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Statement from the Rattler adviser

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Dear Rattler readers,

Last week, the SHS Rattler published an issue with a cover that offended and angered a number of parents, students, and staff. The cover depicts a drawing of a young man supposedly representative of high school jocks, and the drawing is accompanied with remarks under the title “Anatomy of a High School Jock.” The cover image then prompted readers to turn to an article about high school cliques and stereotypes. The article was explicitly intended to be humorous, but many argued that the image and the article perpetuated bullying.

Our newspaper made a mistake when it published the cover graphic, and the article should have been considerably altered to make its points more clear. I committed a critical error by approving the publication for print. I want to offer an explanation and an apology.

As the adviser to the newspaper, I have to make decisions about what the newspaper staff of students may or may not publish. While many people may believe that my job is to assign all stories to a receptive and passive class of developing journalists, the truth is far more complicated. A functioning newspaper class at its best does not have the same teacher-student structure as a regular English, science, or math class, and does not have same dynamics of a coached sports team in which the teacher/coach determines everything and may punish any dissent. The editors of the paper are expected to be leaders, to run the newspaper with the guidance of the adviser.

I have two primary tasks as the newspaper adviser, one of which I failed to correctly carry out in the case of the recent issue. One of my duties is to instruct students about the practices, conventions, skills, ethics, and laws of journalism. This also includes teaching how to use software, layout principles, and many other matters. My second role is to be both a mentor and gatekeeper, to develop these students into responsible journalists and editors who learn how to be part of the Fourth Estate. Good journalists need to be gutsy, fair, and curious, and those qualities need to be cultivated over time. A student doesn’t become a strong journalist overnight. It takes a long, long time, and they will make mistakes and learn from them.

My responsibility as a gatekeeper means that I need to ensure that my student journalists do not break any ethics of journalism, that they do not break libel laws, and that they uphold the standards of the profession. Given that so many so-called journalists have frequently abandoned these standards today in pursuit of ratings and proximity to power, it is even more important that I help my students live up to the ethical imperatives of the job. I also have to recognize the students’ rights, their claims to freedom of expression within certain constraints, and to harden their skins in the event they need to publish something that is legal and ethical, but may provoke some anger or offense.

Given those roles I play, though, I should not have permitted or encouraged students to publish the cartoon graphic and article about cliques in the most recent issue. The cartoon was meant to satirize the social clique of “the jock,” playfully mock the everyday markers of allegiance to that group. Jocks were selected because they were supposedly less vulnerable and more popular, whereas if another group was chosen it would simply come off as straight-out bullying. Well, that’s exactly how the drawing and article were perceived by some readers, and it is hard to argue with them. Rather than satirize real details, we reinforced mistaken stereotypes. For instance, one of the comments remarked that a letterman’s jacket proved that jocks could maintained a 2.0 GPA, a dig no one could miss. Yet, as Athletics Director Ray Maholchic pointed out in a response we will soon publish, our football team maintains a higher GPA than the average student.

If I focus on how the graphic was weakly devised, counter to the fact of the success and variety of student athletes, though, I would be missing the point. In fact, we did miss the point, an opportunity to say something much more useful, by focusing on cynical and cheap satire. There are important statements to make about the positive and negative aspects of cliques, the problems of student stereotypes, the need and desire to be part of a group while one is young and looking for an identity. Our paper missed that chance, and ended up being perceived as participants in the culture of bullying. It looked mean to some people.

Additionally, the graphic was so detailed, so specific with some of its descriptors, that it targeted a very specific group of kids, a small, small subset of kids, that one can argue that any reader would be prompted to point out a student and say, “Hey, that’s the kid in the drawing.” Based on that, I should have chosen to remove the graphic, to censor it, because it skirts the legal borders of what a journalist should and can publish.

Some people have defended the controversial material, saying, “It’s just a joke.” That’s weak tea, an easy but feeble response to criticism when one crosses the line. It’s a response that people have often used to legitimate bullying.

On the other hand, humorists are vital to our society, and sometimes we need to defend jokes from public attack when used in effective satire. Sometimes, we need to use humor to criticize and comment on society, politicians, stereotypes, and more. So why can’t the Rattler use this excuse?

That’s easy. No student, no clique, should be exposed to the same kind of satire that is often directed towards more powerful people. Our students are teenagers, mandated to come to school with two thousand other teens and a small set of adults. They don’t know who they are, but they desperately are trying to find out. Our “jocks” and all other kids at school are exposed and vulnerable, and are not appropriate targets for journalistic satire. Period. This controversy and the angry response of some of our audience clarified this position for me, and I am sorry to have caused anyone pain by allowing the material to be published.

The Rattler now has an important obligation. The paper must now earn back the trust of its audience and do that without suppressing student opinion, rights, and expression. We will be featuring stories in the next issues about matters that have upset or confused people. Why are students not allowed to switch out of certain classes during 1st semester next year? What exactly is happening with the 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. in the future? What is the deal with the new teacher union? Who may be wearing gold robes in future graduations (no, no, they are NOT going away)?

Additionally, some of our staff are currently researching the problem of bullying at Serrano and beyond, and will be highlighting this continuing, complicated problem to demonstrate our firm opposition to bullying and mean-spirited attacks.

We hope you read and respond to our future coverage.

Sincerely,

David Carroll

The Rattler adviser

 

 

 

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Statement from the Rattler adviser