‘Man on street’ feature gets high school paper in trouble

Across the country, newspapers use special features to help involve readers and the community the publication serves. One such feature is a “man on the street” feature, in which the reporter finds people at random throughout the community and asks them all the same questions. The answers, along with photos of the respondents, then run in the paper.

It’s good for reporters because it gets them out into the community talking to people, and it is good for the paper because it gets multiple faces and voices involved, which helps build readership because people want to see themselves and their friends in the paper.

This concept works well at the high school level as well, but at University High School in Spokane Valley, Wash., the feature got the paper in some hot water.

The Mercury, the school paper, has a tradition of running Titan Talk, which does just as I outlined above: it asks people questions and publishes the responses.

Normally, this isn’t a problem, but, according to an April 17 Seattle Times article, a recent question asked, “If you could be famous for anything, what would you be famous for?”

Seems innocuous enough. However, a few answers put the paper in the center of an uproar. Such responses included the following:

  • “Dropping a nuke on the Middle East.”
  • “Being JFK’s assassin.”
  • “Leader of the KKK.”
  • “Killing the president with a trident.”

Should these quotes have been included in the paper? No. They are distasteful and don’t really contribute to the goal of the feature. It just reads like a bunch of kids trying to be edgier than their buddies. For high school students, that isn’t surprising, but it shouldn’t be printed either.

I would just chalk this up to students making a mistake. The student editors should be reprimanded and taught why printing such inflammatory statements isn’t a good idea. Ideally, this would have been caught ahead of time by the paper’s adviser, at which time a lesson about why such quotes shouldn’t be used could have been administered.

That didn’t occur, but making them learn from their mistake would still be viable.

None of that happened.

Instead, school officials confiscated nearly every copy of the issue, which was the April 9 edition.

That is wrong. According to the report, “no decision has been made about any disciplinary action for anyone involved in this case.” However, the entire school has basically already been punished.

The First Amendment rights of those students have been violated. No one should be able to go in and confiscate issues of the paper. It chills the free speech of everyone in that building. Now they might feel they have to live in fear of saying the wrong thing and being punished, even if the statement is mild compared to what was printed in the paper.

Confiscating the papers sets a horrible precedent.

Sure, what happened was unfortunate and probably shouldn’t have happened at all. They are students, though. Mistakes will happen. This one is just a fairly big one, almost as bad as if they had plagiarized or libeled someone because they printed a response of someone talking about killing the president.

All that aside, the paper shouldn’t have been confiscated. That’s why student papers, even free-distribution ones, need to put a disclaimer in each edition saying how the first copy is free but subsequent copies cost a pre-determined amount of money. This way, if a school does confiscate the edition, charges could be levied against the school and restitution could be obtained.

Besides, why is the newspaper in trouble for this? They did their job. They accurately quoted sources. Sure, the quotes probably shouldn’t have been used, but at least the reporters didn’t make the quotes up.

Shouldn’t the students who said such outrageous things be in trouble, instead of the newspaper that was just doing its job?

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About toddvogts 833 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.