From Confederate Flag to Being Gay in Montrose, Award Winning Paper Doesn’t Tiptoe Around Subjects
MONTROSE – Staffers at The Chieftain, Montrose High School’s award-winning newspaper, aren’t afraid to confront provocative subjects. They’re happy to ask the uncomfortable questions. And if a story stirs some controversy, that means what they write is being read, and may even spark conversations that lead to more understanding and learning.
Co-edited by MHS seniors Kaylynn Miller and Abby Padilla, and published by the Advanced Journalism Class at MHS, The Chieftain has once again won the Colorado High School Press Association’s All-Colorado Award. It has, over the course of this school year, inspired plenty of conversation among its student readers and readers in the Montrose community about some tough-to-talk-about stories.
In the October edition of the monthly student newspaper, The Chieftain staff took on hate speech and First Amendment rights, breast cancer, the stereotypes of cooking meth popularized by the hit show Breaking Bad, police brutality, and an ongoing Confederate flag debate at the high school.
The Chieftain’s coverage of MHS students wearing and displaying the Confederate flag has stirred controversy – and a lot of conversations.
“I noticed there were some kids coming to school with the rebel flag,” Miller said in an interview this week. “A lot of people started talking about it and what it stands for. We kind of wanted to debunk it and understand what it represents and then bring it to people’s attention.”
And so the paper’s October edition ran a short story on the history of the Confederate flag, as well as an editorial titled “Confederate Flag Debunked,” by Miller.
“Although the origin of the flag and how it came to be a symbol for the Deep South remain fuzzy, its ties to slavery do not,” Miller wrote in her editorial. “Since the flag is an adaptation of the second Confederate Flag, it can be said that it has some relation to the seven slave states that seceded from the Union in 1861. Southern-proud friends in the parking lot spewing chew from their stained lips may need a reminder that their flag is closely related to the Confederate Flag.”
The editorial and the paper’s coverage sparked heated arguments.
“It kind of blew up on the internet,” Miller said. “A bunch of people felt like we were attacking what they represent. I made sure to call what I wrote an editorial. I didn’t single anyone out and I explained what the flag is affiliated with and what it could mean. We think that is good journalism. I still get crap for it, though.”
In the face of criticism about its coverage of the Confederate flag issue, Padilla said what impressed her the most was how collected the staff remained.
“There were some very rude things said about us, even some threats on Facebook,” Padilla said. “Our staff was very professional about it. We all just said we have the First Amendment right [to] write about it. Nobody resorted to personal insults.”
That same October issue featured a story about hate speech, pointing out that it, too, is protected by the First Amendment.
The cover of the September edition tackled the issue of being gay in Montrose, after Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a bill last summer banning propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors. With the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, and Putin’s new law limiting gay’s expression of their sexuality, Miller and Padilla said it was a good topic for their student readers.
“The law outlawed gay propaganda among minors,” Miller said. “That made it relevant for us, and the fact that the gay community in Montrose has never been really talked about. Our job as reporters is to cover all news, [so] it was our job to cover the gay community and express their views.”
The September edition of The Chieftain contained two front-page stories reporting on gay issues as well as tips for coming out, and a story on page two titled “Being Gay is Okay.”
While it is not a large community, Padilla said MHS does have a community of gay students.
“My story involved students who are gay, and most said they felt comfortable being gay in Montrose,” Padilla said. “It was a good story.”
The front page headline – “Montrose Embraces Gay Community” – got some negative feedback from the community.
“People thought it was misleading,” Miller said. “We got a lot of calls from parents and from people at the school because they thought it was our opinion.”
“I think we could have thought out our headline more to make sure it was more clear,” Padilla said.
“You can’t edit something enough that nobody will get offended,” Miller continued. “You can’t tiptoe around subjects. It’s our job as writers to ask the tough questions. I think sometimes we want people to get heated about a subject and talk about it. If people are doing that, people are reading the newspaper, at least.”
While sometimes the heated discussions The Chieftain evokes among students can create issues district officials must handle, Montrose School District Superintendent Mark MacHale said he’s proud of what the student newspaper has accomplished, and especially pleased at the amount of learning it sparks, most particularly when controversial topics are discussed.
“I think it shows guts,” MacHale said. “It also speaks about the fact, I think, that in all of our schools, we have a really healthy culture of people who can talk about tough stuff and be themselves without getting too picked on. When you stick your neck out, sometimes it’s going to sting a little bit. I see all kinds of really diverse kids getting along well in our schools.”
While it would perhaps be easier for him if The Chieftain covered less controversial subjects, MacHale said the learning curve it spurs would suffer.
“Anything worth doing is going to get bumpy,” he said. “You have got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. And sometimes we get that egg on us, and we have to deal with it. It would be easier if they didn’t take the bumpy road, but I sure don’t think they would be learning as much, and the student body wouldn’t be looking at issues like that as much.”
Both Padilla and Miller said they are extremely pleased with the The Chieftain and its staff, and that even though their paper isn't as well-funded as some student newspapers in Colorado, there’s a reason why The Chieftain received the All-Colorado Award.
“We are doing some really good writing,” Padilla said. “That’s what’s given us our top honors.” Jack Kennedy, executive director of the Colorado High School Press Association, agrees. “We consider it one of the top journalism programs in the state, and it’s been that way for some time,” he said. “Everyone in Montrose should be very proud of them.”