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Study shows girls censored more than boys in scholastic journalism

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

LAWRENCE — Scholastic journalism has undergone tremendous change in recent years, but new research shows that one problem that has long been suspected is indeed happening: Girls are censored and self-censor much more than their male counterparts in high school journalism.

Peter Bobkowski, assistant professor, and Genelle Belmas, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, have authored a study showing that female student journalists are nearly twice as likely to not report on a topic because they anticipated a negative reaction from school administration. Of the students in the study, 53 percent of girls said they had self-censored in anticipation of a negative reaction, while only 27 percent of boys said they had.

Bobkowski and Belmas surveyed 461 high school journalists taking part in regional journalism workshops in a southeastern state. Thirty-eight percent of the students reported they had been told by a school employee not to discuss a topic in their student media. When split by gender, 41 percent of the girls and 28 percent of the boys said they had been told not to discuss something in student media.

Belmas described the findings as “exciting, but sad” in that they confirm suspicions and anecdotal evidence that has long existed about girls being censored more than boys and present new lines of academic inquiry but also confirm many young women are being denied an opportunity to learn the craft of journalism.

“We found statistical significance in the number of times female students were asked not to report on something or were censored. We have to do better at this if we want young women to succeed in journalism, in business and civically,” Belmas said. “Girls are either told not to report on certain topics or think, ‘I’ll face repercussions if I do.’”

The most common subjects students were prevented from reporting on were drugs and marijuana legalization, followed by LGBTQ issues, religion and what school administrators branded “controversial topics.” Students reported that issues such as teacher misbehavior, teen pregnancy and even topics such as reporting on a school’s poor sports teams were all censored as well. Respondents also shared that they were prevented from writing about same-sex marriage, even when it was a top national story following the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that it be legal in all 50 states.

Bobkowski recently presented the research findings at SXSW.com, and Belmas has presented them at the Women in Communication Law Breakfast and is set to present them at the Kopenhaver Center for Advancement of Women in Communications conference in April. The researchers conducted the project in partnership with Active Voice, a project of the Student Press Law Center.

“School administrators and teachers appear more likely to prevent girls from covering the issues they see as important in the student media than they are to prevent boys from doing so,” Bobkowski said. “Instead of empowering girls and building up their confidence, journalism classrooms appear to be one more setting where girls’ voices are disproportionately devalued and muted.”

The authors outline legal history in the study that has allowed school administrators leeway to censor student media and, in essence, turn student media into a public relations tool for schools. The 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier established that it is within an administrator’s power to pull articles from a student newspaper if he or she deemed the articles likely to be problematic.

“The law is on the side of administrators, and the lower courts have been fairly deferential,” Belmas said. “They’ve said if it’s produced using school materials they can say no. In most states there aren’t legal protections for student journalists. I think administrators are much more likely to err on the side of censorship, but I also feel if they are going to err on something, it should be on the side of a constitutional right.”

Given that fewer than 10 states have laws protecting the speech of student journalists, the authors hope to continue their research to determine what role, if any, the laws play in censoring of young women. They hope to conduct similar surveys with student journalists in more states and to examine questions including whether student newspapers are curricular or extracurricular, whether the age, experience and gender of journalism advisers and school administrators makes a difference in whether they censor, as well as the officials’ knowledge of student protection laws.

“The fact that we don’t let our kids see a school with all of its foibles as part of our society shows that we’re not doing our democracy any favors,” Belmas said. “Do we really want to be teaching our girls that authority is always right?”