and think if it is even allowed or if I will be censored. I could write stories about topics that are extremely impactful to my peers, but I cannot do so with the fear that the whole story will just be tossed out because it might not make everyone happy.
All of my hard work can be crossed out with a pen and no one would ever see it.
Because of the culture of fear that this prior review has created, everyone on my staff (including me) has found themselves self-censoring relevant, significant ideas. We are no longer the confident, self-assured aspiring journalists we were at the beginning of the year. We are filled with doubt and hesitation and, yes, fear.
And the problem does not end there.
This is just the story of one staff out of so many more who are suffering from the same filtration and restrictions that hinders their journalistic abilities to report important information. The administrators at my school allow their misguided notions to dictate policies that stifle student voices. Out of the fear that someone might be offended or parents might call, administrators cultivate a culture of fear in spite of one that fosters information and knowledge.
Just think about it. How many crucial and far-reaching stories in our society would be left untold if journalists were too afraid to do their job?
As student journalists, our biggest desire is to be afforded the same support and protection that professional journalists receive. We don’t want to commit libel. We aren’t in this to print obscenities. Our goal is not to invade privacy or cause a disruption in the educational process.
We only seek to print the truth, even when that truth may make certain individuals uncomfortable. Now more than ever, we need to experience and practice real-world journalism.
In the words of Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, we, as student journalists, need to “Write boldly, and tell the truth, fearlessly.”
Anu Nattam is a junior and student editor at Plainfield High School in Plainfield, Indiana. Those wishing to provide feedback on this column and/or obtain further information about this topic can contact her here.