The popularity of journalism in high schools is on the increase, and with it the controversy over whether or not teen-age journalists are given the respect -- and freedom -- they deserve.
In an article released by the National Scholastic Press Association, attorney Mike Hiestand speaks out against high schools that use their students' publications to promote the concerns of the school, rather than those of its students. "We now have half a generation of high school students that fail to understand the distinction between a public relations newsletter and a newspaper, that see nothing unusual about allowing government officials to dictate news and opinion."
This harsh attack may describe some programs, but it in no way applies to all high school papers. There are many teen-agers who feel confident and rewarded by their work.
How does Western New York fare when it comes to issues of reaching students, censorship and administration support? As the National Scholastic Press Association article suggests, it's about an even split.
Lauren Richardson has always felt that the goal at West Seneca East High School is "to produce a good paper that can reach at least most of the students."
Does it work?
"Our paper does a pretty good job with expressing the students' concerns," she replies.
Lindsay Muscato, co-editor in chief of Clarence Central High School's Red Devil Advocate, expresses similar satisfaction with her school's paper. "We are an open forum and have covered such topics as marijuana legalization and parental consent for abortions."
Many high schools have found that their students aren't interested only in the content of an article, but also in how the issue is presented. Some have established sections in which ideas can be expressed in different ways. "We have included an opinion section in the last few years, and students are asked for their opinions in a section called '10-second editorials.' They can voice complaints, concerns or compliments in a few sentences," says Lindsay Muscato.
A good idea, but not always successful, says another writer for the same publication: "Some students fill out the surveys with stupid answers and expect to get published."
Still, giving students the opportunity to voice their opinions doesn't guarantee that all students will get involved. "All of the students' concerns aren't expressed," says Stephanie Manka, Clarence's opinion editor. "Many are not reached."
There will always be people who aren't impressed with hard news and opinions. Julie Pace of Amherst High School says her paper has a solution for that crowd. "There's a section called 'Cheesy Fluff,' and it's ... well, just look at the name."
Not for nerds
For many student journalists, there is a much bigger issue than just reaching students. It is respect. Dealing with students who think that the paper is for nerds and teachers who think that the attempts are "cute" can be discouraging. But for some, the feedback is encouraging.
"Everyone is always telling me how they enjoy reading my articles, so I guess most people read it," says Sara Mehltretter, a freshman member of the staff of the Mount Mercy Academy Merciette, FYI.
That's the best way to make your school paper better. Read it! "I think it's great when people respond and constructively criticize our articles. It shows they're reading," adds Lindsay Muscato.
Other students, however, don't feel that the sporadic "pat on the back" is enough to motivate students and keep the paper going. Participation and diversity of journalists is a measure of whether a paper is working.
"The paper would represent more of the school if a more diverse group participated," says Gabby Peterson of Clarence Central's Red Devil Advocate. "Apathy is the general feeling toward the paper from students."
The Red Devil Advocate is produced by the school's journalism class, but Lindsay Muscato says "out-of-class members contribute lots of valuable time and energy. We wouldn't be able to do it without them."
In some cases, student support is vital. The administration at Amherst was unable to give the paper funding this year, so "they are going to have to do some fund-raising if they want to keep it running," Julie Pace explains.
For public schools, newspaper publications are protected by the First Amendment. At private schools, however, it's a different story. Is this a problem? Not at Mount Mercy Academy, according to Sara Mehltretter. "The work is edited, but we have a lot of freedom for what we write."
Many organizations, such as the Student Press Law Center, fight for constitutional rights in a public institution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue that "It can hardly be argued that either the students or the teachers shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Are students forced to forfeit their rights anyway? Some say yes. One student at Orchard Park High School tells how the school paper "was suspended by our principal because of an article on sex." Another student from Clarence High School agrees. "We are censored quite a bit. I am not allowed to say the words 'God' or 'crap.' " She adds, "The one main force that holds us back is the administration."
One Clarence student, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the administration "dodges reporters' questions. Their moral: Leave us alone, but we still maintain the right to censor you."
Lindsay Muscato disagrees. "I think that the main reason we don't cover more controversial topics is that writers don't write about them."
So where does high school journalism go from here? Wherever we, the students, take it.
Tiffany Lankes is a junior at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart.