Pencils down

Pencils down

By Amanda Witherell

Lowell High School, despite its stellar reputation, has recently had some newsworthy crimes. Laptops have been swiped, tires have been slashed, and cub reporters from the school’s student-run newspaper, the Lowell, have been on the scene for some of it — to the dismay of the school’s new administration.

The day after the October issue hit the hallways, featuring a controversial story about a hate crime and a brief about slashed car tires, Amy Hansen, interim principal at Lowell, scheduled a sit-down with the two journalism classes.

Hansen told the Guardian that the meeting was to “raise the question of how we make decisions in our lives about how we’re going to respond to information that we have.”

“She had a lot of problems with multiple articles,” Connie Chung, one of four editors, told the Guardian. Chief among them was the protective stance reporter Megan Dickey took toward her anonymous source in the tire-slashing story.

“Teacher’s Car Vandalized” related details of the slashed tires of math teacher Anthony Costa’s car. Costa refused to be interviewed by Dickey, but she was able to talk on condition of anonymity to the person who slashed the tires. She reported that this was not a random act of violence but had been done as retaliation for what the student felt was an insulting comment Costa made about his personal life.

Dickey contacted the Student Press Law Center before sending her story to press and was confident that she would be protected by the First Amendment and the California Shield Law, as well as Section 48.907 of the California Education Code, which explicitly provides protection to student journalists.

“For a student newspaper, we try to be as professional as possible,” reporter Logan Weir said. “The professional standard would be unless harm is going to be done to someone, you don’t have to reveal the source. That’s a generalization, but it’s along those lines, and we didn’t cross that, and we didn’t need to reveal our source.”

Hansen, however, offered up several hypothetical examples she said were designed to get the students to consider “do we speak up, or do we cover it objectively as a story?”

“I’m not a reporter, but at what point does the reporter put his camera down and help a child who’s bleeding in the street rather than take a picture?” Hansen asked. “That’s a moral and ethical decision that a reporter makes. I can make money by taking a picture of that dying child, or I can pick that child up and try and get him to a hospital.”

The students thought some of Hansen’s examples were dubious and extreme.

“What if I was a Ku Klux Klan member and I told you I was going to burn down a church and asked you to keep it confidential, what would you do? That was her analogy,” editor Beatriz Datangel said.

“From what she says, it’s not about protecting our sources. It’s about morals, like thinking, if I interview this person, should I turn the person in instead of putting the story in,” Chung said.

“The main argument we had was that as journalists it is our duty to tell them the five W’s and the H, and in order to have a complete story, we have to talk to certain people. We may not condone their behavior, but we need to find out the information in order to report it,” Chung said.

Hansen still disagrees. “What is the correct position? I think mine is,” she said. “But I didn’t win that one. We don’t always win those kinds of arguments.”

“Any rational person can understand there would be many, many stories that would never be told” if journalists didn’t have the right to protect sources, said Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center, which regularly advises student papers on these issues. “Is this person acting as a journalist? If they are, protections apply.”

Goodman said student journalists have the same rights as professionals, though very few high school journalists have been pushed by law enforcement officers to reveal information.

Dickey is one of them. After her story ran, she was questioned by the police but did not reveal the source.

The students say that since the meeting, they haven’t changed the way they run the press. Neither have they shied away from continuing to cover controversial stories, as attested by the November issue’s above-the-fold feature, “Faculty Expresses Discontent over Administration.”

The paper, in print since 1898, is one of the top-ranking in the country and was recently awarded the Pacemaker Award by the National Scholastic Press Association, which Goodman called the Pulitzer Prize of student journalism.

Originally published November 26, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian