Recent controversy surrounding an article that was published by an Oshkosh high school’s student newspaper about the whereabouts of an assistant principal then taken down just an hour later by administration begs the question: How should we be teaching young journalists?
On March 4, Brock Doemel, a senior at Oshkosh North High School, published an article on the North Star student newspaper’s website regarding the whereabouts of an assistant principal and how it related to locked bathrooms, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday.
In the article, Doemel said the principal’s office “appeared empty and the nameplate above his door was removed after his purported resignation.” Connecting that observation with the bathroom incident, Doemel wrote that the assistant principal had locked the doors “unilaterally,” then lied about it to other school staff, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Without directly naming his source, Doemel attributed the information to an administrator in the Oshkosh school district.
In response, district administration removed the article from the website and schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright published a statement in response saying Doemel’s article “did not include credible information or sources and was not approved by the Oshkosh Area School District.”
That should raise a red flag right there.
It’s one thing if the article was inaccurate — journalists can make mistakes. Unfortunately, we are human like everybody else, but what I can assure you is that we take the responsibility of getting stories right, informing the public, holding public officials accountable and telling our community’s stories.
But in this case, Doemel has told the Journal Sentinel and other media outlets that he stands by the accuracy. And district administration should have no right to remove the article from the website.
All journalists — including student journalists who are still learning the practices and principles of this incredibly important profession — should never have to run stories by the organizations or institutions they’re about.
We don’t get to delete false or misleading blogs just because we don’t agree with their content in real life. How is that teaching these students, who are brave enough to pursue a career in a world where most journalists at some point or another is called “fake news,” anything?
Still, Doemel told the Journal Sentinel that he then began “getting squeezed” by administration. He said the principal pulled him out of class several times to question him about who his source was.
After consulting the Student Press Law Center for guidance, Doemel and a group of students filed an open records request for files related to the assistant principal’s departure. In response, the district said the request would cost the students $138.83 and their notes.
“As you know, your request could include District records associated with the article printed by The North Star student newspaper, it is necessary that you supply to the District any records you have related to the newspaper and the recent article printed by The North Star so that the District can be fully responsive to your request, and any other records request the District may receive regarding this matter,” the letter signed by Cartwright stated.
Apparently, Wisconsin’s open records law had become something of a bargaining chip and the students were just trying to do their jobs as journalists, Mike Hiestand, a senior legal counsel at the law center told the Journal Sentinel.
“The students here were doing exactly what any good journalist would do,” Hiestand said. “A teacher disappeared. They heard some rumors. They did some investigation and they were trying to find out some truth so they could report that to their community.”
It’s wrong to punish students for working just as any professional journalist would — in high school, no less. I would not have even thought to push my school’s administration in high school, yet they’re being punished for their brave pursuit of the truth.
It turns out, the district’s policy toward student media complicates the situation further, as, according to the Journal Sentinel, it dubs student publications “nonpublic forums” in which their right to speech can be restricted and reviewed in order to fit educational standards.
Hiestand told the Journal Sentinel the law center has fought these policies for 15 to 20 years.
“They’re horrible student media policies,” he said, “if you really believe that you should be teaching young journalists how to actually function as journalists.”
That a school would create such a policy is alarming, but yet another example of how freedom of press is time and time again threatened.
And how are we supposed to overcome the “fake news era” if our student journalists are not allowed to learn what it’s really all about in high school? That is not preparing these students for future success in this field.
As the controversy continues to take new twists and turns and “he said-she saids,” what I hope for most is that these young journalists keep doing what they’re doing, and that more schools encourage students to learn how to do real journalism. We need it more than ever.
— Samantha West,