PRINT JOURNALISTS NEVER seem entirely comfortable writing about sex. Nor do they seem comfortable writing about teenagers, at least without adopting the point of view of their parents.
This year, the Fresno Bee waded into the confluence of these two fraught streams with a months-long, seven-part series on teen pregnancy and sex education. The series, “Too Young?”, illustrates the best of what can happen when local newspapers tackle tough topics. It also serves as a reminder of the risks, as critics blasted the Bee and its education reporter, Mackenzie Mays, on Twitter and talk radio for what they saw as a prurient interest in the sex lives of teenagers.
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The decline in teen pregnancy is one of the great success stories of modern America, even more dramatic and sustained than the past quarter century’s drop in crime rates. Teenage girls are less likely to get pregnant or have children than at any time since the 1940s, when the federal government began keeping consistent data. Between 2007 and 2014, the birth rate among those aged 15 to 19 dropped nearly by half.
But the decline has been uneven, and teen pregnancy remains common in many regions. One of those is California’s inland San Joaquin Valley, the center of the state’s agricultural industry. Of California’s 25 largest counties, Kern and Fresno, both in the Valley, had the highest teen birth rates in 2015, according to the California Department of Public Health.
California is one of 24 states that require public schools to offer some sort of sex education, and one of 20 that require sex education to be ‘medically accurate.’ But the Bee’s series reveals that, in Fresno at least, many students aren’t receiving the education the state requires, and some school officials are reluctant to provide it.
The Fresno Bee published its “Too Young?” series between July 7 and November 17. Written entirely by Mays, it was underwritten in part by the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which also provided training, editing, and community engagement support.
Mays’s series addressed the public policy ramifications of teen pregnancy as well as the human impacts. She wrote a feature on teen fathers, a group often ignored in discussions of teen pregnancy; a story about a girl shamed and pressured to leave school after she became pregnant at 14; and an analysis of the disproportionately high teen birth rates for Latinas. She also conducted and reported on a survey of 159 high school students on what they’d been taught about sex in school, in light of a recent California law mandating comprehensive sex education in public schools.
California is one of 24 states that require public schools to offer some sort of sex education, and one of 20 that require sex education to be “medically accurate,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But these mandates are often unenforced, and the Bee’s series reveals that, in Fresno at least, many students aren’t receiving the education the state requires, and some school officials are reluctant to provide it.
Brooke Ashjian, president of the Fresno Unified School District board, opts his own children out of sex education, the Bee reported, and has been critical of the new state law. Other school board members interviewed by Mays said they’d prefer abstinence-only sex education, which is now banned in California public schools, though they all said they’d follow the new law.
Ashjian, a vocal critic of the Bee’s series, has targeted Mays personally, referring to her on Twitter as “Mackenzie ‘fakenews’ Mays” [sic] and “the ministress of Propaganda” [sic].
Ashjian did not reply to requests for an interview. Mays says his discontent stems from an August 4 article in her series, in which Ashjian criticized the new state mandate for sex education, particularly its requirement that schools teach about same-sex relationships:
“My biggest fear in teaching this – which we’re going to do it because it’s the law – but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian said. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
“He said some controversial things in that interview, but if you know him or you follow him on Twitter, that wasn’t really a shock,” Mays says. “He’s very vocal about his politics and religion. The story ran, and there was a big public response to his words. There was a lot of outrage, and that’s when he started calling me a liar, calling me ‘fake news’ and all that.”
ON OCTOBER 31, the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal nonprofit that focuses on religious liberty and parental rights cases, issued a press release “calling for investigation, apologies to parents and other remedial steps” at Fresno Unified, because while the district authorized the Bee’s sex education survey, it did not obtain permission from parents whose children participated.
In a letter to the school district, the Pacific Justice Institute said it had been contacted by Fresno Unified parents. The letter asks the district to demand a retraction from the Bee, and to ban the Bee’s reporters from its campuses.
Reached by phone for comment, Pacific Justice Institute president Brad Dacus asked if CJR was affiliated with Columbia University. When told yes, Dacus replied, “You guys are so frickin’ liberal. I’m not going to waste my time with this interview. It’s just going to be distorted and I’m not going to waste my time.” Then he hung up.
The Pacific Justice Institute contends that Fresno Unified broke state and federal laws by allowing Mays to speak with students at Fresno high schools and to circulate word among them of the Bee’s anonymous, web-based survey.
My frustration is that we’re not talking about the problem. We’re talking about the reporting on the problem.
There is a provision in the California Education Code that says “tests, questionnaires and surveys containing age-appropriate questions about the pupil’s attitudes concerning or practices relating to sex” may be given to any student in grades seven through 12. Parents must be notified in writing, allowed to review the survey and able to opt out on behalf of their children.
However, there are reasons to doubt whether this statute applies to the Bee’s survey. Nikki Moore, a lawyer with the California Newspaper Publishers Association who has advised the Bee on the matter, says the statute would be unconstitutional if applied to a news organization.
“There was no intent to impact newsgathering with that statute,” Moore says. “Newsgathering is First Amendment-protected activity.”
There could also be legal problems if Fresno Unified were to do as the Pacific Justice Institute requests and keep Fresno Bee reporters off its campuses. California law states that no “outsiders” can enter a public school campus without signing in and showing proof of identity. However, journalists are specifically exempted from the definition of “outsiders,” so they have a special right to visit campuses and speak with students.
On top of that, Moore says, the students have First Amendment rights, which might be violated if the district were to limit their interactions with reporters based on the subject being discussed.
MAYS SAYS SHE MADE SURE the school district and the parents of her profile subjects bought into what she was doing.
“There is a law about access, but that’s not the world I live in,” Mays says. “Fresno Unified has a really big communications department. If I come into any front office at any school and identify myself, they’re not going to let me in without calling the district. If I call a math teacher about some cool new program, they will refer to me to the communications team. They allow me great access, but I have to go to them to get that access.”
Fresno Unified administrators vetted the Bee’s survey and allowed Mays to talk to students on campus; when she did, district employees were always in the room. Student government groups oversaw the meetings.
Mays also consulted researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, on the survey’s design and contents. The survey asked students if they had learned in school about specific topics required to be taught by state law, including abstinence, abortion, and same-sex relationships. Students were also asked if they felt comfortable talking to their teachers or parents about sex, where they got contraceptives if they needed them, whether they’d had sex and whether they’d had unprotected sex.
By the end of this he started to say he doesn’t consider the Fresno Bee to be a legitimate news source, and I think that’s the worst part. … This is an attempt to delegitimize the people whose job it is to hold officials accountable and to divert attention away from the truth, and that’s dangerous.
The students could take the anonymous survey without their parents’ permission, but Mays says the teenagers who talked to her on the record did so with their parents’ knowledge and permission.
“I met with their families,” Mays says. “I spent a lot of time with them.”
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Mays has been the Bee’s education reporter for two-and-a-half years. At 27, she’s on her second newspaper job out of college, after two and a half years at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in West Virginia.
The “Too Young?” series was entirely her idea, as was her fellowship at the USC Center for Health Journalism, says Jim Boren, the Bee’s executive editor. “I thought it was a great idea, and I had no idea that it would be controversial in the way that it became controversial,” Boren says.
Teen pregnancy is a problem that’s plagued Fresno County for decades. When Boren was a reporter at the Bee in the 1970s, the paper won an award for a series on the topic. The problem then was the same as the problem now, Boren says: No one wants to talk about teens and sex. Instead, they’re talking about the Bee and its reporting techniques.
“No one I’ve heard that’s critical of this has come up with a solution to the teen pregnancy rate,” Boren says. “My frustration is that we’re not talking about the problem. We’re talking about the reporting on the problem.”
For Mays, the project has been an education in modern media. As much as she’d like the focus to be on her stories, for the past four months it has too often been on her.
“Brooke Ashjian said a lot of things about me personally. He called me a liar and likened me to a child predator on the radio because I did this sex ed survey,” Mays says. “By the end of this he started to say he doesn’t consider the Fresno Bee to be a legitimate news source, and I think that’s the worst part. … This is an attempt to delegitimize the people whose job it is to hold officials accountable and to divert attention away from the truth, and that’s dangerous.”
CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.
RELATED: The story behind “one of the best reported pieces of the year”Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.