High School Newspaper Confronts Racial Attitudes

Students at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa, recently published a sensitive survey on racial attitudes in the school newspaper, prompting the school's principal to confiscate copies of the newspaper. Andrew Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Little Hawk newspaper, explains the controversy. Media critic Eric Deggans offers analysis on why the survey sparked such outcry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Eric, I'm going to ask you to stick with us because we're going to go to a topic now involving a conflict involving some young writers and the difficult topic of race.

Last month, the student newspaper at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa published a survey on racial attitudes. The Little Hawk polled 350 students about their feelings on race and sexual orientation. The resulting front page story touched some nerves. Several students, apparently, nearly came to blows over the survey so the school's principal confiscated every available copy of the newspaper.

With us to talk about this, as I said before, is Eric Deggans. He's staying with us. He's the media critic at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. But also with us is Adam Sullivan. He is the editor of the Little Hawk and he's at member station WSUI in Iowa City.

Adam, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ADAM SULLIVAN (Editor, Little Hawk): Good morning, Ms. Martin.

MARTIN: Well, what was it that you were seeing on campus that made this issue something you wanted to write about?

Mr. SULLIVAN: In recent years, there's been an increase in minority students at City High for various reasons. And there's just tension between different races of students when you walk on City High. White students associate with white students and black students associate with black students for the most part.

MARTIN: You consider that tension?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is that tension or is it just people like to hang out with who they want to hang out.

Mr. SULLIVAN: I think there is tension. Just - I mean, as a student, I see things that the faculty and the administration - they can't see it just because they're not students. But I mean, there's - I mean, people say things and they're not terrible things. Most of them is just joking but there is racial tension between - mostly between black students and white students.

MARTIN: What made you come up with the idea of the survey? What was it that - what were you trying to get at with the survey?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Actually, I was talking with my adviser and he was actually really surprised that I felt there would be a significant amount of racism at City High. And so, that's when I kind of realized that to most non-students it would probably come as a surprise, and so that's why I really wanted to ask students how they felt.

MARTIN: Clearly school officials thought that the article itself sparked some confrontations. Do you think that's true?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I really don't think so. I think the students who - my principal refers to them as near-fights. I think the students who started those, they were just students looking for something to get mad at. And it's a very small number of black students who got mad about it. Most of them were - realized that we are speaking out against racism.

And so, I think, you know, our principal say that the newspaper caused the disruption, but the students causing these fights caused the disruption. It wasn't - I really don't think it was reasonable to get offended by what was printed.

MARTIN: And the principal says that taking the newspaper away was doing what was best for the school. What do you think?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, we distributed at 8 a.m. that morning and he didn't take it away until 1:30. So, every student that wanted the paper already had one. Taking it away caused a bigger disruption. So, I really don't think it helped at all.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans, what was this censorship? Or do school officials at this age have the right to do this if they think that they're acting the best interest of the student body and toward the school on the whole?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, they obviously have the right to do it. The question is whether it's wise. And I think the problem is that when a situation's gotten to the point where the school feels it needs to seize the papers, it's already gone too far. You know, my fear is that a great teaching moment is being lost here, in part because there's a classic disconnect between what the newspaper does and what the administration is aware of. And the two don't generally pay that much attention to each other until there's a problem. And, you know, frankly, I love the tone of this paper. I got a copy of the whole edition sent to me. And it's, you know, its aggressive, it's cheeky, you know, it's irreverent without being totally disrespectful, and it's substantive. I think they do a real good job for a high school paper.

MARTIN: You hear that, Adam?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah, thank you very much.

Mr. DEGGANS: Definitely. And I would hate to see that spark kind of doused because this particular article was kind of revealed to the student body in a way that they made it tough for the kids to process what they were being told.

MARTIN: Eric, what do you make of the stats that Adam's team came up with? Does it sound like these kids have any - Adam, so you've said, are out of the norm over the continuum and attitudes that people sometimes have toward other people?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, the thing that I found kind of funny - I almost wish the day that it had been broken by race. Because I have a feeling if you'd ask the black students if they thought their 13 percent of the student body had an unfavorable attitude towards them, they would have said it was higher. I mean, black folks generally tend to believe and be very aware of the negative attitudes towards them. So, when I saw that it was just 13 percent in a school that's overwhelmingly white, frankly, I thought that was not that high a number.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) Adam, was there anything in the survey that surprised you?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I was actually much more surprised by the attitudes towards homosexual students. Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa - very liberal place, and very open to sexuality. And so, the fact that 28 percent of students polled had an unfair review towards homosexual, bisexual, transgender students was very surprising to me.

MARTIN: You know, Eric, publications run by adults often struggle over how to cover race. And there was an incident at a big city newspaper just the other day, where a black writer was fired over comments that he wrote on his blog that were perceived to be demeaning to black public officials in his city. So, I guess, I'm just asking is, you know, what advice do you have for a student journalists who were trying to weighed into this water of covering issues, like this, which are important, blunt, very sensitive?

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. Well, I do think that you do have to be careful when you're dealing with these issues. And as much as I like the tone of a lot of their coverage, sort of that - there's a big headline that says hate on the front of the newspaper. And, frankly, if you look at the statistics, most of the student body doesn't have an unfavorable opinion of gay people or black people. So, to have this headline that sort of screams hate, may be overstating the results of what they found. And I think there's a way to sort of present the statistics in a way that informs the kids, but also doesn't provoke confrontation.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: And I think that whoever was advising the folks on how to put this together should have thought a little more about presenting the statistics that are so disturbing in such a shocking way.

MARTIN: Okay, Adam, final question to you. What do you think the state of the conversation on race is now? Will you think about it? Do you think that you helped, that you hurt the dialogue, and do you think that dialogue is going to continue?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I think it definitely helped to create a discussion about race at City High. We had several black students who were upset about the paper coming in and talk to my newspaper staffers, which is actually really great, because, I mean, afterwards, they kind of understood what we're trying to do with it. So, I think that's just one example of how dialogue has been opened up about race at City High.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. DEGGANS: I was wondering too. I wanted to ask, do you have any people of color who work on your staff?

Mr. SULLIVAN: We have two black students on my staff.

MARTIN: Out of how many?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I've got 20 staffers, I believe. So, that's about 10 percent that's about right for our school makeup.

MARTIN: All right, all right. Well, thank you both.

Adam Sullivan is editor of the Little Hawk, the student newspaper at City High School in Iowa City.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Thanks to both of you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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