By Jessica Wray
Nearly five years after hearing First Amendment advocate Mary Beth Tinker speak at the Indiana Statehouse, her words of encouragement and support still ignite in me a passion not only for student speech and press rights but also for student journalism.
The Indiana High School Press Association sponsors a First Amendment Symposium every year, and the spring of my junior year I heard Tinker speak. I had already found my love of reporting and writing and an interest taking photos, but I never saw my work on the high school newspaper as having a purpose other than for class credit and that I enjoyed it.
That changed, though, as I listened to other students speak about the five freedoms of the First Amendment and heard Tinker talk about her struggle as a teenager to exercise free speech. I felt like what I was doing on my high school staff had a purpose and that I could make a difference.
Now, after my intern group’s meeting last week with Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, I have found a renewed fire for journalism. Our discussion about student press freedoms made me excited to get back to my college paper and bite into a big project. LoMonte’s advice to be persistent with a story and to not back down hit home. Young people have power when they’re driven and have a mission.
Scholastic journalism provides a forum for thought, discussion and a medium for change. Young people are almost always at the forefront of social and political change. Student publications, blogs and websites created by and for young people are the modes of transportation for that change.
Young people have a voice – and that voice is strong and loud.
For example, Tinker, then 13, and her brother John, then 15, exercised their freedom of speech by wearing black armbands to school to peacefully protest the Vietnam War. Both were punished. They sued the Des Moines school system and won a landmark Supreme Court ruling upholding students’ First Amendment rights.
She is now touring with her brother as part of a First Amendment activism program called Tinker Tour U.S.A. that takes both Tinkers around the country on painted buses to talk about their experience and encourage students to know their rights.
And high school newspapers from across the country, including the HiLite, an award-winning student newspaper from Carmel High School in Carmel, Ind., have reported on serious topics and issues relevant to young people. The HiLite staff, which received an online Pacemaker award, has written about basketball team hazing and a student’s struggle with coming out.
Another student newspaper The Shakerite, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, fought to get public records about a campus sexual assault. The local police station didn’t want to turn over the records, but with persistence and advice from an adviser – who had training in how to obtain public documents – the students were able to get the information and write their story.
But it’s not just about the benefits of providing an open forum for students’ appropriate self-expression.
Scholastic journalism also provides essential lessons every student should learn.
Journalism teaches students core values such as accuracy, fairness, truth and respect. These values are not only critical for proper reporting, writing and editing, but are also fundamentals for creating a well-rounded student.
Even if students do not continue to study journalism in college, or pursue it as a career, learning how to be a journalist teaches students about the news and entertainment information they consume. If they know how story content is produced and what well-balanced journalism should look like, students can learn how to analyze and take in the information they’re receiving on TV and on their phones.
I don’t know where I’d be without my journalism background – especially in the political climate we are in today. As a reporter interning in Washington, I’ve seen up-close the past few weeks how confused people can get about the truth if they do not understand how to think critically about the media messages they are receiving.
“Simply put, news literacy is the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and information sources. As 21st Century citizens, we must know what is in the news we consume – where to get the news, what to do with it and how to make news of our own,” the School Journalism site says.
There are multifaceted benefits to scholastic journalism programs.
That’s why it’s crucial for student journalism programs, college publications and the professional media to support projects like the Tinker Tour U.S.A. Because it’s programs and events and lectures by people like Tinker and her brother that will continue to inspire and motivate the next generation of journalists.