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Celebration and grief: Parkland journalists embody importance of student voices during Scholastic Journalism Week


by Kristin Taylor
Normally, Scholastic Journalism Week is about celebrating the hard work of student journalists around the country. JEA spotlights great student coverage, publications staffs wear journalism t-shirts and sweatshirts and show off their mastery of the First Amendment. We make videos to share the inner workings of student newsrooms and get our communities engaged and excited about that work.

But this Scholastic Journalism Week, as our nation reeled from yet another horrific school shooting, the last thing on the minds of student journalists at Stoneman Douglas High School was celebration.

If you haven’t already read Alexandria Neason and Meg Dalton’s Columbia Journalism Review article “In Parkland, journalism students take on role of reporter and survivor,” start there. It describes how Parkland students began to think like journalists even before they had fully evacuated, getting footage and interviewing classmates.

The article describes how newspaper adviser Melissa Falkowski texted her students the next day and “gently nudged them to start thinking about how they might cover the events rapidly unfolding around them,” and how staffers Nikhita Nookala and Christy Ma volunteered to write that first, difficult story, using a Google doc to collaborate from home.

It’s a story about student voice and resilience in the face of unspeakable horror.

I sent this article to all my journalism students and asked them to reflect on its implications, and the conversation we had the next day was powerful. My students expressed their admiration for Nookala, Ma and the other student journalists at Stoneman Douglas. They wondered if they would have the presence of mind to think like journalists in a crisis like that and admired Nookala’s statement that she needed to “do something” to help her community in such a difficult time.

We also looked closely at this passage, which describes one reason why Parkland student journalists felt compelled to report: “This was their story. And telling it was as much about ownership as it was about beginning what will undoubtedly be a difficult reckoning with their own trauma and grief.”

Is there a more powerful statement about the importance of scholastic journalism than that? Seeking the truth while minimizing the harm done to an already traumatized community, being reporters who are also survivors and using journalism to own their community’s stories — these student journalists’ voices were and are important during this crisis.

As a complement to the CJR article, my class also talked about the op-ed in Teen Vogue called “Black Teens Have Been Fighting for Gun Reform for Years.”

The piece asks hard questions about the outpouring of support that the #neveragain movement has received in comparison to the nation’s response to black youth groups “organizing anti-violence rallies…meeting with presidential candidates, proposing policy ideas, participating in national debates, and organizing intensely to advocate for more equitable state and federal gun laws that impact black and brown people.”

Regardless of their personal opinions, this second piece was a great opportunity to talk about the concept of media framing. What role do news organizations have in framing one group as heroic and another as disruptive? Are student newsrooms also guilty of this? Do they have diverse voices in their newsrooms to ensure multiple perspectives? Why are these conversations so crucial to have when deciding how to cover teen activism and national tragedies?

For me, the answer to these questions comes down to this year’s Scholastic Journalism Week theme: “Student Voice, Student Choice.” When we support our student journalists, we support their efforts to grapple with these difficult questions and report as fairly and accurately as they can, making hard decisions about what to cover and how to cover it.

As I’ve listened to commentators marvel at the articulateness and poise of the Parkland students, I have to shake my head. They are amazing, no doubt, but anyone who thinks it’s shocking that teenagers can speak and write well, whether as journalists or activists, hasn’t spent much time around teenagers lately.

I hope no student has to report on a tragedy like Stoneman Douglas again, but I have every confidence they can if they have to.  Our job as advisers is to teach our students journalistic skills and ethics, empower them to own their stories and then get out of the way.

There is no truer celebration of Scholastic Journalism Week than that.

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