At a private institution, I shed many of the rights to freedom of speech and press that I would have at my public school equivalent.
The principles of Tinker vs. Des Moines do not apply, but neither do the principles of Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier. (Although I still wear a 'Cure Hazelwood' bracelet every day.) Unprotected by First Amendment rights, we have had to design our own guidelines for press responsibility at Malvern, and work to build acceptance and support with the school’s administration.
Ethical and fair reporting coupled with empathy and understanding has been the foundation of our success. Everything we do is within the context of a all-boys, conservative, Catholic, tradition-based private institution. We fight every day to challenge the status quo and incite a culture of respectful and equitable media intervention.
At any moment, we could essentially be shut down.
As a result, it is important that we hold ourselves to higher standards than anyone else. It is that deliberate and careful approach that has led to the success we have had, and will continue to foster in the future.
In October 2014, our publication was subjected to a prior review policy. We had an article about new building plans with an on-the-record interview with our Head of School, but the day before we were going to press, he asked to review it. We tried to dissuade him, but he said that disclosing information talking about plans before the funding was attained would have people thinking they didn’t need any more money.
As a result, we had to modify that story last minute. However, it did not stop there. He wanted any administrators quoted in a story to be given prior review over that story.
I was in the Chief Investigative Reporter role at the time this happened. The two Editors-in-Chief and I met with our Head of School to see if we could convince him otherwise. I prepared a strong case against his request. In the end we compromised: He could review any article an administrator was quoted in, instead of each individual administrator having this review.
The prior review policy had its flaws.
On more than one occasion, between the time we sent him an article and the day we were trying to go to press, he would meet with the administrator and the information would change. We were then charged with either printing outdated information or running around to update it.
We are fortunate that he has never fully censored articles, or even pulled them, which are technically under his jurisdiction at a private school.
This winter, our Head of School discussed a change to the prior review policy with our editors. As of January, we put this new policy into writing and action, and published it on our February editorial page and online.
Now, only articles that mention fundraising are sent for prior review. We communicate with him in advance of publication about any articles that may be sensitive. While the language is somewhat vague, it fosters a constant dialogue that is prosperous for our environment.
We have already faced a test for that policy which is discussed below on this page.
Old Prior Review Policy
As of October 2014, The Blackfriar Chronicle is under the prior review of the administration of Malvern Preparatory School.
Any article that cites an administrator is subject to a prior review by Head of School Mr. Christian Talbot to edit, delay, or pull any story that goes out. According to Mr. Talbot, information presented on the record during an interview may change prior to the newspaper’s publication. Some information could be damaging to the school if published.
As this is a private institution, the staff must comply with the request. We are working to the standards set by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), Pennsylvania School Press Association (PSPA), and Journalism Education Association (JEA), among others, but in addition will now act in accordance with the Malvern administration.
New Prior Review Policy
As of January 2016, The Blackfriar Chronicle is under limited and specific prior review by the administration of Malvern Preparatory School.
Any story that refers to fundraising is subject to a prior review by Head of School Mr. Christian Talbot.
In keeping with journalistic ethics and Malvern Preparatory School’s core values, the staff will provide advance notice to Mr. Talbot of any highly sensitive topics that may be covered in each edition.
As this is a private institution, the staff must comply with the request. We are working to the standards set by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), Pennsylvania School Press Association (PSPA), and Journalism Education Association (JEA), among others, but in addition we are acting in accordance with the Malvern administration.
Lessons from Local Coverage
Lessons From Local Coverage
Published: September 2015, The Blackfriar Chronicle
In August 2015, my guidance counselor was arrested for attempting to seduce a student of the school over the course of several months. It was covered in nearly every local publication, and drew attention from other media markets.
As a journalist, I wanted to read all the different coverage to see how each publication reported the story. I was appalled at the sheer quantity of errors and sensationalized coverage.
We decided not to cover the incident in a news story, because it was widely known, we were under prior review (and the story would never pass that), and the student involved still attends the school. However, we did not want to let it go untouched.
With this column, I set our standards high for the remainder of the year.
After our prior review policy changed, I was able to cover her sentencing in March 2016 as a news story.
Read the column here.
Reporting on Suicide
My January 2015 story on youth suicide brought up lots of ethical questions. We had to discuss sourcing accuracy, anonymous sources, media guidelines for suicide contagion, among other topics, all over a two-month process of preparing this story for publication.
Read the article here.
Media guidelines for reporting on suicide
There has been extensive research about media contagion and suicide. As a result, researchers have been able to identify best practices for journalists reporting on suicide to limit the risk of suicide contagion.
In writing my story on youth suicide, I read several of these studies and consulted with reportingonsuicide.org before even writing my story. Then, following my story, I sent my article to Dr. Dan Romer. Dr. Romer was one of my sources and he also has done a lot of research on media contagion. He offered some feedback, and confirmed that my story met these important guidelines.
When I sent our January stories for prior review, he asked to read my article on youth suicide, even though it did not meet the previous or new guidelines for review that we had established. I carefully pushed back, because I had followed journalistic ethics and principles meticulously along every step of the reporting process. With that, he said we had earned his trust, and we worked to formalize the new language for prior review.
Since becoming well-versed in media guidelines for reporting on suicide, I have also started to notice when publications break them. I can’t imagine that any professional reporter would intentionally break them, so I like to email the reporter the guidelines and hope they make changes to their story.
List of Sources
In order to do this story ethically, I interviewed lots of people to get all perspectives. Here are the experts I talked to:
Dr. Dorothy Sayers, School Psychologist
Dr. Matthew Wintersteen, Thomas Jefferson Hospital, Co-Chair of Pennsylvania Against Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative (PAYSPI)
Dr. Dan Romer, Director of the Adolescent Communication Institute (ACI) of the Annenberg Public Policy Center
Mrs. Tracy Behringer, Community Outreach Liaison, Chester County Mental Health / Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Office
Ms. Carol Harkins, Co-Chair of Chester County Suicide Prevention Task Force (CCSP)
Using Anonymous Sources
My main source for this story is anonymous, and with that came some hard decisions.
Whenever a publication grants anonymity, there needs to be an extremely legitimate reason. In my youth suicide story, we carefully granted anonymity out of the interest of the source’s family. Some of his family and close friends still do not know his story, and we did not want them to find out in our newspaper.
Granting anonymity to the featured narrative source was not the only time in this story that we had to make a tough ethical decision.
I interviewed a teacher at my school, on the record, about how he lost his mother to suicide while a student in college. It was a really powerful section of the story, but in a conversation with my adviser he mentioned that he wanted to review the section. He never mentioned this to me initially, and because our interview was on the record, I had no obligation to do that. But I shared it with him for review.
He read it, and after a conversation with his family, asked to be anonymous.
We debated it, but I reached the conclusion that I would remove his section from the story. He would be the second anonymous source in the story, and this would contribute to the stigma that already surrounds suicide and mental illness.
We did heavily debate whether I should have a conversation with him ask if he would reconsider his choice. In the end, I thought that it could be considered pressuring a source, and so I did not do so.