What I wish non-journalists understood about student journalism

When I interviewed for the job of teaching and advising the high school newspaper and yearbook, the assistant principal in the meeting, who had been the news adviser for 19 years, shared with me that it was the best job in the world. She was right, and we repeated that phrase to each other a few times over the next few years.

Teaching students their First Amendment rights and that they have power through their content to influence the thinking of others is powerful stuff. What is a little disempowering is the reading public, which includes the student body, teachers, administrators and the community, not understanding how student media works, and that students should enjoy First Amendment freedoms just like anyone else.

STUDENT MEDIA IS RUN BY STUDENTS

I advise. They decide.

Lessons in First Amendment rights, media law and ethics, interviewing, accuracy, balance, and much more give students a foundation for producing journalistic content. Learning even more on the job, they make decisions about content based on what they have been taught, what they have learned by experience and by the advice I give them. I often tell them to put on their principal hat and read it again. Put on the superintendent hat and read it again. Put on a parent hat and read it again. I play Devil’s advocate.  I pose scenarios I feel they need to consider, but in the end, I tell them, “It’s your paper.”

Because they own their paper, they automatically assume responsibility even when tough situations arise. That includes having hard conversations with other adults. I never had to tell an editor to take care of something like this. It’s their paper.

Though the situation varies from school to school, at our school, the students sell advertising to fund their publication, run the program and provide incentive for the staff. This is a good thing because it gives them a more real-world experience. They learn how the financing relates to what they wish to pursue regarding the publication. This setup also promotes that feeling of ownership and validates their making the decisions regarding the content. If they don’t learn to make those decisions now, how will they be able to make those calls later?

A chief complaint of college journalism advisers and even newspaper editors who hire new journalists is that these new hires do not act as independently as they might. They seem hesitant, as if waiting for permission, for an OK. Journalists need to learn to seek out stories, know the legal and ethical boundaries and make those decisions themselves. The high school lab should be training ground for that.

IT’S A LOT OF WORK

When I went to work at this school, we were on block scheduling, which meant news and yearbook met for 80 minutes daily, usually for both semesters because students were dedicated to the program and chose to take the class both semesters. The scheduling changed a couple years ago, and now we meet for 48 minutes daily. If 80 minutes daily wasn’t enough to accomplish what we are trying to do, reducing it to 48 didn’t do us any favors. The fact is that if you enroll in one of these classes, you are signing up for more than a class. Time outside of class isn’t just suggested, it’s necessary.

It’s not just about the time needed to do the writing or designing. It’s about trying to chase down sources for interviews and photos. It’s sitting in the office for 30 minutes because you have an appointment to meet with the principal, but he suddenly had to take care of a disciplinary issue. It’s covering evening ballgames and concerts. It’s asking the cross-country coach if you can travel with the team because there is only one local meet and you need more photos, and, hey, you can interview on the bus. It’s having a story fall through at the last minute and needing to come up with something else to fill the white space on the page.

When a student doesn’t have an essay ready to turn in on the due date, the problem is pretty much between that student and the teacher. When it happens on newspaper, the person laying out the page can’t finish his job.  If the paper doesn’t make it to press on time, the guy working the night shift at the newspaper that prints our school paper has to juggle other publications on his schedule and might even be late getting jobs out and getting home to his own dinner.

I TEACH JOURNALISM, NOT PUBLIC RELATIONS.

The news staff gets as excited as anyone else when great things happen on our campus or with our students and faculty. When we know about them, we cover them, time and staff permitting. But everything isn’t rainbows and butterflies. Bad things happen, too, from losing games to adults making unpopular decisions. There is no valid reason to cover the good things and sweep the ugly under the rug.

We try to maintain a balance of positive and negative. Balance is a hard thing to achieve because it’s required in all aspects. We need balance in stories, from variety of sources to point of view of the topic. We need balance of coverage as well, which pertains to covering as many students as possible, multiple interests, and differences in readership. Though they strive for it continually, balance is hard to achieve, especially when they must examine it from so many different angles.

So sometimes, when the complaints are about the staff covering topics some readers do not like and the argument is that we should cover more positive things, what they are really saying is, “this isn’t good for our image as a school, as a district.” I get that, but making the school or district look good isn’t the job of the newspaper staff. Nor is helping administrators avoid negative feedback from the community. If the student journalists have done their jobs right and the stories are valid and have a reason for being published, then they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

THIS IS A LEARNING LAB

Student journalists need room to make mistakes so they can grow. If someone takes issue with something they have done, rather than denounce the publication or the writer to others, why not address the students themselves? Why do so few think of this? I’ve known of teachers to rant to their classes, the principal, and anyone who will listen, but rarely does anyone actually bring their issues to the student journalists themselves. Yes, sometimes they talk or write to me, and that’s closer to home, but I wish people knew that they could contact the staff.

These students are not delicate flowers. They are some of the toughest people I know. They’ve been turned down over and over by potential ad clients and had their copy shredded by student editors and then re-edited by me. Then judges critique their work. They can take it. And complainers just might be surprised with the reasonable discussion and a fresh point of view they provide. Both parties could walk away with some fresh insight.

JOURNALISM IS THE MOST VALUABLE EXPERIENCE ON CAMPUS

I believe with all my heart that a good journalism program does more for students than any other program on campus – and that’s saying a lot. I know the value of team sports; I see how disciplined the band students are at our school; and I know the work choir students put into their arrangements, choreography, practices and performances. But journalism does more to prepare students for college and real life than any of it. I am sure of that.

I have had students tell me this from the other side. Learning to meet deadlines under pressure, to take constructive criticism to the nth degree and continue to improve on your work, learning how to speak to people you don’t know, how to present in front of a group, how to collaborate with others – it’s all valuable and can be used anywhere. Add to that learning programs like Adobe’s PhotoShop and InDesign, learning how to edit photos and the rules associated with design and composition, how to sell a product, how to troubleshoot technology – it’s all in there.

Editors also teach. There is nothing so rewarding as hearing students using your words to teach others the lessons you taught them and know they find value in it. I love eavesdropping when an editor is explaining how to construct a lead, or why a caption cannot be trapped, or what is meant by headline hierarchy.

I have had former students come back from college journalism programs, from New York film school, from Carnegie Mellon, and they tell me that being on newspaper or yearbook taught them more than anything else to prepare them for what they are doing.  So I have it on excellent authority.

I wish others understood the value of student journalism programs run the way they should be.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

One Response to What I wish non-journalists understood about student journalism

  1. Pingback: Challenged | teachjournalism

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