Where do we go from here?

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During the past few months, I’ve explored various issues relating to scholastic journalism and its social function. There is no shortchanging their gravity and importance. As journalism educators already know, the realm of scholastic media encompasses a vital position in training students for active participation in a democracy.

As I get ready to drift away from this blog and migrate back to the Center for Scholastic Journalism blog, I thought I’d offer a few of the insights I’ve gained during this time about the future of scholastic media.

1. It’s necessary to embrace change. Evolving technology has turned all modern media delivery platforms on their head. Journalists everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to embrace new technologies to reach their audiences. This isn’t just a mere pipedream—it’s necessary for their survival. Journalists need to reach their audiences. Using online technology and social media are primary ways to do this. Many scholastic publications produce top-notch websites and interact with fellow students through social media pages. More resources can be found on JEA’s digital media page.

2. It’s equally important to remain steeped in tradition. The Web doesn’t change the rules of good journalism. The purpose of every website, print newspaper, broadcast, or radio station is the same—to communicate information with the audience. Those that fail to do this aren’t hitting their mark. Students must commit to telling stories that are thorough, accurate and ethical across numerous platforms. Stories need depth and context in words, visuals and multimedia elements.

3. It takes resources. Despite declining budgets and other equally pressing needs, every school needs to support student media. Their value to the school, community and the students is indelible. However, exemplary publications take lots of hard work as well as on-going training for advisers and students alike. Schools need to recognize that the “positive PR” that publications can bring stems not from school administrators policing content but from the students’ ability to learn, question and analyze while producing a stellar publication.

4. Keep the First Amendment first. Scholastic media are one of the few, if only, places where students practice their First Amendment freedoms to speak and publish. To foster a sense of appreciation for those freedoms, advisers need to take it upon themselves to courageously and vigorously teach the values embodied therein. This has to be an integral part of the class. Sadly, students’ work on scholastic media might be one of the only places students actively learn about these issues.

These four principles sum up my thoughts about how scholastic media can have a very bright future. We as educators must take a leading role in shaping the potential for continued growth and rebirth of scholastic journalism.

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Good help can be hard to find

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The title to this post might sum up the feelings of some publication advisers when it comes to finding students qualified to lead the publication. Some advisers often choose the “least of the evils” when it comes to picking student leaders. Some of the candidates are apathetic, others are disengaged, some lack tact and leadership skills, while others don’t understand the journalistic process enough to push their fellow students on the path to success.

Finding qualified student leaders is tough, sometimes even for the most established of programs. However, it’s essential work. It’s THEIR publication. The adviser can’t serve as a “pseudo editor” if the publication is to function to its fullest potential. The students need to engage in the decision-making process. After all, it’s their First Amendment freedoms at stake—not the adviser’s. Limited public forums exist when students make the decisions. This also means they are legally and ethically responsible for everything they publish (or fail to publish).

So this is no light matter. Choosing student leaders should be a decision that requires time, effort and deliberation. It shouldn’t go the highest bidder or the most popular student in class.

Being qualified is a must for such jobs if we’re to give more than lip service to the essential role publications play for the overall social health of the school. Valuable publications require competent leadership. Student editors will often be called upon to justify content decisions to the public. Their training should enable them to speak confidently.

However, it’s essential to provide students with proper training to carry out their job. Even those blessed with people skills and organizational talents need additional help to form them in the journalistic decision-making process.

I’m revamping the editor training course used in my classroom as I write. I’m re-examining many of the skills students needs to properly lead a publication staff. Addressing each of the issues I’m considering will better enable the class to carry out its social function.

First, student leaders must have a thorough background in scholastic press law and ethics. They don’t need to be mini-lawyers, but they need to be able to identify red flags when they appear, and they need to know where to find help. This includes everything from knowing where it’s legally permissible to shoot photos to fair use of copyrighted material to First Amendment protections against censorship for the student press.

Second, they need a vigorous appreciation for story coaching. This includes understanding the complexity that comprises modern life. How are school programs financed? What pitfalls could a student reporter experience while interviewing sources for such a story? Leaders need to provide direction to the staff both in terms of the type of story coverage as well as the best way to achieve that goal.

Third, student leaders need to able to represent the publication’s interests to the public. They need to speak for their fellow students’ work. Doing journalism properly often produces controversy. Students must be willing and able to justify decisions when challenged by fellow students, community members and authority figures.

This is but a short list of some of the major concerns advisers need to address with each new group of student leaders. However, the point here is to remember the importance of providing such training. The publication will be only as good as those who run it.

The greatest point to remember

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Quiz time. Answer the following: What are the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment? Is it a violation of a radio host’s free speech rights if the station cancels his show because of vulgar comments he makes on air? Is it a violation of one’s free speech rights if he or she is heavily criticized for stating his or her viewpoints about a controversial issue?

The answers (as most journalism students might know) are religion, speech, press, assembly and petition for the first question and “no” to the second and third. Yet the sad fact is many Americans, including most young people, don’t. Just look at the often cited Future of the First Amendment survey conducted by the Knight Foundation in 2004 and again in 2006. The results are frightening.

Some have cited a number of factors for this trend, including apathy, a lack of civic education, and the lack of “practice” of First Amendment freedoms in most schools. Add to that list the seemingly endless barrage of baseless and misguided comments about First Amendment freedoms made by prominent politicians, public figures and political pundits, and no wonder people are confused.

Every good scholastic journalism program incorporates a healthy dose of law and ethics training from the beginning so students better understand their rights as well as their responsibilities to serve the public interest. Such training also should include instilling an appreciation for the First Amendment and its freedoms. After all, no more genuine “practice” of those very freedoms exists as when producing a publication.

Perhaps this should be the greatest benefit of scholastic journalism that we as educators need to extol to the world. At a time when budgets are being cut, programs are being axed and advisers are being reassigned to other duties, we need to make clearer the inherent value student publications have in training effective citizens who are engaged and knowledgeable about this country’s most basic freedoms.

Most students in scholastic programs probably won’t ever become journalists. But after they’ve long forgotten the rules about modular page design and the proper way to punctuate quotes or the best methods for incorporating b-roll into a broadcast package, many will remember the importance of making well-informed decisions and using their freedoms wisely.

And that’s a lesson we just can’t afford to do without.

Yet another benefit of student journalism

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As of late, a lot of chatter exists about “citizen journalism.” Evolving technology has enabled average citizens to participate directly in the journalistic process. The Weather Channel now encourages viewers to submit photos and videos of weather events happening outside their window through a promotion called iWitness Weather. CNN’s iReport follows the same logic by allowing users to submit video of news events they witness or to offer opinion or commentary about news stories or events.

Social media add to the mix as well. Traditional news organizations often pick up video, images and eye-witness reports from average citizens armed with nothing more than cell phone cameras.

Jay Rosen, media critic and faculty member at New York University, refers to citizen journalism as the audience taking charge of press tools to inform one another. Citizens now have the power, because of new technology, to add to the mix of information available for consumption.

In some ways, this is certainly beneficial. Professional journalists can’t be everywhere. They can’t have boots on the ground in every conflict zone. They can’t be in every neighborhood during a storm. Average citizens can fill this gap by providing meaningful information and substance.

More opinions are certainly good. After all, in a democracy, more voices are generally a good thing, even if some of them are, well, more than a little idiotic or impractical.

However, every adviser can appreciate the questions and concerns that do remain. While it’s impossible to generalize here, suffice it to say that not all citizens understand the values espoused by traditional journalists. Some may report things that are untrue or serve merely to bolster their own opinions and viewpoints. Others might embellish their work to make it more appealing. Some might even alter photos or video in an effort to heighten a sense of drama or intrigue.

While bloggers and other citizen journalists have added value to the journalistic process, it’s less clear about how to best ensure they will still adhere to the basic tenets of the profession: seek the truth, verify information, disclose conflicts of interest, respect the law, treat sources as human beings.

Just as we teach students to follow these guidelines, so must we also teach those in the broader community about their value. It’s tough when so many seem to only select news and information that already validates their beliefs or perspective. When some see the “truth” as simply a further manifestation of their own opinion, it’s difficult to show them the need to ascribe to higher standards.

I learned this several years ago when I served as editor of a weekly community paper and oversaw a staff of about eight reporters, all of whom had varying levels of experience and understanding of journalism. I quickly discovered how tough it is to bring everyone up to speed. That’s a lesson I’m reminded of each year when a new group of students joins the publication staff.

Teaching the skills and values of this profession is tough, no doubt about it. Perhaps this makes the work of scholastic publications all that more valuable. In this landscape of changing media, proper training as teenagers will propel students to become better media consumers and producers throughout their adult lives, whether they work for established media or add to the public discussion through citizen journalism.

How do we extol the benefits?

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A few days ago at our Center for Scholastic Journalism Advisory Board meeting, one of the participants commented that journalism classes offer one of the only learning environments geared toward the 21st century.

This is something every journalism teacher knows all too well: Their classes are indeed training grounds that allow students to understand technology, communication, synthesis and presentation. Beyond this, a journalism class better prepares students for the challenges of living in a democracy by teaching a healthy appreciation for the First Amendment and free speech coupled with an understanding of how to use those freedoms responsibly and ethically.

On equal footing is the ability for students to learn in a most participatory way about the social and governing processes that structure their lives. I always tell students they have the chance to ask questions of those in power. They can more easily have an audience with and ask questions of administrators and other decision makers. They do have a voice.

The chance to learn all of these skills adds immeasurable value to any journalism class or program. Research from Jack Dvorak at Indiana University and others confirms the value students receive from enrolling in a journalism class.

All of this evidence would seem to speak volumes to communities, school boards and administrators. Journalism classes really are authentic education experiences. It goes beyond merely learning new technology. Journalism classes provide students with training for life, both as information producers and consumers.

Yet, what’s the fear so many have in allowing students to practice this most genuine and encompassing form of education? Why don’t more schools direct resources to improving, instead of controlling, scholastic journalism?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy, especially to those of us who work in scholastic journalism. Perhaps the best promotional pieces for scholastic programs are the students themselves. Perhaps the best way to handle this is to bypass administrators and to take the case to the community itself. Show the average parent and taxpayer the value of student voices. Show them what good journalism looks like. Garner their support. Their voices might be more influential in steering administrators toward understanding scholastic journalism.