Silencing student voice

A commentary by Neha Madhira

How censorship proves administrators care more about school image than quality journalism

“When you censor blatantly, lies are just as valid as the truth.” – Lindy West

The New York Times opinion writer Lindy West was the keynote speaker at the Literary Lights Dinner, and there were around 300 people in the room. As she spoke about topics such as Donald Trump, abortion, sexual assault and the importance of speaking up, everyone fell silent, eyes widened and it was clear the room was divided. Occasionally, there would be applause from people including myself who were empowered by her, but as soon as she spoke about censorship, tears welled up in my eyes. All I could think about was the censorship at my school and the firing of my adviser.

I was Assistant Editor of our online newspaper last year and our new principal John M. Burdett censored our stories, banned editorials and fired our adviser, Lori Oglesbee.

Since Hazelwood gives administrators the power to silence us, I set up meetings with Burdett to reason with him and our editorial board sent a letter to him, the superintendent and the school board. In the last meeting I had with him and my father, I created a document for him with the help of Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Director Lori Keekley and Student Press Law Center Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand, but there were still no changes to the policy.

After the third time we were censored and editorials were no longer allowed on our paper, all I could think about were the students left in the dark about what was happening at our school. We could not talk about injustices or anything we felt could be improved, because our voices were belittled.

What West said resonated with everything we were going through because rumors or inflammable tweets about our paper and our adviser became just as believable as the truth, especially when there was no way we could set things to rest. For the last 30+ years, administrators have censored student voices with the concern that we will cast our school in a negative light, but in reality, it shows administrators care more about the image of their school than students learning about quality journalism.

Even after local and national media publications such as The New York Times covered our story and 17 press associations along with the SPLC sent our administrators a letter, we received nothing but a deafening silence.

Through West’s speech, it felt as if she acknowledged this and understood that even though we will never stop fighting, it is still painful. The blatant censorship of student expression still exists. Although I knew our focus had to be on the importance of student voices, it still hurts knowing that we had to trade our adviser for wanting the right to publish. West understood that censorship is a painful process.

To our administrators, it didn’t matter that we were reporting the truth or that we had a teacher with 35 years of experience who coached her students writing and photography so well they advanced to UIL Journalism State and won 175 awards in one year. If they didn’t agree with what we had to say, it would not be published.

This is why I started fighting for New Voices, a student-led movement which not only legally protects students from censorship by their administrators when they are reporting responsibly, but it also protects advisers from being fired or pushed out under these circumstances. West mentioned, “You can’t fight for something you don’t say aloud,” and if we don’t speak up, all of this will happen again. A movement can only succeed when students move out of their comfort zones and stand up for what they feel is right.

Neha Madhira

The Road So Far

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Oscar Wilde

Introduction to Me: Learning From My Lows

Over the past few years, I struggled to meet and connect with new people, avoiding social engagements like the flu shot I refuse to take each year. I have a few good friends. Let me rephrase that — I have a few friends and one superbly dynamic friend. Even so, I find it hard to be transparent and explain how I truly feel.

Thus, this Oscar Wilde quote directly and succinctly illustrates what I grapple with. Like countless others, I use screens to clearly and unwaveringly express my creative and intellectual endeavors. Photographs catching beauty off guard in ordinary places and words strung together like popcorn and cranberries around a tree in assorted patterns allow me freedom to personalize my thoughts.

The Conference: It Begins

Before I checked into the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and started meeting the girls in the group, I was an anxious wreck, as my parents could attest. While I didn’t express it on the outside, my insides were vomiting butterflies. If you cannot tell so far, I’m quite the social introvert: I’m not proud of this but there have been intermittent weeks over the summer where I did not leave the house.

Nevertheless, I ached to be comfortable. As I met Leah and the girls, I began to realize my worries existed inconsequentially; they were all cool, friendly people. This valley of comfort was not lasting for the world of my mind. As we learned of our tasks and I learned everyone’s background, the fluttering array of butterflies resurfaced as fears of my inexperience increasingly tormented my stomach.


The butterflies entered slowly throughout the first day, accelerating as I reflected more and more. During dinner, they slowed as the Soiree engulfed my thoughts. Diana B. Henriques’s discourse on the intersectionality of all facets of journalism, especially business and politics, allowed me to attain a new perspective on my purpose here. I was here to learn and experience. I am here, and I belong.

Despite this revelatory respite, my evening U-turned Friday night when I got back to my room. I began to dwell on my inexperience, arriving in an overwhelming discomfort knowing I was surrounded by such an accomplished group of people — my peers and the award-winning journalists in the rooms around me.

Breaking Through

I awoke well-rested not knowing my fears would soon become determination. I entered the lobby and met someone new. My roommate. I immediately put away my selfish anxiety and did something that granted me ease — helping others. I helped her get a room key and soon we were off to meet the group with potential story ideas.

My doubt — that is all it was anyway, my fear of inadequacy — flared as I realized my thoughts and research were just ideas, not stories. But as teams formed ideas for stories formed, and we had a couple of directions to veer towards: telling stories people don’t want to hear and the balance of reporting to entertain and inform.  

Determination took control and we collaborated to generate insightful questions to ask Alfredo Corchado, the Mexican Border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and renown author and journalist. The lunch with Corchado reassured me all of these prominent journalists were people, and I connected with their yearning to tell stories about people’s humanity.  

The Light At the End of the Tunnel

Throughout the day, we observed, listened to and collected information and lessons from scholarly people who knew what they were talking about. This is the part where I learned this experience is not about me and my lack of experience, but about becoming a better journalist, and — most of all — a better storyteller.

This is the part where I became inspired. We dressed up to the nines, exhausted but excited, and at Literary Lights Dinner, while the food was just okay —not everyone knows what a vegan is— Lindy West delivered an impassioned and awakening message to “be loud,” unapologetic and fight for truth and justice. Her unashamed opinion on abortion gave me courage to accept what I believe in my heart about, not only abortion, but all social, civil and political movements.

At #MaybornLitCon18, I learned while it’s okay to struggle and feel emotions, to ensure your strife is worthwhile, you have to gain perspective. I cultivated confidence to assert my opinions and trust in my abilities as a writer and journalist.

Remembering that we are one

While the world is trapped in the regimes of emotional detachment, war, and disloyalty, Sebastian Junger is advocating for the indulgence of human relations. In his book ‘Tribe’, Junger travels into American Indian territory in order to record and understand the importance of brotherhood with the hopes of spreading their traits[…]

By Alleyah Brown

While the world is trapped in the regimes of emotional detachment, war, and disloyalty, Sebastian Junger is advocating for the indulgence of human relations. In his book ‘Tribe’, Junger travels into American Indian territory in order to record and understand the importance of brotherhood with the hopes of spreading their traits into our nation.

“You can’t indulge in the illusion that you’re okay in the world on your own,” Junger said during the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I was impressed with the devotion he acquired for the welfare of people and their relationships between each other. Through growing up in a safe neighborhood in Boston, the journalist gained a passion for adventure and exploring the world of consequences outside of his own.

How can we expect a generation to understand the principles of wisdom, equality, and togetherness without teaching them the importance of sacrifice? Granted, there are people like Junger who grow up without having to experience hardship or sacrifice, but what makes Junger an outside-the-box thinker is the fact that he uses his passion for writing to paint the pictures of those who struggle for those of us who do not, thus, allowing them to experience problems other than their own.

Humans are meant to thrive in this world together, to need and help each other, even if their struggles are separate than those of others.

“I don’t care if someone’s black or white, rich or poor, I care that they’re hurting more than I am,” Junger stated. “It’s that quality in human beings that brought us to where we are.”

I enjoyed listening to Junger because his views compare to that of mine: that the world needs to think communally and objectively if we plan on being the United States we built our foundation on.

At the end of Junger’s keynote speech, there was time for questions. A man asked Junger a question any human would be befuddled to answer: “Are there any winners in war when people die on both sides? And is war justified?”  

Junger responded with what I believe is a very mature perspective.

He explained that war, of course, is not the answer to every problem. However, when our nation’s patriotism is threatened, it is our job to stand up for the very foundations we were created on. War is not so much about winning as it is about obtaining respect for your country.

Do we allow outside threats to perpetuate against us or do we come together towards a single understanding? That’s the point Junger was trying to get across. Not that hardship is necessary to congregate us, but that it aids in distracting us from our personal lives and allows us to come together for a cause.           

“Sacrifice is healthy in withholding the value in our country,” Junger said.

Sebastian Junger delivers a powerful speech on how the American society needs to do more to make soldiers feel needed and productive after coming home from war at the Literary Lights Dinner on July 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark

Words I won’t forget

Silence envelops the room as I sit here reflecting on my experiences from this weekend at The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. As the journey back from Grapevine began, I thought about my assignment: what would I write about? With so many possibilities to choose from, I struggled with how I would put […]

By Lauren Bannister

Silence envelops the room as I sit here reflecting on my experiences from this weekend at The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. As the journey back from Grapevine began, I thought about my assignment: what would I write about? With so many possibilities to choose from, I struggled with how I would put my experience into words.

This year at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference there were an array of speakers, journalists and authors. There were stories about war, blackouts, slums and much more.

Overall, there were writers who have been there, done that and gave some pretty good advice.  

I love quotes. I call myself a quote hoarder because they are great to use for any occasion. Quotes can be a catalyst for inspiration and motivation. They accompany a long list of things that will travel through time and be universal among generations to come.

This weekend, I listened to many speakers give advice, so instead of trying to focus on one specific speaker, I compiled a list of quotes I believe are useful in writing, but most importantly, also in life.

1. “It doesn’t really matter what it is that trips your wire, just go on high alert when it’s tripped.” – Katherine Boo

Boo says going against something essentially can motivate you to understand what you are fighting for. The world is full of different sides and opinions, and trying to navigate what we believe isn’t always the easiest process. Paying attention to the things that irritate you rather than motivate you can lead you in the right direction.

2. “Getting it right matters way more than whether or not you can make people care.”- Katherine Boo

In journalism, facts are everything. You have to back everything up with facts. But, this is also true in life. Focus on being true to yourself and your authenticity will attract the right people.

3. “I believe that journalism empowers people.”- Scott Farwell

Journalism is the gathering, analysis, creation, and presentation of news and information. It is an essential form of communication. When done correctly, stories have the ability to connect people on all platforms and get a message across. True journalism is powerful in its ability to reflect the truth and display what is occurring in our world.

4. “I think the things that matter the most are the hardest to talk about.”- Sarah Hepola

As human beings, we often find it difficult to sit down and talk about how we truly feel. We often forget how to simply talk. No yelling, arguing or disagreeing. We need to focus on talking about the things that matter most to us.

5. “Other people’s opinions of me are generally not my business.”- Jia Tolentino

This quote has stuck with me the most since I heard it.  As a person that has struggled deeply with caring about what people think about me due to being self-conscious, hearing this gave me a new outlook. It is impossible to make everyone “like” you. The more you focus on being yourself, the more authentic you are. Life is too short to worry about pleasing everyone.

6. “Do not define yourself in ways that are limiting.”- Charles Johnson

People tend to limit themselves in what they believe they are capable of doing and what they can do. It never hurts to dream. Dream big. There are endless possibilities to throw out into the universe. The more you confine and define yourself in ways that are limiting, the less you potentially believe you can achieve. Believe in yourself and anything is possible.

7. “I always remind myself, I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.” – Katherine Boo

Life is too short to sit around and dwell on the past. But, it isn’t always easy to stay focused on only the future. It’s an easy concept to talk about, but hard to put into effect. Remembering that our past does not define us is essential. We have to remember to not be so hard on ourselves, and that the people we talk to are just like us in some way.

8. “The creative process, to me, is about two things: discovery and problem solving. And, no two things that you do are ever the same, so it’s always exciting.”- Charles Johnson

Very seldom do we do two things the exact same. When it comes to the creative process, you can approach it in any way. I encourage everyone to get in touch with their creative side. Be curious, ask questions, solve problems, and do it all over again. Keep creating, and keep storytelling.

9. “Part of your life as an artist involves endless curiosity and being inquisitive and wanting to know.”- Charles Johnson

Artist or not, life is about creating. Everyone can create. I love waking up every day being curious and wanting to learn more. Never stop asking questions. The world is always changing and our job as human beings is to be curious, to ask questions and to learn.

I am very grateful for this past week at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction workshop. My love for storytelling feels renewed, and I am stepping away with a fresh outlook. I will keep every line I heard this weekend close to my heart and continue to use it as I progress forward. I have never been more excited to discover, create, and tell my stories to the world.

Featured Image: Mayborn LitCon “The Power of Words” Program. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark


Exploring the ethics of nonfiction writing

In journalism, sometimes the hardest question isn’t what to write. It’s whether to even write it. Defining the amount of ethical responsibility journalists have to their sources is no easy task, so it’s no surprise the topic was a popular one at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference[…]

By Jennifer Zhan

In journalism, sometimes the hardest question isn’t what to write, it’s whether to even write it.

Defining the amount of ethical responsibility journalists have to their sources is no easy task, so it’s no surprise the topic was a popular one at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, where writers from across the country gathered July 21-23 to share their experiences and insight. 

Audience members brought up the issue at Q&As throughout the conference. Although the questions posed dealt with different situations, they asked the same thing: What do we owe the people we write about, and to what extent?

The ethics of a source withdrawing consent

The discussion of ethics was present from the first day of the conference. Opening keynote speaker Katherine Boo was asked what personal guidelines she followed when interviewing people for her nonfiction book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”

Moderator Chris Vognar listens as Boo gives her thoughts on the way journalists should treat their sources.

It was one of the last questions of the night.

“You’re writing about people who are dispossessed,” the audience member said. “How much of a say do they have in how they’re represented in your copy? For instance, do they get to see what’s being quoted? Do they get to see how you’re treating them in that work? They’re not public figures.”

He paused, then clarified, “It’s not an accusation, it’s a question of craft.”

“No, no,” Katherine Boo responded seriously. “I think it’s the essential question.”

Boo’s book follows the story of a family living in a slum called Annawadi in Mumbai. Three years of living alongside people who had nothing provided the research for the narrative nonfiction work, but not everything Boo documented made the cut.

“If a private subject doesn’t want their life to be in your work, even if they decide that at the last minute, I feel they still have the right to pull out,” Boo said. “I feel like I don’t want to do a book that features people who don’t want to [be in it]. People have to be involved in that, they have to know about it.”

Although it may not be convenient, she doesn’t see any way around it ethically. If you can’t go back and stand in front of the people you’ve written about post-publication, she said you’re doing it wrong.

“I can’t write about someone’s head lice without them saying it’s okay,” Boo said. “But that’s part of the fact-checking process. You need to make sure that people understand that.”

Still, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” doesn’t read like its subjects have carefully reviewed it to remove character flaws. Its pages hold stories of corruption, resentment, desire, shame and crime.

“And they don’t have to like every single thing that you write about, but I think they have to recognize that what you’re writing about is true,” Boo said. “In my book, Abdul recognized that what I wrote about Mirchi was true, Mirchi said what I wrote about Abdul was true. You have to have it be recognizable to people who are close to you.”

Boo said that the people featured in the book took many risks to participate, including physical risks from police who were angry about the publication. That was part of the reason she decided to share the profits with the Annawadi community.

“It just seemed right to me,” Boo said. “But again, you certainly can’t go into a project saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to pay you guys later.’ It would just destroy everything.”

She believes sources must go into the interview process with the understanding that it is unpaid. However, after a work is printed and nothing can be done, she considers it ethical to give money back.

Other journalists disagree with that viewpoint. But to Boo, that’s okay.

“I let other people decide what they want to decide,” Boo said. “It’s your choice, you know, you have to live with yourself.”

The ethics of what is due to others when writing personal essays

Charlotte editor Michael Graff thinks he’s a boring person. When he goes out, he generally prefers to sit aside and listen.

But he said he’s able to write personal essays because he surrounds himself with interesting people who make him laugh, and can then write about himself “through them.”

Although the central figure of a personal narrative is the writer, in many instances, other people play important roles.

In a panel on the last day of the conference, writers took questions on deciding how much concern to give to outsiders who were instrumental in personal narratives, or even those who were less influential but still present.

Tolentino, with Graff and moderator Sarah Hepola, explains how she ensures that she’s comfortable with the content she publishes.

It’s something New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino often thinks about when writing about her own life.

“I give myself a quick check of, ‘Would this register as bulls— to someone that was roughly adjacent to this?’” Tolentino said. “And if it would, then I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing.”

At the panel, both Graff and Tolentino agreed that when telling your own story, there shouldn’t be worry about the response from those who weren’t involved. Tolentino went as far as saying that other people’s opinions are “generally not [her] business.”

“But I always feel if I’m writing something and it’s going to either wound or register as deep bulls— to someone who knows, then I shouldn’t be writing it,” Tolentino said.  

According to Graff, that’s why it’s important for writers to be confident in the truth of their content, using whatever method that might require.

“We all have checks,” Graff said. “My check is to treat my story like any other story, and just report the hell out of it like I would anything else.”

The ethics of when a source might be at risk

The final ethics scenario that was brought up was the case of reporting on a subject who might be at risk when their story is made public. What should be done to ensure the person understands the full consequences of their consent to be interviewed? What should be left out?

Reporters and editors from the Dallas Morning News sat down at the last panel of the conference to talk about how they made those decisions with Scott Farwell’s multimedia work, ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell talks with moderator Jeff Whittington about staying professional with Blevins to ensure she understood there could be consequences from her participation in the story that would become ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell’s reporting had him arriving home at 4 a.m., taking rides with drug dealers, and at times, facing personal threats. But while he may have put himself in dangerous situations to tell the story, after it was published, his subject was the one whose life was potentially at risk.

The investigative piece’s title refers to Carol Blevins, a confidential informant whose intel on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas led to the arrests of over 1,000 criminals in the North Texas area. The gang issued a greenlight, or an order to kill on sight, on Blevins for her betrayal.

As the story developed, editors and writers at the Dallas Morning News began discussing the ethics of publicizing her story.

“She had made a decision to come back into the North Texas area after having been given an opportunity to disappear to Colorado so she put herself at risk,” DMN editor Mike Wilson said. “In some sense I was concerned about our putting her at further risk by telling the story. I also considered the possibility that telling the story would protect her, that it would give attention to her situation and give her enemies a disincentive to come after her.”

Ultimately, however, it was concluded that as an adult it was Blevins’s responsibility to monitor her own safety and decide whether to participate.

Farwell presented Blevins with the information to make that decision.

“That’s a serial conversation that you have,” Farwell said. “Not just, ‘I’m doing a job and my role here is to tell the truth.’ All the way along, not just [defining] the relationship, but also, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you sure you want to take this risk? What about this scenario and that scenario?’ That’s an important part of it.”

This process is called Mirandizing, and Farwell said there are probably 50 or so conversations on record where he “pressure tested” Blevins’s assumptions and assertions, bringing up hypothetical situations that might occur after the story’s publication. The procedure gave Farwell confidence in Blevins’s awareness and acceptance of the possible consequences.

But there were other circumstances to consider as well. Blevins is heavily dependent on drugs. Farwell knew from reviewing her medical records that she also had several mental health issues.

“The fundamental question is how did we trust her, how did I know this woman who had delusions was someone who we could offer her story as a narrative truth?” Farwell said. “The answer to that is I spent a lot of time with her. I interviewed her hundreds and hundreds of times over months and months and months when she was sober, when she was high, when she was in jail, when she was in the middle of a delusion, when she was with family.”

DMN editor Leona Allen said that going into the story, there were many conversations about whether Blevins was able to provide informed consent to exposing herself as a witness.

“There were times where she was completely sober, there were times when the sources Farwell was talking to about her handlers gave her a lot of credit for helping them bring down this organization,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, that won out, the story won out, the greater good won out.”

Farwell felt he was justified in writing the story partly because he is a “true believer,” someone he said believes that journalism empowers people.

“There are not very many pieces of journalism that you get to see inside these relationships between confidential informants and federal agents, their handlers,” Farwell said. “I think that there’s public value to that. I guess there is some measure of risk that is attendant here, but I believe in telling the truth. I believe that at the end of the day, this is a great public good.”

As Katherine Boo put it, how we treat sources as writers is “the essential question.” The kinds of ethical conversations heard at LitCon won’t be going away any time soon. As long as we continue to write, we must question and discuss how to be fair to the people whose stories we tell.

Featured Image: Scott Farwell states his belief that journalism empowers people. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark