Can my student newspaper use a student’s name when reporting on sensitive topics, such as abuse or depression?
Long story short, a student newspaper can report on a student’s personal narrative about a potentially sensitive issue while still acknowledging and protecting student privacy. To do so, the newspaper should discuss the possible ramifications of publishing the story with the student and obtain consent from the student, or their parents/guardians if the student is under 18.
Now, while you may have consent, if the student paper has a limited- or non-public forum the story may be subject to review, and perhaps be deleted by the administration, regardless of whether consent was obtained.
Alternatively, if the student doesn’t give consent to use their name, a newspaper can still cover sensitive issues without specifically identifying that student’s name. The newspaper can use either a pseudonym or cite an anonymous source. This helps to maintain journalistic credibility (note that the whole forum thing still applies). But, be careful with pseudonyms and anonymous sources! Because of that little thing called journalistic ethics, if a student wants to remain anonymous, the newspaper should be careful not to give too much information that would identify the student even without their name being used, such as saying “senior captain of the soccer team.” It’s important that the newspaper not add to the student’s trauma or pain when reporting on such topics.
The bottom line? If a newspaper doesn’t have consent, it has to walk a very fine line when reporting on such sensitive topics.
Get ready for the most cliché legal answer ever: It depends.
As we indicated above, if a newspaper obtains consent from the student to use their name regarding the sensitive material, then the path to publication is much easier. Here’s a quick consent recap: to obtain consent, the student needs to have “sufficient information and ability to make an intelligent choice.” More often than not, a student is capable of giving consent, but, in extreme cases, like when the student admits to criminal behavior, parental consent may be necessary to publish. Consent isn't a license for a free-for-all with publishing.
First, you must always keep journalistic ethics in mind. Be careful of how you’re publishing information and how you’re painting the source when you do so. It’s good practice for both life and for potential careers in journalism.
Second, the biggest roadblock that may stand in the newspaper’s way is the nature of the forum under which the newspaper operates. That forum dictates how much editorial control the school administrators have over the newspaper as a whole.
Sound complicated? Trust us, it’s really not. For school-sponsored student newspapers, courts have outlined 3 different types of “forums” under which the newspapers operate. The forum is essentially a category to identify how much censorship the school administration has over the newspaper. Here’s what we’re working with when we say “forum”:
1. Public Forum: The school may not exercise any prior review;
2. Limited Public Forum: There is little, or no prior review allowed;
3. Non-Public Forum: The school may exercise prior review.
A public forum sounds ideal, right?
But, how do you know what kind of forum your school newspaper is? Click here for a list of questions to help determine if the student newspaper is a limited-public forum.
Why are we telling you all of this? Well, it’s because even if you get the student’s consent to publish their name and that sensitive information, in a limited- or non-public forum you may have to deal with the administration censoring your publication.
And, it may go without saying, but such forums may be an even bigger roadblock if the newspaper does not get consent from the student to use their name.
What if we don’t get consent?
If the paper doesn’t get consent from the student, then, frankly, your job as a student journalist gets a lot harder. We cannot stress it enough; you must be careful how you paint the sources in your story. Yes, you may be able to use the information and cite the source under a pseudonym or simply as an anonymous source, but if you portray a minor in an unfavorable light or publish private facts, that student may be able to take action against you as an invasion of their privacy.
Publication of private facts occurs if a newspaper publishes embarrassing or offensive personal information without consent and with no newsworthy justification. For example, don’t publish gossip about a teacher’s marital problems if it’s just to gossip.
To have a claim for publication of private facts, there must be (1) a publicity of a private fact, (2) the revelation of the fact(s) must be offensive to a reasonable person, and (3) the fact(s) is not actually of a legitimate public concern. As we’re dealing with sensitive topics, it’s a pretty good chance that the first two factors will apply. Certainly, if you’re publishing the specifics of abuse or serious depression, a court will likely find such details to be offensive to a reasonable person.
But all three factors need to be present to constitute a publication of private facts, so the issue comes with whether the information is of legitimate public concern. Essentially, does the public have an interest in learning this information? Because the scope of what constitutes a legitimate public concern is so broad, a student newspaper really has few limitations when publishing private facts pertaining to students and the community. That is not to say that you will always be safe under this factor, we’re just saying that what constitutes public interest is pretty broad. Just remember (yes, we know we sound like a broken record), always keep those journalistic ethics in mind.
Whereas, false light can occur if the newspaper presents information in a way that gives a false impression that can harm a person’s representation. A common example of this is mislabeling a photo in a way that implies that the person in it is doing something other than the truth.
As a journalist, your integrity and journalistic ethics require that you be incredibly careful how you paint your sources. This matters even more when those sources have conveyed information on sensitive topics. You should always be aware that, when it comes to sensitive information, a portrayal of a minor in an unfavorable light may be actionable, especially if the reporter fails to get consent.
Pseudonym v. Anonymous
If all you’ve been wondering about this whole time is how to know when to use a pseudonym or simply “anonymous,” then we’re sorry it took so long to get here, but here’s a quick reference.
A pseudonym should be used when the journalist wants to report on a personal narrative that would benefit from a more personalized touch with a name, rather than just using “anonymous.” For example, if you are publishing on a student drug use story, but you didn’t get consent, the story may flow better with a pseudonym like John Smith (unless there’s a John Smith at school). The biggest thing with pseudonyms is that you should be careful to limit the details of the person so that the real source is not identifiable by his or her characteristics.
Conversely, the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) gives guidance on determining when to use an anonymous source. Applicable to student newspapers is the recommendation to identify sources whenever it’s feasible in order to maintain credibility and remain trustworthy to readers. The primary concern here is your own journalistic integrity to your readers in the material that you provide because of the connotations around the word “anonymous.” If using “anonymous” will likely impede that integrity, then perhaps you should use a pseudonym.
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