By Lisa Snider
Students learn to be journalists by doing journalism, so as the media world evolves with technology, it might make sense to most people that the student journalism lab evolve as well.
Unless those people are school administrators.
In many cases, the need to protect and guard against potentially disastrous situations vary greatly from state to state, and even district to district. Many advisers have fought to get restrictions lifted so their students can use social media the way professional media outlets do.
In Tempe, Arizona, Kris Urban, who has advised publications for 20 years, says that most platforms are blocked on student computers and that his administration clearly does not want students using social media, although social media is part of their CTE standards.
“I’ve argued that it’s difficult to teach social media when students can’t access it, but it seems to fall on deaf ears,” Urban said in response to a survey posted to the JEA (Journalism Educators Association) listerv. “Therefore, students either use my computer or their phones when necessary.”
Having to work around restrictions is common. Darla Tresner of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, said everything is blocked at her school, but the students use their phones.
“It’s one of those situations where we do it, and we didn’t ask permission,” she said of students reporting through social media. Her administration is aware that the student journalists have established Facebook and Twitter accounts for Media Prime, the hub for their student newspaper and magazines; however, those platforms remain blocked on student computers.
Tresner said her students have benefited by learning to use social media in their journalistic pursuits, and the school has benefited as well. In the fall of 2015, a couple of students split duties, with one covering the football games, while another covered crowd reaction. This past fall, student journalists attended presidential candidate rallies and were able to post photos and reports to Facebook. An ambitious news reporter even covered breaking news from a school board meeting when she found out a contractor had incorrectly measured for tennis courts, which were a foot too short. Stepping out into the hallway, the reporter used Facebook Live.
“She got the word out real quick,” Tresner said.
Administrator fears are not unfounded. At Canton High School, not only are all social media platforms blocked by the district’s IT director, but so is cell phone usage. Adviser Meredith Barney said that even teachers have to go to the parking lot to use their cell phones.
“The principal came from a district where there was a lawsuit over Snapchat,” Barney said, explaining that the issue involved several students and was sexually explicit. She has hope, however, in the fact that the district is getting Chromebooks, which she thinks of as “training wheels”. She thinks she’s convinced administration to incorporate a digital citizenship class, which she hopes will lead to lifting of the restrictions. She would like to see students taught to use social media as a tool instead of a weapon.
Districts’ fears are not unfounded. Stories abound of students using poor judgment on social media; however, many advisers argue that teaching students to use the tools effectively, as well as the results of irresponsible use, is better in the long run than blocking them and limiting their learning.
The Essexville, Michigan, district lifted restrictions and embraced social media in recent years, with students using Chromebooks in a 1:1 program. Adviser Dawn Bromberg said the district has its own accounts with the principal running Facebook and Twitter. That positive outlook didn’t protect them, however, from irresponsible behavior, and Bromberg says administration is still wary.
“Earlier this year a student was given the choice to withdraw or be expelled after he made a fake Facebook page for a teacher,” Bromberg said. The student used his cell phone to take photos of family photos she had in the classroom.
“He assumed her identity and said many salacious and defamatory things about her, her family, and other students. It was awful and demonstrates that students don’t always have the ability to make good decisions.”
Though wary, the administration remains open to students learning to use social media. Many districts, however, have yet to lift restrictions or have restricted once open access due to malicious behavior.
For advisers who wish to go to bat for their students, San Jose, California’s Ellen Austin suggests preparing to go to administrators with a plan. When she arrived at her current school in 2013, there was no open access to social media.
“I submitted a proposal to admin and to [the] marketing department with justifications and with a developed social media policy, which we would follow,” she said. “The admin approved our policy and we have been online ever since.”
A sample social media policy for student journalists can be found on the Journalism Educators Association website.