December 22, 2000 / Coverage / Winter 2000

Sensitive Issues

Written by Kristina Smekens

Using discretion key when covering controversal topics.

When advisers pull their school’s older yearbooks off the dusty shelves, they are likely to find spreads of photos, many with no cutlines. Few of the pages will even provide a block of copy detailing a school event. Very few of the yearbooks produced 20 or 30 years ago included stories on substance abuse, teen pregnancy or homosexuality. These topics were generally taboo for discussion, let alone potential issues for yearbook coverage. It is not that sensitive issues did not exist, they were just not the subject of routine yearbook coverage.

In today’s high schools, these issues, and many more, are a part of the cultural norm and come up in everyday conversations. To not cover these issues because of their unpopularity or sensitivity is perhaps an insult to the times. Student Life sections that ignore the issues, pressures and experiences of teenagers – when they are inside the school walls or beyond them – are not telling the whole story of the school year. The life of a student, any student, all students, must be represented in that book.

The key is to capture the school year, the culture, the events, the emotions, the actions and the reactions. A lot of that is going to include nostalgic memories. Sometimes that is going to include tragedies and unfortunate incidents. They cannot be omitted. There are, however, some coverage techniques that, if mastered, can help yearbook staffs remain sensitive in the approach and presentation of these stories. Spread topics that sound like Jerry Springer shows are not recommended, but it is possible to cover a sensitive or controversial issue in a hopeful, heartfelt and compassionate manner.

The Role of a Yearbook
Before tackling a sensitive story, consider the yearbook’s audience and the readers expectations of the publication. Kids pay as much as $60 for a yearbook that they wait an entire year to receive. And, when they crack the binding for the first time, they expect it to record the history of the year, their year. That is what must be remembered. Anything and everything that makes it into the book, made it in for a reason. The event, moment, issue or person covered must have had an impact on the year.

When a member of the 120-student marching band opens the yearbook and finds the band, choir and glee club all smashed onto the same two pages, while Suzie the teen mom has her own spread, there had better be major justification for that decision. Temper reality with memory. Find a balance between coverage of school events and sensitive issues. Be aware of how much space will be devoted to both. And at the same time, keep in mind how the student body views the purpose of the yearbook.

“Students do not necessarily perceive the yearbook as having the same hard journalistic edge as the newspaper does,” Bobby Hawthorne, director of academics at the University Interscholastic League in Texas, said.

Consequently, choosing what to cover and how to cover it will vary between the publications.

The “edge” of the yearbook story will likely dull a little; it should not be nearly as aggressive or raw. By the time the yearbook staff presents a story, several months have passed and the story has changed. The yearbook has to reflect those changes. It has to come full circle, meaning it has to reveal the beginning, the middle and the end of the incident. Mention the initial action, but focus on the reactions, the emotions and the aftermath in the story.

In the student newspaper at Avon High School, Avon, Ind., excerpts from the following story ran:

Feats of accomplishments such as conference and sectional championships and top 10 state rankings have become tradition for Oriole football players.

However, some players spoke recently about a lesser-known tradition that involved upperclassmen hitting players off the field.

“There are a lot of good traditions with Avon football and this is just one of the bad ones,” said junior football player Caleb Gibbons, referring to hazing at summer football camp.

Sophomore student trainer Sammy Giltner, who was at camp last summer said, “I saw a freshman come in with bruises and welts from being beaten with tennis balls in socks and with strips of marks on his back that couldn’t have been made with tennis balls. He told me about what happened and was pretty upset.”

Giltner described the marks on the freshman’s back as strips a half an inch thick and a foot across and the bruises three and a half to four inches in diameter. “There were a good amount of marks. It wasn’t like they hit him once and were done with it,” he said.

…Senior football player Jessie Schubert described the extent of the hazing. “I donÕt think anyone has ever been hurt, but there have been extension cords and belts people have been hit with. That has gone on forever and it’s never going to stop no matter what the coaches do,” he said.

“In school everyone is friends, but at football camp, the freshmen have to be beaten down. It’s tradition,” Schubert explained.

…Athletic Director Jeff Johnson has discussed these camp issues with football coach Jim Kaiser. “We want to ensure that hazing will not occur… making sure all underclassmen are treated as well as any other player.” He said he planned to discuss this at a coaches meeting in the spring.

The Avon newspaper staff broke this story. It has been cited by numerous publications advisers as an outstanding example of appropriate coverage of a sensitive story. However, the newspaper story from the fall would look very different in the yearbook, according to Avon newspaper adviser Pam Essex.

She suggests the yearbook story of this sensitive issue would look much more positive. “When the story broke in the newspaper, the reader only saw part of the story. In the yearbook the reader would find the whole picture from A-Z,” Essex said.

Emphasizing the positive outcomes, the underlying hope and the possibility of change in a sensitive story is what makes those hard-hitting issues tolerable in the high school yearbook. To just report the negative does not do any good; the idea is not to create a publication that is depressing. The year should be about heart; it should provide hope for the reader.

Staffs cannot address the same topics in a yearbook as routinely as the school newspaper; there is no opportunity to follow up. This publication is permanent, and it has power because of its shelf-life. In the yearbook, it is said it once, but it is said forever.

Localize, Do Not Generalize
When Matthew Shepherd was murdered, the yearbook staff at Netrone County High School, Casper, Wyo., thought it was important to cover the story. Matthew was more than another statistic; more than another national news topic. He was originally from the Casper area; students at Netrone County High School knew him personally. But to cover the funeral seemed overdone, and more importantly, too impersonal. The staff knew the story needed to be covered, but it needed to be done delicately. His death affected the students at their school, but the staff was cautious not to bombard the student body with interviews and evasive reporting, like that of the professional press. They instead approached the story as a tribute. It was highlighted with the dedication of his former junior high school. The staff took a national issue and made it local. They took a tragedy and made it hopeful.

The biggest mistake a yearbook staff can make in tackling a sensitive topic is to make generalizations about broad issues. This staff avoided that pitfall. The guts of the issue must be about people. People involved; people affected; people changed. Specific people must be at the heart of this sensitive coverage. Without them, the story is missing from the copy.

Beware – if the issue is present in the school, but there is no story to bolster it, then it should not be covered. Just because kids are doing drugs at school does not mean it should be covered. Teen pregnancy, suicide, drinking and violence should not be profiled in the yearbook just because they are a part of todayÕs culture. These national issues are merely topics, and topics are boring.

Good stories are about people; not topics or issues. Individual stories and extra ordinary experiences need to be the driving force behind this copy. This is going to make the difference between a controversial issue and a sensitive story.

The yearbook story that covered the death of two students at Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Ark., as a result of the crash landing of Flight 1420 localizes a national issue, but more importantly, offers that underlying hope.

A successful flight. A turbulent landing. Water. Noise. Fire. Destruction. Injuries. Deaths. Lives were changed on the dark night of June 1 as American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed into a light pole following a landing at Little Rock National Airport. This plane’s passengers included 25 of the University family, 25 heroes. Although the world remembers the story of the crash, these heroes remember much more.

… “When you look at the crash, we were obviously used in a positive way in the midst of crisis. We were able to help people and show Christ’s love in a situation where people have a tendency to forget their faith. He used us to work things for His good.”

…The survivors were hailed as heroes for their rescue efforts following the crash. “The students handled themselves extremely well,” Dr. Dave Ozmun noted. “They took the opportunity they had as survivors to be a witness to others.”

The crash of Flight 1420 claimed 11 lives, including two from the Ouachita family senior James Harrison and 14-year-old Rachel Fuller. Senior Kristin Maddox received extensive burns requiring surgeries. She was able to return home in late July.

When the “storytellers” are identified, convert the general into the local, and try to narrow generalizations into specific ideas. When attempting to do this, do not take the easy road. Some staffs are too quick to allow an “anonymous source” or “changed name” story to run as a means of dulling the edges to a sensitive issue. This should not be common practice, especially with sensitive stories.

“Without names and faces to associate with the story, your coverage will get watered down and generic,” Becky Lucas, publications adviser at Shawnee Mission North High School, Overland Park, Kan., said. “A faceless story can be about anybody; it loses its credibility.”

Hawthorne saw some potential in running a story where the sourceÕs name has been changed, but he had some stipulations. He requires that he speak with the subject himself to get a sense of his honesty and integrity. And the story would not run without a second student going on record and giving his name.

“For every person on the record (in a story), there can be one person off the record,” he said.

Tell the Whole Story
Stories will come alive with real names and real faces sharing their real feelings and emotions. But, be cautious to reveal the entire story, the whole story. Sometimes when staffs prepare spreads on sensitive issues, they gather one angle of information.

Teen pregnancy spreads typically include photos of the mom holding the baby, playing with the baby, laughing with the baby. Part of the story is told, but a huge portion is missing. Rarely do they show the 2 a.m. feedings, the missing father or the teen mom still living at home. Most are glorifying and are too positive, Hawthorne said.

If a sensitive issue is going to be covered, be sure to present the entire story. Remember, share the initial action, but focus on the reactions, the emotions and the aftermath in the story. The football hazing story is much more than just “who did what.” It was significant enough to live through the negativity publicity in order to reach a positive consequence, Essex noted. That is revealing the whole story.

Protect Readers and Sources
Three popular star athletes from Dr. Phillips High School, Orlando, Fla., had a car accident when they were driving more than 100 mph at 5 a.m. one weekend. The driver suffered brain damage and did not return to school. The next Monday, the student body organized a prayer meeting for the critical student. It included 2000 classmates in the football stadium. A school reporter attended with a camera and notebook.

After the prayer meeting, several of the students who attended the prayer meeting stormed the classroom of the publications adviser. They were upset that this reporter was taking their picture while they were grieving. The adviser looked over the photographs. There were several excellent shots of students in huddles, praying, crying and grieving.

When determining how best to cover a sensitive issue, the staff may need to take their cue from the student body. This book is for them; it is about them. If the “owners” of the book do not want to relive an experience, consider their wishes. Now this does not mean the incident should be ignored, especially one like this, one that impacted 2000 students at the school. But, the approach the staff is going to take should be carefully considered.

Adviser Anne Whitt agreed to not run the photos of the prayer meeting because of the sensitivity of the issue for so many of the readers. The story ran with photos of kids painting signs and preparing for the prayer meeting, not of the actual meeting. It was too personal, too raw for the students to relive.

So many times it is not “what” was said in the copy that is unacceptable, too sensitive or controversial, but rather “how” it was said. When dealing with this kind of coverage, look for an angle that will protect the reader.

Consider the best way to handle a story about a student living with cancer, which is a situation the staff at North Allegheny High School, Wexford, Pa., experienced. The boy’s mother had died of cancer recently. And there was a brother, who also attended the same school, who did not have the fatal disease.

The typical staff might set up a time to interview the boy with cancer to allow him to “tell his story.” The copy would reveal what it was like knowing he would probably die sooner than his classmates and how he was handling it. For so many readers this story is about death and disease. It is painful and depressing. In some ways it is “too real.”

Staff might want to consider an alternative approach to the coverage, such as asking the healthy brother to tell his story. Instead of a story on death, now it could be told through an angle of hope and heart. There may be parts of the copy that reveal the grief and guilt he feels, wondering why he was spared the disease that his mother and brother were not.

More people can relate to dealing with grief than they can relate to living with cancer. Providing this third person point of view removes the reader from the immediate issue a little bit, according to Maxine Lazar, yearbook adviser at Lake Mary High School, Lake Mary, Fla. It helps the reader to cope with the fear of death. It protects the reader.

This is the job of a strong yearbook staff writer. He needs to always be thinking about the people who will be touched by a story – the readers, the administrators, the parents, the community. He must anticipate reactions and feelings of all parties involved. And sometimes, this includes sacrificing an awesome quote or phenomenal interview for the sake of protecting the sources themselves.

The key is to remember the shelf life of the yearbook. An immature and insensitive comment made by a student when he was a freshman or sophomore may not have been the same if he had been asked the question when he was a junior or senior. Consider if a student would want to be reminded of that quote in a few years; will he want to be remembered for having said such a thing?

“Kids will say anything to get their name in the yearbook,” Lucas said. “Sometimes they don’t really mean it. Other times, 20 years later, they feel the exact same way. It’s hard to differentiate between reality and immaturity. But that’s where the yearbook staff and adviser need to look to protect the students from themselves.”

Just because a student says something shocking or unbelievable on record, yearbook staffs should not automatically publish it as a 24-point pulled quote on the spread. A writer cannot selfishly exploit someone for a good story – even if he said something exploitable. The yearbook is not out to “break a story,” but to chronicle the year as accurately as possible.

These guidelines should prove helpful in covering sensitive issues. However, each staff should have an individual protocol in place before it is ever faced with a sensitive issue. Determine if the issue is going to be covered, and then if so, how it will be approached.

Challenging issues are a part of the typical student’s life. Although they are not necessarily the good parts, they still are a part, and therefore deserve coverage, Jeanne Giampetro, yearbook adviser at North Allegheny High School, said.

When a yearbook staff completely ignores these sensitive topics when covering the school year, they are doing more than not acknowledging their existence; they are misleading their readers. Students should not be afraid to talk about the issues that really matter. When they are omitted, a message is sent that these subjects did not really carry much consequence with students.

Sensitive stories, handled in a compassionate, professional manner, give great flavor and insight into how students felt, thought and reacted in a particular culture during a particular year. Yearbook staffs should work hard to handle these stories appropriately, so that their readers are not deprived of stories that had a lasting effect on the year.

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Kristina Smekens