TV reporter gives censorship lesson


Erik Lee and Reporter Andrea McCarren stage an Interview outside the CBS/USA 9 ENG News Van on December 1, 2011 in Washington DC (Benjamin C Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 26, 2012

TV journalist Andrea McCarren knows that news reporting sometimes has unintended consequences — especially since her own children were teased and bullied after her stories on underage drinking aired last month.

So when the student newspaper at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School published an article mentioning her reporting, McCarren objected. The article, she told the school’s principal, could create more trouble for her children, both students there.

Ironic result: A journalist triggered a bit of temporary censorship.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase principal Karen Lockard responded to McCarren’s concerns last week by ordering a “recall” of the paper the next school day after most copies had been distributed.

The episode began with publication of the March 16 edition of the Tattler, Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s school paper. The issue carried several articles exploring how the news media portrays teenagers, typically in negative ways.


Page 7 of the March 16, 2012 issue of 'The Tattler' the school newspaper of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. (The Tattler/COURTESY OF THE TATTLER)

McCarren’s photo — an image of her on the job for WUSA (Channel 9) — was used to illustrate a brief article about alcohol consumption by teens. The photo appears on page 7 of the issue under a three-line headline: “B-CC Teenagers / according to the media / Drunk.”

The accompanying article makes no mention of McCarren’s children nor any family connection to the school. Instead, it references McCarren’s recent TV stories about a D.C. liquor store that has sold alcohol to underage buyers and her report in February about a police bust of a party in which students from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda were cited for consuming alcohol.

Those stories whipped up a storm of derogatory comments aimed at McCarren and her children on Facebook and via text messages. McCarren grew so concerned about the intimidating messages that she temporarily removed herself from the air, handing off one of her teen drinking stories to her colleague, WUSA anchorman Derek McGinty. The family also received police protection at the height of the incident in February.

She has subsequently returned to the topic, reporting, for example, on the arrest of the owner of the D.C. liquor store Town Square Market.

Lockard said she ordered the recall of the student paper “to review” the article in question and “to protect students who had been harassed personally and online,” according to a school-wide message obtained by Bethesda magazine.

“The harassment had lessened and the concern arose that a story would stir things up again,” wrote Lockard. She added: “The administration of B-CC High does not exercise blatant censorship of the student press. More important, the administration does not endorse harassment and endangering students.”

The order affected a handful of newspapers that teachers hadn’t yet given to students, said Jackson Fritz, the newspaper’s co-editor-in-chief. However, some students were asked to return copies in their possession, he said.

Fritz said the newspaper’s staff considered McCarren a public figure whose reporting was relevant to the newspaper’s theme of media portrayals of teenagers. The newspaper had asked McCarren and her children for an interview, but they declined.

Although McCarren had taken herself off the story out of concern for her children, her return to reporting on the subject indicated that she was no longer concerned about being identified with it, according to Fritz.

“We never thought [writing about it] would cause any controversy,” he said. “We felt we were simply re-reporting what had already happened.” Several of the student journalists are friends with McCarren’s children and had no intent to bring harm to them, he said.

By last Tuesday, Lockard rescinded her decision, and the remaining newspapers were distributed. She also apologized to the newspaper’s editors, said Fritz and Aaron Wildavsky, the editor of the Tattler’s online edition, known as Tattler Extra. The students agreed to remove McCarren’s photo from Tattler Extra.

Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Montgomery County schools, said principals have the right to exercise editorial control over student newspapers. Usually, he said, disputes or issues are worked out before publication. He referred questions to Lockard, who did not respond to several requests for comment.

McCarren declined comment.

David Lopilato, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase English teacher who advises the Tattler staff, said he was proud of the way his students handled the controversy. But, he added, “It saddens me that the many great things the kids had to say in these articles has been overshadowed by these events.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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