Monday, March 16, 2009

Unsuitable

Our two copies of the local paper weren't in my mailbox Monday morning, and the high school secretary wasn't sure why.

A message from another librarian explained the situation:

Okay, I know someone will bring this up.
The Newspspaper is not delivering to schools today because the publisher believes a story on the front page is "inappropriate for schools"?!
I think a response is called for.

The responses from the LMS in our BOCES were variations on this reply:
I believe we should all email The Publisher and let him know that since we pay for the newspaper it is our right and responsibility to do the censoring.

I wrote:
Mr. P,

Please deliver our copies of the Post Star. I will advise our administrators and staff about the questionable photo and let them decide who should have access.

The Publisher's first reply:
"...I didn’t decide that the article wasn’t appropriate for school use – I decided that a photo could be objectionable to some parents. Our plan was to call the schools and ask if you would like them delivered after you had a chance to see the photo. If we had just sent them out and they were passed around without proper notice we would have been accused of being insensitive. Please remember that papers are delivered to elementary schools as well..."

Please note none of the librarians or schools ever received a phone call.

Second, more extended, response from the Publisher:

This will serve as my answer to the many questions on why The Newspaper wasn’t immediately delivered to your school today.

In working on the series about one of our servicemen that died, after injuries sustained while serving his country, we were given a photo of the young man badly burned. We questioned the reaction of readers but decided that it was relevant to the story and the family had supplied the photo, giving permission to print it. Since we didn’t have a lot of time between the decision to print the photo and the delivery of your papers we felt that we should “hold back” the papers to be sure you knew what was printed, giving you the appropriate time to make the decision about distribution in your schools. We should give you 24 hours notice to decide on how you want to handle these matters in your individual classrooms or libraries – we were not able to do this and this is why the decision was made.

There was never any effort to censor or thought that you couldn’t make the proper decision. We understand that you are well-educated adults but we would have been seen as negligent if we just sent them out. I have no doubt that you would have made the right call for your students – if we had given you the proper notice. I wasn’t making the decision for you; I was giving you some time to deal with it on your own. I understand how busy you must be in the morning and I didn’t want this to get missed in the rush.

Some of you have suggested that we should have attached a flyer to the bundle to explain. Flyers fall off of bundles every day and I didn’t want to take the chance that this could happen with such an important message.

I appreciate those of you with professional messages, asking for your papers. Your understanding is appreciated.

Perhaps you’re not used to seeing media trying to show sensitivity to an issue but that’s all I was trying to do. If you believe there was another motive, I’m sorry. We like to put out more newspapers each day, not less.

I apologize for the disruption to your day.


When I read the paper at home that morning, before leaving for school, I was saddened by the photo, did not linger on the disturbing image, did not even notice that the young man was naked except for a towel across his lap. The picture was located on page 4 of the first section; other, less sensational, photos of the soldier were printed on the front page.

I had copied my correspondence with the publisher to our principals and superintendent. Once the newspapers were finally delivered to the school, I showed these administrators the picture in question. We all agreed to make the issue available in the library. There were no comments from the staff members and high school students who read it.

How would this episode have been handled in your district, your BOCES? Did the publisher overstep his authority? Did the librarians overreact?

Who should judge what is appropriate for educational use?





"Blindfold game 1" by Lee Carson

18 comments:

loonyhiker said...

As a customer, I think the publisher should have delivered the paper as usual. What one person may not consider objectionable, someone else could. What if references to Christmas sales or charitable givings offend someone? Does the paper not get delivered then either? I think the publisher was out of line on this.

Cathy Nelson said...

OMGosh!!! You would think particularly with declining subscriptions they wouldn't dare risk ire from loyal school librarians who lovingly subscribe to the dying art of newspaper journalism. Wow I am shocked at the censorship, no matter the explanation. Thanks for taking a stand for librarians everywhere. I am not sure how my district would respond, but I feel pretty sure I would have been angered at the assumption that we needed to be protected. So should we no have a good old fashioned newspaper burning? After all, much of the headlines are pg-13 or worse. I suppose I should be happy they were worried about school children everywhere. Too bad front page news about rape, arrests, and murders are considered a-okay.

Paul Bogush said...

I think the publisher did the right thing. Today in class we had a long discussion on "Do you define a person by their intentions, or their actions?" The publisher had nothing but the interest of the kids, but more importantly the paper in mind when making the decision. Yes they might get flack for not delivering the paper. But at least around here, the risk of getting flack for delivering the paper outweigh delivering it.
Could it just be that he was trying to do the right thing?

There was a clip on our channel one news that the librarian considered censoring last week. It was on sending nude pictures via text messages. Didn't know if it was appropriate for the 6th grade. If she had pulled it, I wouldn't have thought about it as censorship. Her thoughts were solely about the welfare of the kids.
Tough to find the line. We pulled all the newspapers a few years when the front page story was about a suicide--our team had just lost a student to a suicide. We also pulled the paper another time when there was an article about a parent of a kid in it. Both times the people involved in the decision and listened to the reason thought it was a good idea, and many who were caught by surprise did not.

diane said...

Pat,
I agree with your point of view completely. I personally found the photo distasteful because it seemed to sensationalize the soldier's suffering. But that didn't stop the paper from publishing it.

Cathy,
You don't know the half of it! This particular paper has been doing a lot of teacher bashing lately. Some teachers have been suggesting that we stop our subscription, an idea I opposed.
I am a newspaper reader, but I wonder how long the print copies will continue to exist. If students don't see newspapers at home or at school, they'll never buy them as adults. And most of them won't take the time to do more than skim online versions. The publisher is not doing his paper any favors by electing himself educational censor.

diane said...

Paul,
I agree that there may be times when elementary students should be shielded.
But our high school students, some of whom are legally adults? Not sure that it's the school's job to censor their reading matter.

hloy said...

I agree with Pat & Cathy, it doesn't matter the reason why they decided to w/hold the paper. If the photo was okay to print, it should be okay to distribute and for all ages to view. If the school paid for the subscription and has an expectation for it to be delivered at a certain time, then the paper should have been delivered. It is the school's/librarian's job to decide if the papers should be placed on the shelves and/or reserved for mature readers (in the case of elementary schools). My question, honestly, how many elementary kids voluntarily read the paper w/o having been told to read it by an adult? High school, yes, they ask for and read the paper - but in my experience they go straight to the sports or comics/crossword pages, not to the headlines/news! My opinion, the publisher's job is to report the news, not censor the news no matter who it is for - kids have rights to full access to the news just as much as the adults! If the publisher was so concerned, the photo probably shouldn't have been printed no matter that the family gave it to them - let's face it, the family was/is probably in shock and grief and not thinking straight.

Amanda said...

You all have valid points. My initial thought when reading this though is that the publisher was not the least bit concerned about leaving the paper for all his other subscribers for their kids to find when they get home from school. If you need to censor for one group of kids, why not every subscriber who has a kid? Did the local public library get their copy? He may have good intentions but I'm not sure that was all he was thinking.

Anonymous said...

The publisher is wrong. They don't care about protecting children, they care about getting sued. What better "teachable moment" about real life than a picture that may be disturbing. I think the editor hides behind ideas of "sensitivity" because it is so difficult to criticize, rather than their fear of public reaction. I think its an insult to kids, adults, and the community. If its newsworthy, print it and have the guts to stand behind it. This editor needs a spine transplant.

Cameron said...

I think that the librarians did over react and that the publisher had the best intentions. Even though his actions were wrong he had the good intention. The outcome of whether you think the publisher is right or wrong will always be determined by their intentions. Everything always goes back to that. What would you judge someone by their actions or intentions?
-Cameron

Cindy McGarrahan said...

What is that old expression - the road to .... is paved with good intentions. Why was the picture published in the first place. If the publisher had the interest of the children in mind then why publish at all. In my house, we read the paper at the table. My son sees the front page there. What about the papers in the public library, the papers in the racks. Do children not see the paper outside of school? Of course, they do. Paul, the school making a decision for the children is different than the publisher making the decision.

diane said...

Cameron,
Actions or intentions? That could work in many ways. What if the publisher intended to persuade students of the evils of drug use and printed graphic pictures of teens shooting up? Would that be acceptable because of good intentions? Suppose a teacher wanted her 6th grade class to understand conditions in the slums of India and showed her class Slumdog Millionaire. Aren't her intentions admirable?

hloy, Amanda, Anonymous, and Cindy express my feelings: we paid for the paper. Once it was published and public, the company relinquished its right to determine audience. The question of access should have been decided by the librarian and administrators at school, and the parents of minors at home.

Cathy Nelson said...

@Paul--If the newspaper guy had good intentions at heart, he'd be more concerned with losing readership than protecting kids. He is most definitely in the wrong business if he wants to protect kids, especially considering the headlines across most newspapers. Maybe he should teach instead? Maybe all the declining subscriptions really have him thinking of a career change. Someone better tell him teachers are losing their jobs too. Let's not forget that media in general tends to sensationalize what ever morbid story is out there. Yes, maybe he needs to rethink his career.

diane said...

Cathy,

Teacher? Why not become a social worker. Oh, that's right, I forgot: teachers are social workers, and psychiatrists, and surrogate parents, and policemen, and...

A Keeper's Jackpot said...

First of all, even if the content was questionable, the papers (which the school pays for) should have been delivered and left up to the school to decide what to do.

Second: Hypocrites! Several months ago, this newspaper posted a picture on their online edition (which anybody can access without a subscription) of a local woman that went over the bridge onto the highway below. The body was covered by a sheet but her arm was sticking out, which I think was VERY insensitive towards the woman's family (and potentially younger aged readers). This was a different situation than the photo of the young man that the family submitted and gave the paper permission to use.

Third: Yesterday, this same newspaper explained that pneumococcal meningitis is a form of bacterial meningitis that is caused by a virus. This offended me and probably even some children who know enough to realize that bacteria and viruses are not one in the same!

*steps off soapbox*

diane said...

Jackie,

Evidently rape, child abuse, and all other manner of violent crimes may be described in lurid detail - and trumpeted in screaming headlines - but partial nudity is unsuitable.

On a lesser, but still annoying, note, the lack of careful proofreading is a constant problem in this publication. An outdoorsman has "course" hands; two horses race neck to neck in a "dual". In one of the responses I received from the publisher, he told me that the newspaper had decided to "error" on the side of caution.

Perhaps we should stop subscribing to this paper in order to protect our children from exposure to sub-par English!

booklover472 said...

Diane,
I can't believe that the publisher thought they knew better than educators nor felt they had the right to withhold the paper. You've paid for it, you should get it.
Censorship comes in all forms, but usually the media sensationalizes rather than censors - so this was highly unusual IMHO.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Diane

I like to take a broad view of situations. I cast my mind back to 11 September 2001. The copious video footage of this global event was re-run time after time till I was genuinely sick fed up with the media.

In hindsight, the media was doing what it always does and can only be tolerated. The action of others, including some teachers in schools making a study of it in class, appalled me.

Even so, I feel the 'sensorship', whether of print, image or video, should be a matter for local decision making based on what is deemed to be appropriate.

Let the school library decide - and whatever their decision is, let's hope that it's based on what's thought to be best for the children of that level/school/area/culture.

Catchya later

diane said...

booklover472 and Ken,

Bottom line is, once the newspaper was published and in the public domain, it no longer had veto power IMHO.

There was a similar outcry re. Sports Illustrated's decision not to send the swimsuit issue of its magazine to libraries a few years ago. Our copy is usually diverted and doesn't make it to the shelf, but still...