The controversy around the photo is the second high-profile situation in five months connected to a decades-old yearbook page, following claims that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's yearbook contained cryptic messages that raised pointed questions during his confirmation hearing.
“Seeing yearbooks in the news just show this is a big deal,” said Sarah Nichols, the president of the Journalism Education Association and the director of student media at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California.
“What it has really shown us, this school year in particular, is just how significant a yearbook really is -- not only for now but for later,” Nichols said.
Gary Lundgren, the associate director of the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA), said that the “horrendous content” that has been making news this week has prompted a lot of discussion within the field.
Lundgren said that the larger yearbook community, made up of publishers and advisers to yearbooks, are actively taking to social media and to industry listservs to talk about “about how appalled they are by this.”
Lundgren said that the high-profile situations have “sparked, I think, a national discussion within our community about the permanence of what is published and the responsibility that they take when they produce these publications.”
As for the images themselves, changing standards over different eras may be factors, said Laura Widmer, the executive director of the NSPA.
“I think the ‘80s were a very pivotal time,” Widmer said, noting how that was the decade during which yearbooks shifted from being perceived as a scrapbook to a historical document.
“Today, with yearbooks in most schools, we see it as an academic endeavor which has much higher standards than we ever saw prior to the '70s and '80s transition,” Widmer said.
Kavanaugh addressed his 1983 Georgetown Prep yearbook post during his confirmation hearings in late September, suggesting that his references to drinking and partying were misguided attempts to match the allegedly raucous tone of the yearbook.
"For one thing, our yearbook was a disaster," Kavanaugh said in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27, 2018. "I think some editors and students wanted the yearbook to be some combination of Animal House, Caddy Shack and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which were all recent movies at that time. Many of us went along in the yearbook to the point of absurdity. This past week, my friends and I have cringed when we read about it and talked to each other."
The recent debate over Northam’s connection to the image that shows a person in blackface next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe made Lundgren think of the responsibilities of the yearbook advisor or supervisor.
“When I saw that image for the first time I was like, ‘how in the world did that ever get printed?’” Lundgren said of the Northam image. “It’s really troubling how that could find its way into print.”
Widmer, who served as an adviser to yearbooks for more than three decades, said that there are some instances where some things get past advisers –- citing a 1987 yearbook she knows of where someone is pictured allegedly smoking a joint -– for the most part, the team that works on the yearbook critically screens everything that is printed.
She said that one tricky area for advisers is parsing through content that is submitted from the students themselves, whether it be a senior page or a senior quote, noting that in the past, “we weren’t looking at the innuendos.”
Nichols said that screening student content is still a major focus of her yearbook teams.
“Senior quotes are a huge can of worms for many reasons, because the often can’t be verified, [and may include] things that might be code or hidden messages,” Nichols said.
“How do we know it doesn’t have something hurtful or derogatory? The key is for students to make those decisions,” she said.