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‘You have the power to IMPROVE the world,
not just change it’ are words worth noting

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by Stan Zoller
Sometimes it’s difficult to see the forest through the trees. Or perhaps we spend a lot of time preaching to the choir. Take your pick.

As journalism educators, we know about the problems we face handling student media. So when someone from “the outside” addresses them, it’s a breath of fresh air.

So rather than write about a “really great speech I heard…”, I’m going to let you read it for yourself.

But first, a bit of background. The presentation was by Dann Gire, film critic for the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Gire was the featured speaker at the Illinois Journalism Education Association’s annual award luncheon June 7.

Quite simply – Gire gets it. He has taught at the college level and has come under fire by administrators. But rather than shake his head and disbelief and walk away from journalism education, he has become one of the most ardent supporters of student journalism and press rights. I am privileged to know Gire as a friend and a colleague on the Chicago Headline Club Board of Directors. The key word there is friend.

Not only is he a personal friend, but he was the IJEA’s 2013 Friend of Scholastic Journalism as well as a JEA Friend of Scholastic Journalism, an honor he received in Boston at the 2013 Fall Convention.

We need more friends like Dann Gire. But don’t take my word for it, read his presentation and absorb his words. Better yet, practice his advice.

Here are his remarks.

In May, my daughter Lauren gave this to me for a birthday present. It’s a plaque that says “When you silence criticism, you silence freedom.” That is such a great phrase, I must figure out how to fit it into my speech today. Meanwhile, here’s something worth remembering. We already know it, but it bears repeating. Long before the existence of the American soldier, we had American journalists. Long before the existence of the American government, we had American journalists. Long before the existence of school boards and principals and superintendents, we had American journalists. So important were American newspapers that Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

So, is it any surprise that when the founding fathers sat down to create the Bill of Rights, that the First Amendment, The FIRST Amendment, not the Second, not the Third, The FIRST AMENDMENT boldly declared that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” Our Founding Fathers assessed the American press to be so crucial to the health and future of the American political experiment that they judged a free press to be more important than the right of the people to keep and bear arms. More important than the right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. We know all of this. But, you need to be aware of the great responsibilities you’ve inherited as student journalists and heirs to this great legacy. Wait, I’m wrong. You know what? You didn’t inherit diddly squat.

You’re in this room, right here, right now in the Governor’s Mansion of the Great State of Illinois, the land of Lincoln, not because you inherited something. But because you earned it. When it comes to high school journalists, you have been judged to be the best of the best. You are the Top Guns of your class. You are the Big Lebowskis of high school student journalism. And you, the unsung faculty journalism advisers, are also to be congratulated. Your extra hours and overtime efforts working with student publications have paid off today. This is no small accomplishment. Not only have you persevered in teaching, coaching and encouraging your student journalists, you had to do that, and put out a high quality publication or website while under the all-seeing eyes of your administrators, many of whom administrate under the delusion your job is to create the best public relations rag the district has ever seen. (There are those rare exceptions, of course. We will meet both of them in a moment.) But for many of you, the political high wire you must walk to do your job every day makes being the U.S. ambassador to Russia look like a cake walk. You and your students are just as dedicated and hardworking as the students and advisors of the state’s institutions of higher learning. But they have something you don’t: A shield law. State Senator Susan Garrett proposed the College Campus Press Act that would make it illegal for agents of the state, principals and other district officials, to punish or penalize student journalists and their faculty advisors for publishing stories they don’t like. The law was passed by both houses and signed into law by the governor. It took effect on June 1, 2008. We live in a state filled with high school district administrators, many of whom consider student newspapers as something to be treated with Preparation H. These administrators think nothing of censoring student news media, sometimes shutting down websites or publications, and disbanding the staffs. Then they go after the faculty advisors to make them an example for other teachers in the district. These faculty advisors are marginalized, penalized, ostracized, minimized, criticized, pulverized and downsized. And for what? For producing critical thinkers with a knack for asking questions and obtaining information. For what? For doing their jobs well. Call me nutty, but I don’t think our founding fathers rebelled against the idea that newspapers must obtain royal approval to operate, just so that more than two centuries later newspapers in Illinois schools could be published “under authority” of state government officials. We need a shield law, like the college campus press act, to protect high school news outlets. This can happen.

This needs to happen. But for student publications and news websites to be called true journalism worthy of a shield law, two conditions must be in place: 1. Student must be trained and educated to be effective, responsible journalists who’ve earned the right to be protected by shield law. 2. Faculty advisors must be qualified to train these journalists No high school football coach would make an inexperienced student a quarterback. You need someone who knows the rules and has a sense of sportsmanship to lead. A student media outlet needs an editor and staff who know the rules and possess a sense of ethical conduct. I know that often English teachers get assigned to the school newspaper because administrators think that English and journalism are the same thing. Not true. Here’s the difference: An English major starts a story, “Call me Ishmael.” A journalism major starts the same story: “A giant rogue white whale attacked a ship on the high seas, killing all but one sailor, identified by authorities only by the name of Ishmael” An English major starts a mystery, “One dark and stormy night….” A journalism major starts it, “The butler did it and police this week arrested him for the serial murders of several guests at a posh mansion estate on a tiny isolated island off the East Coast!” Illinois’ high school journalists need excellent and qualified advisors. They’ve earned them. You’ve earned them today. We need a shield law for high school journalists now. I know there are those out there who will say that now is not the time for a shield law. And I agree with them. We should have had a shield law back in 1818 when Illinois became a state and should have included in its constitution a provision that the government and its agents shall not abridge freedom of speech, or of the press. The press, just like in the Bill of Rights, where there is no little asterisk denoting, “except the student press.” You are the American press. This brings us back to my daughter’s birthday present, the plaque reading “When you silence criticism, you silence freedom.” How do you silence criticism? You shut off information that is essential to criticism. If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you criticize anything? See how it works? If you kill information, you bury the truth. You eliminate criticism. Then you can abolish freedom. The question is, are you are you prepared to be the journalists of the 21st century, dedicated to the ideals of an informed electorate? The responsibilities of a free press? The burden of being the watchdog, the advocate and the protector for the citizens of the United States, just like the journalists who preceded the American soldier and politician?

You’ve already answered those questions by being here today. Those of you who go on in journalism will discover this truth — that you never really chose your life calling. It chose you. So go forth this day, June 7, 2014 with the knowledge that you have the power not just to change the world — anyone with a gun or a bomb can change the world. That’s easy. Big deal. You have the power to IMPROVE the world, not just change it. That’s what real journalists do. That’s why I urge you all to tap into your inner super hero… and make an improvement.. Remember that the pen is still mightier than the sword. The sword can only threaten. The pen, however, possesses the power to INSPIRE. But I have to admit….the keyboard is a lot faster. Go forth now. Be Bold. Be Truthful. Be a beacon of justice, compassion, equality and fairness. And when you’re done with that, be inspiring.

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