Apparently some people have questioned the value of high-school journalism, including some who teach it. I didn’t take part in it myself, and despite 25 years in the newspaper bidness, I would not recommend that a bright young person today go to work for a conventional newspaper — for reasons pertaining to vision, finance and management, not journalism. But I digress.
Anyway, to set the stage, here’s a piece by Angela Washeck, who sought certification as a high-school journalism instructor in Texas. I won’t quibble with her facts, but here’s her conclusion, which also is OK on its own terms but misses a very important larger point:
The [certification] test, though, whose competencies reflect the content journalism teachers are expected to teach, is not current or especially relevant, and it’s a far cry from the state of current university-level journalism education. The test’s biggest strength is probably its photojournalism and design section, which requires that teachers know the uses of digital imagery and principles of basic composition.
Not all students who enter college journalism programs are coming from high school newspaper classes or staffs (myself included), but high school journalism class serves as a foundation for many young writers and photographers. I am not saying either that high school journalism teachers aren’t knowledgeable or capable of developing a more digital-first curriculum at the school or classroom level. In many schools, they have complete freedom, and in some high schools, journalism instructors are choosing to forgo the print newspaper and go all online.
My observation is simply that we live in a digital world, where journalists are expected to excel technologically regardless of print success. Texas high school journalism educator standards outline old-school tenets that don’t paint an accurate picture of what defines today’s media industry. In a journalism space where social media, mobile journalism and video content prevail, state curriculum isn’t doing students favors by ignoring new technologies. Yes, large state bureaucracies tend to move slowly in updating curriculum, but teachers who go above and beyond the assigned standards would find ways to integrate these technologies into classroom instruction.
Ma’am, high-school journalism should not be intended as vocational training, although if some vo-tech training happens along the way, that’s cool. It is, rather, more about the process than the product, as Adam Maksl points out:
The product of high school media classes, in many cases a yearbook or newspaper, is no more the central purpose of a scholastic journalism program than winning a football game is to team sports. Instead, it’s about the process, how students engage and work together, and the level of responsibility teachers encourage throughout.
Exceptional parents and educators know this. We don’t encourage our children to play with blocks from a young age because we expect them all to be architects and builders. We do it because we know the seemingly simple task of stacking diverse, colored objects into myriad shapes encourages cognitive development and problem solving. So it is with scholastic journalism.
In the comments to Washeck’s piece, Betsy Pollard Rau, a former Michigan high school journalism teacher whose students have won many reporting awards, said that some students went on to careers in journalism, but many more used skills learned in high school journalism in other professions like science, medicine and business.
“Yearbook, digital and newspaper experiences are merely the vehicles,” Rau wrote in the comments. “It is the destination that matters. High school journalism classes teach students higher level thinking skills, prepare them to deal with stress, give them opportunities to work as a team, meet deadlines, problem solve, write, shoot and edit.”
In fact, conflating the purpose of scholastic journalism with any single tangible product is tantamount to the misapplication and misuse of standardized testing as benchmarks for student learning. It’s exactly this logic that has reduced our students to the sum of their test scores, excluded teachers from educational policy decisions and made our schools prisons for creative and energetic young minds.
Journalism is, then, a process — what New York University’s Jay Rosen has called “the discipline of verification” — and a mindset, which is that power of all kinds, be it governmental, religious, or corporate, must be held to account if our society is to remain free. Athenae at First Draft elaborates:
You’re teaching people to use the bullshit detectors God gave them, and I don’t see anything wrong with that at the high school level. In college [journalism], you’ve got people who plan on practicing the craft, and that requires a little more focus and specialization and fine-tuning, but you’re still teaching people to take a look at what an authority figure tells them and start from the assumption that it is a complete falsehood. You’re still teaching people to find out that which no one wants known and tell as many people as possible through whatever means are at their disposal.
For some kids that instinct is a natural one. Some of us have authority issues from the start. [That'd be me -- L.] Some of us have a sociopathic ability to step outside the normal human experience and immediately begin processing how to communicate the horror around us in such a way as to advocate for its cessation, without being overtaken by that horror ourselves. Some of us just naturally run toward the sound of explosions instead of away.
(Some of us are just nosy, annoying [expletives]. A good 40 percent of the best reporters I know are absolute [expletive] loonballs unwelcome in polite society. Our suspicious minds, greedy for more more more information and unable to prioritize anything higher than satisfying our curiosity, make us unreliable dinner companions. It’s why we tend to socialize with one another. Anybody else would object to her date being perpetually two hours late and constantly jabbering about TIF districts.)
Some kids, though? Some kids should be taught that the world is different under its skin, that if you’re going to love your society you have to make it worth loving, and that means ripping it down to its ugly bones. Some kids need to be pushed to criticize the ropes that hold them up. Some kids should be shown the way change happens, all change: Somebody stands up and yells that the way it’s always been is total horseshit and knock it off.
Those lessons don’t have to come in journalism classes, but: In how many high school subjects are you encouraged to take something apart and put it back together again? In how many high school classes do you get to make something, really really make something, with your own hands? In how many high school classes can you learn to stand up for yourself and your right to know something, at an age when the adult world thinks you’re either a moron or a wuss?
If high school journalism classes aren’t creating journalists, then at least they are nurturing the instinct to call bullshit on the whole world. Student A might not end up a reporter, but he’s gonna be on the phone with his insurance company arguing a denied claim all night because he’s learned not to take no for an answer. Student B might not end up a copy editor, but she’s sure as shit going to make sure the company she works for has all its signs spelled right. Student C might not end up a producer but the annual report will be delivered on time, no matter how many hours of overtime it [expletive] takes.
Student D might not do anything more engaged with society than overhear something on the radio and think, “That sounds like a lie.” And that’s enough to justify a thousand high school papers.
In other words, done right, high-school journalism teaches a student at a young age to think critically. In an age in which government, the church and, especially, corporations are insisting upon increasing their intrusion into our personal lives and lying shamelessly about the reasons, we cannot cultivate this instinct enough if we want to remain a truly free country.