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Scholastic Journalism as the Fourth Estate

Student Journalists can play the role of District and Community Watchdogs
Copyright © 2008 Roger H. Goun Creative Commons License

by Tom McHale
New Jersey has launched multiple legislative initiatives designed to strengthen our democratic institutions. Consider the following bills signed into law in the last few years:

  • Civics Education Expansion to Middle Schools (7/23/21): “By deepening civics instruction in middle school and high school, we are giving students the tools they need to be more engaged and informed citizens,” said Governor Murphy.
  • New Voices of NJ (12/21/2021): The law protects the rights of student journalists in public high schools and colleges to editorial control of scholastic publications and protects advisers from retribution.
  • Student Representatives on School Board (1/22) – Requires a non-voting student representative to be appointed to each district school board that includes grades 9-12.
  • Information Literacy (1/4/23): Legislation directs the Department of Education to develop standards for Information and Media Literacy to address the “proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse.”
  • Civic Engagement (1/16/24): Allows students to take an excused absence from school to attend a civic event “sponsored by a government entity, a community-based organization, or a nonprofit” that includes” an element of “service learning and addresses a public issue or concern.”

These laws aim to address what is seen as a crisis in our democracy by attempting to develop students into informed, active citizens. While well-meaning, they operate independently from one another and often at the discretion of school administrators. A more effective approach would incorporate these initiatives into a system that requires students to practice citizenship and participate in democratic institutions.

The best way for students to learn to become active, ethical citizens is to play that role while in school with the guidance and encouragement of trained educators. Unfortunately, most public high schools don’t operate according to democratic principles and don’t promote student voice and choice. The small, private Free and Sudbury Schools provide an example public schools could learn from, but I don’t expect many to incorporate these structures any time soon. Nevertheless, showing this video to my students in a persuasive writing unit on school reform led to some interesting debates about personalized learning, student empowerment and responsibility.

Scholastic Journalists as District and Community Watchdogs

A robust and representative student government that brings the student body’s concerns to administrators and school board members can be an essential democratic learning tool. It’s important that the students feel their leaders are representing their concerns accurately and ethically. Information on how the student government operates and serves the student body is also essential. Scholastic journalism should work to keep its readers informed about its student government in the same way the local and national professional press does.  

But if student journalists are to truly mimic the role of the professional press, they must go beyond informing readers about their student government. They need to do the difficult but necessary work of covering the power structures and decision-makers at the school and district levels.

Become Familiar with Power Structures and the Decision-Making Process

Scholastic publications can make a school’s power structures more apparent and the decision-making process more transparent. However, in my experience, even the school staff often needs to be made aware of this information. So, how can advisers support and encourage students to do this work?

Teach students how to find the information they need. How do they find district policies on scholastic publications, student behavior, and discipline? Are these policies online? Are they easy to find? Have students practice finding policies on issues that matter to them and their audience.

What is the school and district hierarchy? Who does each administrator answer to? What areas are they responsible for? Create a giant flow chart to illustrate this that students have access to. This will help them identify the best person to interview for any issue, policy change, or decision. Then, invite as many of these people as possible to talk to the staff to discuss their jobs and how they make decisions.

Teach students how to read school board minutes and agendas. The business of school boards can be confusing, especially for teens. I suggest having someone who serves on the board come in and talk about the process, the board committees, the difference between agendas and minutes, how they are created, and what items on the agenda mean. Then, help students practice developing questions based on agenda items and minutes.

Have students attend or watch school board meetings. Require that students attend a board meeting and take notes on what they think would be newsworthy for their readers, along with questions they have. In many districts, board meetings are broadcast on TV and YouTube. Some are even recorded. Using video can make it easier to assign students sections of the meeting to focus

Reach out to organizations that play a significant role in a district. Teachers unions, principal and supervisor associations, and school board associations may agree to help educate students about what they do and how the system works. While working on New Voices legislation in New Jersey, I realized the power these organizations can wield and how their competing interests can sometimes interact. Allowing students a glimpse into this may help them deepen their understanding of the issues and politics involved in their district.  

Student journalists need to attend the meetings where decisions that affect their readers are made.

They need to research, prepare, and be allowed to ask questions of those making these decisions. Once they better understand the structures and processes in a school district, they will be better equipped to report on issues that matter to their audience. 

Hyperlocal = Unique and Relevant

I liked to remind my students that, like every other publication, they compete for an audience: Why would someone go to your publication to read about gun control when they can get the same content from a more credible source online? What are you offering that is unique? 

While students can certainly offer a teenage perspective on national issues, they better serve their audience by covering local events and issues. They are better equipped to report on this than anyone else due to their experiences and access to school or local sources. 

I recently talked to Katy Temple about this. She currently works as an aide to Governor Murphy in the Office of Appointments. Temple is a Columbia University graduate, a former Student Press Law Center Intern, and a former editor-in-chief of The Torch, Bergen County Community College’s newspaper. During her tenure at The Torch, Katy began to see the importance of focusing more coverage on school and the decision-making that impacted readers. 

 Student journalists often want to cover the stories they see in the national press.

“You know, you want to cover the big flashy stories,” Temple said. “You want to cover the midterm elections, and you want to cover gun violence and all of these things because that’s what you see in the bigger press outlets. But those aren’t the things that are most relevant or even the most important to our readership.” 

Temple’s advisers, Will Wheaton and Sue Toth, encouraged a shift in the newspaper’s coverage.

“And so I think shifting that focus was something that I first had to be made aware of, and then once I knew that that shift in content had to be made, then we were able to go and do it,” Temple said. “So I think it starts with advisers and making sure that advisers are also encouraging [student journalists] to do this.”

Temple realized this when she took on the role of editor-in-chief of The Torch. 

“I kind of came in like a tornado on it, in all honesty,” she said. “I wanted to make big changes. I wanted to get us back entering awards and winning things and doing things like that to kind of put us back on the map. But I think that that was more possible when I had an adviser who was also willing to make these radical changes, whether it be in coverage in editing, layout, whatever it may be.” 

Filling in the Gaps in Local News Coverage

Scholastic journalism is uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity for students. The more closely scholastic journalism mimics professional journalism’s role in our democratic society, the more students will benefit. In many communities, this means filling in to cover the school or local events and meetings that news outlets used to cover.  In the process, student journalists can learn the vital watchdog role that news organizations must play in our society – despite the criticism and ridicule they sometimes face.

Temple did a session on Student Journalism and Democracy at the Garden State Scholastic Press Association’s Fall Conference. She left the students and advisers with a final message to think about.

“We’ve all heard that democracy dies in darkness, but democracy actually dies without you being the student [journalists]. If we don’t have you filling in these gaps and doing the work that professional outlets used to do, then we don’t have a fully functioning democracy, or our democracy isn’t working the way that it should be,” she told students. 

“For advisers, I think it is to believe in the students the way that they should believe in themselves,” Temple said. “We often hear that students are young and they don’t know what they’re doing or their brains aren’t fully developed, right? But these students are going to go into the world that we have kind of created for them. And so not only should they be aware of what’s going on now before they get to fully participate in it, but with the proper encouragement and support.  They have the capabilities to do really good work and do the job of professional outlet, but you really have to foster that confidence and that belief system in them from the beginning.”

For more on how students are serving as local reporters serving communities in news deserts, see Candace Bowen’s series of posts. 
And don’t forget to check out the activities posted for Scholastic Journalism Week (2/19-2/23).