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Lesson 1: no bad news.

When Jesse Johnson became editor of Albuquerque's Del Norte High School newspaper last fall, he did what he thought any good reporter would do--he reported. But when his efforts resulted in several controversial stories, one of which detailed an outbreak of crime at the school, the 17-year-old quickly learned that administrators and teachers did not share his zeal.

After his story on school crime appeared in the monthly Del Norte Lance, Johnson says he was forced by the principal to print a partial retraction, as well as an angry letter signed by 65 teachers that criticized the paper for not publishing enough "good news." The teachers also argued that by reporting on crime and other touchy matters, the paper was "demoralizing to us all as it sheds a slanted light on our image."

"One teacher told me that a high school newspaper isn't the place to investigate, that it wasn't the New York Times and that I shouldn't treat it as such," says Johnson. "I felt like we had no choice but to investigate on that story, because some students saw the police arresting nine people in the parking lot [on marijuana and weapons charges]. If they didn't see a story about it in the next issue, they would question the [credibility of the] paper."

"Nobody wants to read about the Latin club going on a field trip," he adds. "They want to know whose car got broken into."

It wasn't the first time Johnson's stories had caused a stink. Among other stories, he reported that a teacher had made derogatory remarks about gays during a class and that a wheelchair-bound student needed to be helped into the school each day because the administration would not install ramps.

After Johnson's story about school crime appeared, the 65 teachers also criticized his accuracy, pointing out a misspelled name and noting that no statistics or official sources confirmed Johnson's claim that campus crime was "increasing." They also charged that some sources believed they had been misled by his questions. One security guard, quoted as saying, "This is the worst school in the city," later told Johnson he hadn't known the student was acting as a reporter.

Johnson dismisses such criticism (although he acknowledges the spelling error), saying it distracts from the larger issue of the school's efforts to control what gets printed in the student newspaper. "Our school has a bad reputation around the city," Johnson says, and there is very little pride with the students. The school paper was an easy scapegoat."

After his crime article appeared, Johnson says Principal Martha Bass demanded prior review of the next issue, which delayed distribution by two weeks and forced the staff to cancel one regularly scheduled edition. The school also established a "publications board," comprised of two teachers and two students, which Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Crystal McClernon says will not have censorship powers. (Principal Bass and Lance faculty advisor Connie Blue both declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Albuquerque Tribune reporter Susie Gran, who wrote a front page story about Johnson in late February and followed up with an examination of censorship at high school publications, says the young editor "just wanted to point out the problems at his school.... A lot of schools want a public relations newspaper, to make their school look good." After her profile appeared, she says Del Norte administrators complained that it only "continued to promote the bad image" of the school.

Gran says that self-censorship is already taking place among Lance staffers, whom she described as demoralized after the incident. "I felt like the principal was taking her anger at me [for profiling Johnson] out on the kids," Gran says. "She made them jump through all these hoops just to get their next issue out."

Johnson, whose mother is a former editor of the weekly Steamboat Pilot in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, questions the contradictions between what he was taught about the journalist's duty to uncover the truth and the standards and criticism leveled at the Lance once he took over as editor. Because of the controversy he's generated, Johnson says faculty advisor Blue has assigned him to be "in-depth editor" next year, overseeing one longer feature each issue, rather than the top editor.

Nevertheless, he says he's happy to now see the Lance sticking out of backpacks and notebooks. "They never used to leave the classroom."
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Title Annotation:high school newspaper editor censored by his school for hard-hitting stories
Author:Revah, Suzan
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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