S.D. Girls State journalists get hands-on lesson on free press

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Eighteen high school journalists in South Dakota got a jolting lesson in the freedoms and responsibilities of the First Amendment, emerging fairly unscathed and, perhaps, wiser for the experience.

The 18 girls were selected as members of “Journalism City” for this year’s South Dakota Girls State, held May 30 through June 4 at the University of South Dakota. Sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, the weeklong conference gives high school girls experience in American government.

With help from a few advisers, the members of Journalism City (Girls State attendees are assigned to cities and counties) produced the Sacajawea Scroll newspaper at the Freedom Forum’s Al Neuharth Media Center at USD.

The problems started for Journalism City with the Scroll’s first issue, which came out on June 1. In an opinion piece, staff member Randi Bevier disparaged some Girls State attendees she dubbed “yippers,” mocking their expansive wardrobes and self-absorption but not naming names.

Not surprisingly, some girls were offended and a backlash ensued. The next day the Scroll ran a letter to the editor headlined “ ‘Yippers’ strike back against column,” in which an anonymous group of authors argued that the so-called “yippers” were merely trying to present themselves in a respectful manner.

Sam Burrish, a rising USD sophomore who was hired to advise the Journalism City girls and serve as a senior editor, said a group of counselors (many of whom are college students or recent college graduates) accompanied by Girls State Gov. Amber Stern came to the media center to complain about the column. Burrish claims Stern told the Journalism City girls they were going against the spirit of Girls State and were not being constructive.

Stern, who will be a freshman at USD next fall, denied such a confrontation. She said she visited the media center once during the week before the first newspaper came out, but claimed she did not go there at all the rest of the week.

The counselors known to be involved were unavailable for comment.

Junior counselor Jennifer Muhmel, who will also be a freshman at USD next fall, was not among the counselors who visited the media center to complain about the “yipper” column, which she said wasn’t all that offensive.

“It wasn’t as bad as a lot of girls took it to be,” she said. “I think many of them overreacted.”

This year was Muhmel’s first as a counselor, though she attended Girls State last year as a regular delegate.

The next instance of conflict came when the Journalism City girls reported a story about a lockdown of the dormitories where the Girls State attendees were living. Counselors had heard a group of girls identify themselves on a USD radio show as Girls State attendees. The counselors thought some girls had sneaked out, so they locked the dorms to keep the rest of the girls in.

The girls on the radio turned out to have been Journalism City girls who had previously been given permission to be on the show.

Burrish said a group of counselors along with Stern again made a visit to the media center, wanting to do an “on-spot edit” of the lockdown story. He said he told them they could see the story in the newspaper the next morning like everyone else.

Stern told the First Amendment Center Online that the reporting in the story was not accurate.

“Their facts were so incredibly off in that story,” she said. “They made it sound like we panicked and were running around locking girls in. That’s not what happened.”

Burrish defended the accuracy of the report and the need of Scroll readers to know what really happened.

“They (counselors and Girls State officials) weren’t dispersing any information,” he said, “and rumors were rampant. We were trying to set the record straight.”

Cheryl Hovorka, director and chair of South Dakota Girls State, blamed miscommunication and the counselors’ concern for the girls’ whereabouts for the lockdown mix-up. The counselors were responsible for all the girls, she said, noting that “if anything happened, it would reflect back on the program.”

With tensions already running high, a third incident set off further conflict. Each year Girls State culminates in the induction of a new governor after a democratic election. It is Girls State policy not to release the vote totals, which would reveal margin of victory. This year, the spunky Journalism City girls challenged this restriction by trying to obtain the vote totals from Girls State officials and, failing that, from the people running the computer system used for voting.

They were unsuccessful in their attempts, and Bevier wrote another column arguing that, in the spirit of truly simulating American democracy, the vote totals should be made public.

Burrish made the Scroll’s case in an interview with the First Amendment Center Online, saying: “How can you write about an election without the margin of victory? The whole story’s in how much they won by. They’re touting this (Girls State) as a microcosm for democracy, and at the climax they’re watering it down and not telling the number of votes.”

This time a “very confrontational” group of counselors, sans Stern, came to the media center in response to the column, Burrish said, a claim corroborated by fellow senior editor Chris Vondracek in an e-mail to Jack Marsh, executive director of the Al Neuharth Media Center and adviser to the Scroll.

Vondracek said in the e-mail that a counselor told the Journalism City girls they were hated by all the other girls, the Girls State community didn’t respect them and changes needed to be made to correct problems with the newspaper.

“They obviously wanted to make a scene and upset the girls,” Burrish said. “They didn’t want to share their views. They just wanted to create waves.”

Stern said she didn’t like that the paper had tried to get the vote totals from the computer staff and that she wouldn’t have wanted to know the margin of victory in her gubernatorial election a year ago, even if she had lost.

“With the high amount of emotion and the little amount of sleep during the week, knowing the vote totals could really crush a girl,” she said.

Hovorka concurred, saying: “The main thing is who wins or loses. We don’t think they need to know if they lost by one or 100.”

The policy of not releasing vote totals is not likely to change, Hovorka said.

Overall, everyone involved seemed to learn a thing or two about the First Amendment, whether they liked it or not. Despite opposing the release of election returns, Hovorka said she stood by the American Legion Auxiliary and its policy of a free and independent press — something she pointed out when counselors came to her upset about the Scroll’s content.

“They’re going to find in real life that things like this happen,” she said. “They can sit and complain and do nothing or write their own opinion.”

Stern said she understood the idea of a free press, but disagreed with the Scroll’s decisions to run the three stories in question, calling Girls State a “controlled environment.” She said she was most upset by a lack of respect from the journalists, saying, “They thought everyone was there to create good stories for them, not that they were there to report on what happened.”

Marsh said the Freedom Forum’s agreement with Girls State to let them use the Al Neuharth Media Center was contingent on their compliance with the ideals of a free press.

Marsh and Burrish both said they thought the experience, while unpleasant at times, was beneficial for the Journalism City girls, giving them hands-on experience defending their work and exercising their First Amendment rights. Burrish said he enjoyed working as an adviser and hopes to do it again next year.

“A lot of these girls hadn’t been exposed to this sort of thing,” Burrish said, “but now they know what the First Amendment is all about.”

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