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Self-censorship

by Shelley Blundell.

Although there is much research on censorship of student media from outside concerns (such as censorship by school officials, e.g. principals – see the entries on Prior Review and Internet filtering for more information), there is little research done regarding self-censorship of student media. In terms of creating a definition of self-censorship for this encyclopedia entry, it shall be defined as any removal of content made by student media personnel themselves or a student media adviser—in other words, self-censorship occurs when someone directly involved with a student media publication (such as a writer, an editor, an adviser, etc.) makes a decision to remove content prior to publication based on personal opinion, beliefs, or sentiment toward the content.

Discussing a study done by Hayes, Glynn, and Shanahan in 2005, Filak and Miller (2008) state that “[i]n self-censoring, individuals make a knowing choice to limit their opinion and fail to speak on a topic because of a real or perceived sense that discomfort will be the likely outcome” (p. 16). As was discussed in the entry on Prior Review, it is often the case that although many school officials may claim there is no policy on censorship (and therefore censorship of student media does not occur), censorship can occur very indirectly, and those that would speak against it (such as a student media adviser) are often punished for doing so. To that end, in Filak et al.’s (2008) review of a few studies regarding self-censorship done with student media advisers, it is no surprise to see that a number of these advisers admitted to self-censoring controversial topics and stories done by students if they felt the stories would fall afoul of school officials. Further, in their own study asking student media advisers to complete a Willingness to Self-Censor scale (which included a number of topics that could be censored), Filak et al. (2008) discovered that “the adviser’s perception of how the principal would reaction (sic) was a key predictor as to how comfortable he or she felt about running a controversial story in the student newspaper” (p. 22). Filak, Reinardy, and Maksl (2009) had similar findings in a later study using the same scale. Additionally, Filak et al. (2008) found that the two biggest issues advisers responded to affirmatively in terms of willingness to censor were sex and administration issues, which have come up in previous studies on self-censorship, Filak et al. (2008) note. These issues, research has shown, are the issues student media advisers feel may cause the most problems in terms of school official recrimination. However, as Filak et al. (2008) made plain, such censorship by student media advisers plays right into the hands of school officials who would limit content: “By placing those advisers who score higher on the [Willingness to Self-censor] scale in positions of authority over student newspapers, administrators are likely to find not just self-censors, but news censors” (p. 23).

Self-censorship by student media advisers is perhaps even more frightening than school official censorship that occurs during the Prior Review/Prior Restraint process, because it denies students the opportunity to make choices regarding such content for themselves (and thereby allow them to appreciate the consequences of such decisions), and also does nothing to challenge the actual limits regarding student media that may exist with school officials, as was pointed out by Diane Smith (quoted in the Proudfoot, et al., 2001, article). As Filak et al. (2008) share, for many student journalists in high school, involvement with the student media is their first experience of and with journalism. If student media advisers practice self-censorship virulently due to concerns over school official reaction to content, student journalists en masse may take their lead and self-censor their own material and, even worse, this habit may follow them beyond school should they choose to pursue a career in journalism.

As Watson (2005) shares in his article on student self-censoring, many students already self-censor news content to the point of making some student media publications almost un-newsworthy—adviser precedent in this area, then, may exacerbate an already increasing problem. Although Watson (2005) points to a lack of appreciation of the rights bestowed by the First Amendment as a major contributing factor to students’ willingness to self-censor student media content, he also believes that particularly for children in the suburbs (where self-censorship ratings are the highest), many are concerned about rocking the administrative boat, as it were, and are content to avoid controversy if it achieves their end goals: “The kids in the suburbs are all focused on getting into good colleges and don’t want to get caught up in a controversy. They’re worried about angering the administration and not getting a good college recommendation” (p. 47).

Finally, in her meta-analysis of student newspaper editorials at a Midwest public high school, both prior to and following the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case decision, Lomicky (2000) found that there were three times as many critical editorials published in the newspaper prior to the Hazelwood decision than after it, indicating for her that “students have become reluctant to take on administration or school policy and perhaps are self-censoring their commentaries following the Court decision” (p. 470). Even more worryingly, Lomicky (2000) states, is “an analysis of the topics students selected to praise suggests that in the years following Hazelwood students seem more inclined to curry favor by using editorial space to praise school policy and the administration than they were before the [Hazelwood] decision” (p. 470).

Although censorship of the student media by school officials and the like is a real threat to students becoming informed, representative, and participatory citizens beyond the primary and secondary education levels, self-censorship by both student media advisers and the students themselves is even more dangerous to the students and their overall academic freedom. When students are not taught to push boundaries in an educational environment and question why things are they way they are; they miss out on developing critical thinking skills that are highly necessary for their continued learning and development in the professional world (Smith, in Proudfoot et al., 2001). Therefore, in terms of preserving both the principles of a free press and the necessary tenets of academic freedom, student media (and students involved with student media) should be encouraged continually to push the envelope in terms of topics covered in publications, but to do so in a balanced, ethical, and responsible way, in order to preserve both their and their successors’ academic freedom in the long term.

For a look at recent self-reported responses regarding general and self-censorship from student media personnel and advisers from around the country (collected at the 2012 National High School Journalism Convention in San Antonio, Texas), read the survey summary here (courtesy of the Student Press Law Center).

References:

Filak, V. F., Reinardy, S., and Maksl, A. (2009). Expanding and validating applications of the willingness to self-censor scale: Self-censorship and media advisers’ comfort level with controversial topics. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86, 368-382.

Filak, V. F., & Miller, A. (2008). The impact of self-censorship on high school newspaper advisers’ comfort level regarding the publication of controversial stories. Southwestern Mass Communication Journal, 23, 13-25.

Lomicky, C. S. (2000). Analysis of high school newspaper editorials before and after Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier: a content analysis case study. Journal of Law and Education, 29, 463-476

LoMonte, F. D., & Goodman, M. (2013). Press release: High school students, teachers report student media censorship. Student Press Law Center. Retrieved from

http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2505

Proudfoot, H., & Weintraub, A. (2001). The voice of freedom. Principal leadership. Retrieved from http://www.splc.org/pdf/principalarticle.pdf

Watson, W. (2005). Students self-censoring. Communication: Journalism Education Today, 39, 48-49. Retrieved from ILIAD.

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