Hillary Davis, New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer for the Student Press Law Center, chats with PSJA about private schools being left out of the New Voices fight, which seeks to pass state laws granting students more press freedoms.
From the fourth grade on, and now as a high school teacher at my alma mater, I’ve been privileged to belong to the independent school community.
Not only have I experienced firsthand what makes our small but vibrant community special, but I’ve also connected with colleagues and peer institutions to hone my craft — as well as learn more about the values our schools share. Across the board, I’ve found that independent schools pride themselves on offering one-on-one attention, smaller class sizes, and a caring and nurturing environment for students to reach their potential.
Many independent schools also share similar mission statements, which emphasize critical thinking, communication, and creativity. Moreover, the word “leadership” comes up often while scrolling through private school admissions materials — and while I believe that our collective school community upholds many of its core values, as a whole we are deficient at offering and teaching journalism, including newspaper production, essential for fostering those four core values.
What’s more, in the so-called “fake-news” era, with divided politicians unable or unwilling to agree upon a common set of facts, and with President Trump calling the media the “enemy of the people,” more than ever it’s critical for schools to invest in building robust journalism programs. As I write this article, I can almost hear administrators, who say that their schools already teach media literacy through existing curriculum. I maintain that unless students are also creating and disseminating their own news on a frequent basis, meant for public consumption, this is wholly insufficient.
Measuring Lack of Student Media at Independent Schools
Beyond a handful of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest independent schools, I fear that too few independent schools offer journalism programs or foster student publications. Where they do exist, they are likely to be on life support. This is a shame, especially because of journalism’s increasing centrality to everything that private schools hold dear about education, not the least of which is equipping young minds with skills to succeed after graduation.
Several years ago, I spoke with Mark Briggs, a former Ford Fellow of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute, who told me how experience in the newsroom gives students a big advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.
“If you can produce students who command a very diverse set of skills, who can also present themselves and create ideas and get behind them, and even sell those ideas — that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that we need in journalists,” says Briggs, also author of Journalism Next: Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. “To me, that’s kind of the Holy Grail right now of journalism education.”
I couldn’t agree more, but I would add that while many students know how to create content, too few know how to produce high-quality content, the kind that makes them stand out to not only college admission officers, but also potential employers. We need to teach and encourage students to create and share original, quality content to brand themselves and their abilities in an ocean of increasingly indistinguishable resumes.
Beyond journalism’s capacity to foster an informed citizenry, the discipline might also help students achieve academic success. A comprehensive study sponsored by the American Press Institute found, among other benefits from supporting student voice, that “students with journalism experience in high school did better than non-journalism students in terms of both high school grades and ACT scores.”
The independent school community must take a difficult first step in acknowledging that when it comes to supporting student voice, in which journalism and student media play essential roles, we have serious work to do; 200 institutions claim membership to the Association of Independent Schools in New England, the geographic epicenter of the private school world. Yet Helen Smith, who serves as Executive Director of the New England Scholastic Press Association (NESPA), recently told me that the organization’s membership usually includes fewer than a dozen independent schools, compared to 70 or so public schools.
In New England, as elsewhere around the country, public schools far outnumber private schools, which likely accounts for the disparity in NESPA membership. Still, no math justifies any New England private school’s not paying an annual $50 membership fee, especially if that school wishes to stay true to its mission. In addition to providing a network of other advisers and student publications, NESPA provides consulting services and award recognition.
“I can’t imagine how any school, private or public, can be serious about student voice and not belong to NESPA, the region’s premier scholastic journalism body,” I told Smith.
“In any school, I think an awful lot of what determines the strength of student media depends on what administrators and department heads are ready to encourage,” Smith said.
Her words ring true, and I wish that more private schools had the foresight to encourage student media.
But it’s not just on a local level that support for private school student media falls short. I spoke with the President of the Journalism Education Association (JEA), Sarah Nichols, who oversees the nation’s premier scholastic educational body for student media and advisers. She told me that her organization doesn’t keep track of public versus private school membership, “but comparatively, the private-school number is quite low.”
All of this reveals a simple but brutal truth — unless a private school is working to establish a dynamic journalism program, it’s not doing all that it can to support students or sustain its philosophy. Furthermore, at least in Massachusetts, many schools are about to break the $50,000 tuition ceiling, making any financial excuse for inaction completely unjustifiable.
To learn more about the quality of student media at private schools, I connected with Erica Salkin, a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University (WA), who is writing a book about the subject. She has spent the previous several years reaching out to different kinds of private schools, learning about the strengths and weaknesses of their journalism programs, or if they exist at all. In reviewing her findings, Salkin said she found three chief reasons why administrators decide against taking action.
We Just Don’t Have the Money
“One was we just don’t have the money,” Salkin told me. “’We don’t have the funds. It’d be great, but we don’t have the money.’”
Upon hearing this, I cringed, telling Salkin, “this is a lazy and illegitimate excuse.” I didn’t share these words lightly, and I couldn’t hold back my frustration. I advise The Gator, the multi-award-winning online student newspaper of Brimmer and May School (MA), and here is an exact rundown of the School’s total expenses for student journalism, costs which we control by operating mostly on digital platforms. Not only does doing incur only nominal costs, but it’s also green, which comports with many schools’ philosophies.
A yearly subscription option to WordPress, the industry standard among website-construction software services, is $300, which includes access to live-chat support, for schools with questions about settings or controls. Members also don’t need to worry about updating security patches, which is done for them. This plan also gives them access to several special templates, which they can enhance with additional coding. Last spring, The Gator outsourced programming several design modifications to Codable for a fair price, but I argue that aesthetics should come second to content quality.
There can be bumps in the road for digital media; this fall The Gator was hacked by an unknown entity, resulting in inappropriate and offensive headline changes. My students published a special notice to readers, and WordPress responded quickly by updating security settings on the backend, and urging my editors to take advantage of two-step password authentication. No significant controversy ensued, and the School seemed to appreciate the transparency and quick action.
No other expenditures are essential, although The Gator has purchased memberships to other platforms, all easily embeddable to the site. These include a $63 subscription to SoundCloud Pro to host podcasts, Vimeo Plus for $59.95 to host video, Shorthand for $500 to produce creative layouts, and about $100 worth of credit on Bigstock to feature non-student-taken photographs. Those users who need to limit costs can easily upload video and audio content directly onto their sites.
If you can’t think of anybody at your school with the technological know-how to learn WordPress, I would encourage you to ask for student input. I would bet that tech-savvy, dedicated students could take the lead, as they should with all aspects of scholastic journalism. Regardless of how much help is needed, I’m impressed by SNO Sites, which specializes in helping schools launch and maintain WordPress scholastic journalism sites for $400 a year, plus a one-time set-up fee of $250.
If this is too much money, Nichols reminds me that schools don’t have to pay a dime.
“You do not need to host and build your own website if you can’t,” she says. “Even if you want to have a newspaper or a news magazine that is traditionally laid out like a magazine or a paper, you can just go on issue.com and present it online, not actually printed.”
Teachers can also work with students to share quality content on Instagram, SnapChat, and YouTube, Nichols tells me, adding that students are putting themselves out there whether we’re paying for it or not. “We might as well work together for a really educationally sound experience with some training and some resources to do it their way,” she said.
Anecdotally, I’ve also heard from colleagues at peer schools who argue that even with minimal or no publication costs, they wouldn’t be able to find and hire a person to teach and advise student media, without needing that individual to also teach other courses. My reply is that if schools can hire and pay for athletic coaches, as well as help to oversee other auxiliary programming, they can also hire and pay somebody to oversee student media initiatives. It’s all about priorities, and I question any independent school that does not move mountains to support student media.
It’s also worth noting that many new journalism teachers lack experience. Many helpful and affordable resources exist (which I explain later on). All that needs to happen is for schools to place an adult in the room. All the same, students should assume as much of the responsibility as possible. Now, five years into advising The Gator, I’m practically invisible. What readers see online is entirely student produced, even as I stick around if students request help editing, or want my thoughts on ethical considerations.
Curious about how often schools look to hire journalism teachers, I reached out to Carney Sandoe & Associates, the largest teacher-placement organization in the independent school world. According to Director of Communications Julie Landis, in the past decade, 3 or 5 journalism jobs have been listed with the company a year. “In our opinion, a job like that is often not listed externally,” Landis wrote me via an electronic exchange. “Instead, a current English teacher might take on such a role, so we might not see the full picture. It is indeed still quite a small number.”
There is nothing wrong with an existing hire also taking on a journalism position, even if that individual lacks experience in the subject. Even so, when it comes to assessing the priority of student media at independent schools, I’m not comforted by what Landis shared with me; quite the opposite.
It Doesn’t Align with Our Mission
Even if money did pose a legitimate barrier to schools’ launching successful journalism programs, which it does not, I was even more shocked when Salkin told me that several schools she reached out to reported that student media programs don’t align with their missions.
“There are schools that don’t understand the valuable role that student publications can have in student development — in the development of voice, the development of identity, the ability to engage a public, to understand community issues,” Salkin said. “There is so much documented benefit to working on student press that, unless your mission is, ‘We don’t want to teach, and we want them to come out incredibly compliant,’ you cannot claim that you’re living by your mission statement.”
Salkin explained that her surveys of schools were anonymous, making it difficult for her to dig deeper into specific cases. In my anecdotal, less scientific experience, I can’t help but think that too many schools claim mission misalignment as an excuse for fear of being criticized by young journalists. Why else would schools fight against scholastic journalism, which caters so well to student agency while also cultivating an array of highly transferable communication skills?
Such fear is entirely misplaced, especially as independent schools emphasize the importance of community, and I can’t think of any successful community that doesn’t coexist with a thriving press, keeping its leaders honest and accountable.
“Transparency is really key,” Salkin tells me. “I think that people are more open to that now than ever, because they’re seeing other places without transparency. There’s an argument to be made that ‘you don’t trust us, or you don’t think this is how it is, let us show you. Let us put it all out there for you.’”
Even a quick glance at The Gator reveals overwhelmingly positive coverage, an impression that is justly deserved. In fact, earlier this year, the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) published Expressing Ourselves, a featured piece about the School’s strong arts program, on a shortlist for Digital-Story-of-the Year. However, student publication should not be a mere arm of the public relations office. My students don’t shy from controversy.
Gabe Bryan ’19 recently won NSPA’s Opinion Story-of-the-Year for Speak Truth to Power Amid Sexual Abuse Claims, an honor akin to a Pulitzer Prize in student journalism. He doesn’t pull any punches: “Something is rotten in America, and the stench is emanating from our political leaders and media elite, who either don’t know how or refuse to treat women with dignity and respect,” his lede reads. “Let’s start at the top.”
The Gator has also featured controversial stories about the immediate community, including a touchier but important piece last spring, Brimmer Not Immune to Vaping Trend. While reporting, students acted responsibly by speaking with administrators, who requested that the online publication neither identify nor provide pseudonyms for sources, worried about harming an individual’s potential prospects for the future. The editors agreed, and the story ran on the front page, where it became the most read article for over a month.
More recently, The Gator ran another critical story, Admin. Unveils Additional Midterm Policy Changes, which highlighted inconsistencies over the last three years. The editors, seeing that the administration felt uneasy about the piece, assured them that the article would be fair, balanced, and thorough. To ensure administrators that this would be the case, the editors even made the decision to share the article with the head of school in advance. It’s important to note that students chose this course of action, and that the School never threatened to censor the piece. In the end, the story appeared without a storm — or at least one that I’m aware of. The students kept the community informed on an issue of major substance, and they felt proud about holding the School’s proverbial feet to the fire.
At times, The Gator is also critical of School policies in its opinion pages. Last spring, Camille Cherney won a local scholastic journalism award for her piece, It’s Time to Rethink Graduating in White. One passage is worthy of quoting in length, as it exemplifies how scholastic journalism has the potential to foster eloquent and passionate writing:
As the end of the academic year quickly approaches, some students and faculty are questioning the strict dress code for graduation.
Since before the merger of the Brimmer School and the May School in 1939, female students have been required to wear white dresses to graduation.
The tradition was instituted long, long ago, and it’s time to examine the relevance of the dress-code. White is traditionally a symbol of virginity, innocence, and goodness. These traits are antiquated in a time when both women and men are defying gender stereotypes.
The color white also symbolizes marriage, implying that female graduates are ready to find a husband. Purity should not be idealized as an essential feminine quality. Instead, the School should encourage individuality and recognize that femininity can be expressed in many different ways.
Moreover, the dress code does not address the concerns of students who do not identify as a woman or a man. Some do not want to express themselves in a purely feminine or a purely masculine way.
It remains to be seen whether this year graduating seniors will be able to wear non-white colors at commencement. But what’s clear is how much Brimmer supports student voice, even thoughtful, civil dissent. Whether because of or despite this reality, our Pre-K — 12 community continues to flourish. In fact, last year we completed a multi-million-dollar addition, featuring a high-tech science classroom, media center, Maker Space, and Innovation Center.
Lack of Student Interest
Brimmer’s impressive improvements to the physical plant have transformed our small school of just under 400 students. It’s worth noting that The Gator wrote an editorial praising those involved in the effort. Equally noteworthy, with an average of only 32 students in each high school grade, journalism is consistently one of the most popular electives and meets three times a week.
Last spring, 27 students in grades 9–12 enrolled in the class, which is dedicated to producing The Gator, making it the second most popular elective in the School, right behind chorus. This fall, to make things more manageable for our student-editors we had no choice but to limit the class size to 18. When it gets down to it, all of this is to say that no matter the size of your school, scholastic journalism should exist, and thrive.
I was dismayed, then, when Nichols told me that a lack of student interest also dissuaded private schools from offering journalism, including the chance to work on a student newspaper. I cringed as she did her best to summarize her findings: “Our students are trying to do so many things that student media is just not on their radar, because they don’t see it as getting them into the elite colleges and universities. They would much rather do rocket club, or they would much rather do debate or student council — the things they feel are the big-money activities that are going to give them more recognition.”
If students don’t consider journalism a “big-money activity,” the independent school world is in deeper trouble than I originally thought. I trust Nichols’s research, but I refuse to believe that students actually feel this way. Nichols agrees, and we both feel that any assertion of a lack of student interest is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nichols puts it best: “’Our students aren’t interested, so we won’t have a newspaper.’ We don’t have a newspaper, so how are students supposed to get interested in it?”
However, even if most students at a given school lack interest in journalism, schools have a responsibility to bring in teachers trained to instruct students in essential disciplines — like math and history. Of course, many students detest math and history, yet schools still require courses in those disciplines. I believe this is necessary and proper, as young people must be exposed to various methods of thinking.
We shouldn’t offer excuses for not having a vibrant culture of student media in our schools. If we know that something with documented benefit to students, like math and history, is required of students, regardless of interest or proficiency, there is no excuse for not making journalism at least an option.
Help is Available
If you don’t know where to start in fostering student media in your school, the best place to look is the JEA. Nichols tells me that her organization wants to be your partner every step of the way. This includes training teachers to become journalism advisers. The organization also offers a mentorship program, as well as an entire sample curriculum for journalism education. As Nichols puts it,
Any truly good administrator is a teacher, and any truly good teacher understands how kids learn, and who doesn’t want a kid to learn? Who doesn’t want a kid to be the decision-maker? Who doesn’t want a kid to have to grapple with these really tough choices, and to get it right and to be held accountable to this huge, huge audience and to a team of people working day in and day out to do good? We want to help you do it right. All you have to do is offer journalism.
I also suggest looking into joining your state scholastic journalism association, which can be found with a quick Google-search. The Columbia Scholastic Press Association, as well as NSPA, in addition to offering terrific educational support, gives annual national awards in virtually every category of scholastic journalism.
Lastly, ask schools with established journalism programs for free advice. Along those lines, don’t be afraid of contacting public schools with award-winning publications. I can’t express how much I’ve learned from more experienced advisers, no matter from what type of school.
Of course, I’m more than happy to help however I can. Ultimately, I aim to spearhead a group of private schools invested in supporting quality student journalism. I envision that this process will play a critical role in helping to guide private schools, which have concerns and questions unlike from those of the public and charter school sectors, in launching successful campaigns in student journalism.
We should not wait to get started. I’m filled with excitement upon considering the untapped potential in our wider community. Let this be the start of something special.
Welcome to our Thanksgiving Assembly. It is wonderful to see so many guests here today. We have had a delightful fall at Brimmer. We have enjoyed watching spirited athletic matches, outstanding creative arts performances, and an array of purposeful learning — both in and out of the classrooms.
Each year we have a theme for the school year that helps us highlight a portion of the School’s mission. This year’s theme “Responsible Leadership and Student Voice” has opened up several conversations throughout the school this fall.
As our Middle and Upper School students strive to become ethical leaders in our diverse world, they have been given many opportunities this fall to share their opinions, interests, talents, and knowledge and develop their unique voices. I enjoy listening to teenagers navigate topics and express their ideas, and it is inspiring to hear their persistent optimism and youthful convictions.
I am grateful for our faculty and staff who create a curriculum, make the time, and give the space for the voices of our youth to be heard and understood.
As a result, Brimmer offers a culture where ideas can be vetted and shared. In a recent speech delivered at the annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalism in New York and subsequently captured in The Atlantic’s article, The World’s Most Valued Troublemakers, the importance of listening to the stories that bind us as a society is critical.
In the program’s evening remarks, it was expressed how “Journalists seek out the voices that all too often go unheard – the marginalized, the oppressed, the dispossessed. They provide context to complicated narratives. They inform, enlighten, and entertain. They allow for shared moments of levity and empathy. They head out into a different and complicated world, and tell us stories that allow us to learn, to make informed decisions at the ballot box, and to remain smartly engaged in civic life.”
I would like to share with you some of our students’ thoughts on various complex subjects in their effort to be an informed and enlightened group of students. You will hear voices with empathy, conviction, and decency. The topics I am sharing include the importance and limits of academic subjects, fairness and ethical behavior and the lack of it in our society, the ability to manage social pressures, and the importance of checking habits that cause distraction. While our students have plenty to say about the political climate and behavior of politicians, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I decided to leave those out of my remarks.
In an effort to frame this year’s academic theme for the student body, members of the Gator staff wrote about how they saw evidence of responsible leadership and student voice through involvement in the Judicial Board. They wrote:
“The [Judicial] Board embraces empathy in order to foster justice—not punishment. The ultimate goal is to decide how a student can best reengage with the community, while also learning from past mistakes.
While the Judicial Board is one example of a critical place where student voice matters, there are also plenty of other ways for students to express themselves. We have the opportunity to sit in on Senate meetings or run for a position, reach out to the administration, start a club, do community service, or write for The Gator.”
In an op-ed piece this fall, Nate Suraci wrote on the subject of learning a foreign language and challenges the school’s three -year language requirement while endorsing the importance of a computer science language, saying:
“I’m not suggesting that languages shouldn’t be taught in school. I think language classes teach critical thinking, patience, and respect for other cultures.
I agree with [Mrs.] Goldberger. Individually, foreign languages and computer science are important, but when studied in tandem, the disciplines have the potential to open new opportunities for students.
Foreign language and computer science provide valuable and practical skills, but they are not for everyone. While introductory courses should be required, higher-level [language] classes should be optional.”
Senior Camille Cherney responds to the issues of fairness and morality surrounding the higher education scandal that pervaded the news last summer and throughout this fall. She writes:
“I am happy to see that the corruption that pervades higher education is being exposed. As a college-bound high school senior, I was especially enraged by the scandal. My peers and I work hard to earn our grades and test scores, so it was disheartening to see money triumph over merit.
Most of the families involved in the scandal are wealthy and white. With these privileges, they already have access to services like SAT and ACT tutoring and private admissions counseling, which can cost thousands of dollars. Resorting to bribery and dishonesty is both unnecessary and immoral.
We may never live in a true meritocracy, but these lawsuits are a first step towards a more equitable future. As long as we continue to strive for equal opportunity, I have faith that we can enter a new era of educational justice.”
Every young person deals with the pressures of body image, and Grace Papas shares her views on our society’s obsession with beauty when she writes:
“Why is appearance so important in our culture? Such insecurities can feel crippling.
Accepting your reflection can be difficult, but you have to remember that it’s your body and your life—and nobody’s opinion is more important than your own.”
Fitting in with a group of friends occupies our hearts and minds, and Ava Lockhart shows empathy and understanding for social pressures and gives voice to those who may feel marginalized when she writes:
“. . . don’t be afraid to talk with someone who’s struggling to find a place in the crowd. You might just help them feel a bit more comfortable.”
Nothing can be more divisive and controversial than the generational debate on the use of our mobile devices. Just take a look around and most people on the streets, sidewalks, and coffee shops have their eyes on their phones. Zoe Kaplan wrestles with the use of devices, and states:
“Social media, which is ubiquitous, can’t and shouldn’t be forbidden. But as a community, we must continue to engage in discussions with our peers and teachers about healthy and unhealthy use.”
These are just a few of the dozen comments our students published under their own names and have demonstrated how they take responsible positions on rather controversial subjects. Our students are demonstrating how their voice matters, and they have taken the responsibility to do so with respect and care. They have built a shared experience that binds our community together with important ideas for all to consider.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for this school community and how the young people we educate uphold the importance of having a voice, one that exhibits respect and responsibility.
-Cartoon by Ava Lockhart ’21, who writes and draws for The Gator, the award-winning student news site of Brimmer and May, where Judy Guild serves as Head of School.
Katina Paron, author of A NewsHound’s Guide to Student Journalism, shares her thoughts on what three areas school publications need to spend more time on.
PSJA Director David Cutler delivered a keynote address to his School’s Board of Visitors Thursday, Oct. 25, detailing the dire state of private school journalism—and what to do about it.
As adviser to Brimmer and May School’s (Chestnut Hill, MA) award-winning online student newspaper, The Gator, I’m honored to launch a support group for scholastic journalism at private schools.
No matter the size or type of our respective communities, we share common philosophies and guiding principles, including an emphasis on student voice.
This compeltely free group exists to support scholastic journalism at private schools, which face unique challenges and opportunities. Once a month, I’ll email a newsletter with helpful links and resources.
Unfortunately, too few private schools have vibrant student publications—or any at all. I encourage you to read my article, The Dead of Dying State of Student Journalism at Independent Schools, which cites some unsettling statistics.
The ultimate goal of this group is to help establish quality, award-winning student publications at more private schools across the country.
I wish to note that this support group is not meant to take the place of or compete against local, regional or national scholastic journalism bodies. I do hope, however, that this group will encourage private schools to join scholastic journalism organizations.
On this front, I have the honor of serving as an advisory board member of the New England Scholastic Press Association. I have learned a tremendous amount from Executive Director Helen Smith, who can be reached at email@example.com. If you are a private school in New England, joining for $50 a year is immensely helpful and well worth the cost. For a list of other scholastic press associations, please visit this link.
The Gator also belongs to CSPA and NSPA, and JEA. All of these organizations provide individual awards and critique services I would love to see more private schools participate in these conferences, critiques, and contents.
Here are some articles I’ve written about scholastic journalism, including advising at a private school…
- The Ethics, Hurdles, and Payoff of Advising an Online Student Newspaper (Edutopia)
- To Teach Effective Writing, Model Effective Writing (Edutopia)
- Why I Teach Journalism in My History Classes (Edutopia)
- Copyright Law and Student Journalism (Edutopia)
- Why Student Journalism Matters (Well-Schooled)
- Journalism: The Most Useful Humanities-Based Course (Independent School Magazine)
- Column: How to Help Students Discover the Whole Truth (PBS )
- Treasured Historians Benefit from The Journalist’s Craft (Age of Awareness)
I also want to share news about a forthcoming book from Prof. Erica Salkin, which focuses on scholastic journalism at private schools. Private Schools and Student Media: Supporting Mission, Students and Community will be available this November. I was honored to be interviewed for it, and I can’t speak highly enough of her research.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m eager to assist, and now is the time to support student voice.
However much I struggled, only when I found my passion for news reporting did my success in the humanities begin to soar — so much so, in fact, that I now teach journalism to my own history students, hopeful that they too will benefit from the combination.
I think it’s safe to say that this has resulted in a good degree of success.
Take it from Preston Michelson, who recently graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in journalism and political science. He served as founding editor of The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity School (Palmetto Bay, Florida), where I spent the first six years of my teaching career. I also taught him in yearbook, American History, and United States Government.
Michelson tells me that his experience as a high school journalist allowed him transfer two relatable tenets of continued success in the college classroom, “clarity and information gathering.” He says, “Clarity is relatively straightforward — writing is toothless without it. The nature of journalism as a sort of public service, writing on behalf of the reader, dictates that writing not be overcrowded or needlessly complicated. To me, this is a great tenet to follow in all kinds of writing, even in the academic realm. Not overcomplicating topics boils information down to its most vital elements.”
Michelson references the necessity of quality research in journalism and in academia. “When I started writing forThe Daily Northwesternin college, I was dispatched to cover topics new to me, everything from health care policy to Islamic theory. The role of a journalist is to act as a sort of expert no matter the newness and complexity of the topic, and that calls for doing your homework on every story. I conducted research for my history and political science research papers with much the same intensity.”
The Elephant in the Room
Of course, major differences exist between journalism and history. After all, journalism is the first, imperfect draft of history. Whereas reporters work under time constraints to produce the best obtainable version of the truth, historians hold themselves to a higher standard. They spend years conducting detailed research, carefully reconstructing cause and effect for a deeper, more complete rendering of past events.
For another take on the benefits of journalism for history students, I emailed Adam Hochschild, a revered journalist who teaches narrative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founded Mother Jones, and has written eight nonfiction books, including one of my favorites, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
A journalist writing for a deadline, he says, often focuses on attributing facts and quotations to a specific source. For example, a news article might read something like, “‘3.7% of the American population has schizophrenia,’ said Joe Doakes of the state Department of Health and Welfare.”
“That’s good enough for tomorrow’s newspaper, but it probably isn’t good enough for a history book,” Hochschild writes. “How were they measuring schizophrenia in the year from which your statistic comes? Did the official or scholar or agency you cite have motive for exaggerating or minimizing the figure? Those are some of the kinds of things a historian has to ask. Similar questions apply to all sorts of other assertions and statistics.”
All distinctions aside, after ten years in the high school classroom, I’m here to report that history students benefit from also studying journalism, as did Nicole Font, who recently graduated with a teaching degree from High Point University. I also I taught her in various history and journalism courses at Palmer Trinity.
In high school, Font says, she found it difficult to write clearly and concisely. She would spend hours reworking long-winded prose. “A specific turning point for me as a writer was enrolling in your journalism classes,” she says. “I was immediately challenged to hone my writing and trim unnecessary words that I used to sound ‘interesting’ or ‘more intelligent.’ As a result, I found that my writing — in all subjects — developed so that I was writing for more than just my high school teachers. I could piece together paragraphs and join ideas in a more natural way, which contributed to my success as a writer in high school and college.”
Font’s comments remind me of another conversation I had with Sam Ravina ’17, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Gator, an award-winning student site which I also advise, who told me that the newsroom helped him succeed at Brimmer and May (Chestnut Hill, MA), where I currently teach. When you learn to write about events with a “piercing objectivity,” Ravina tells me, you can transfer that skill to numerous forms of communications. He believes that journalism is no less fundamental than English or history, and he credits his time in the newsroom with his success in other academic classes.
“Journalism trained me to see the objective ‘point’ in all aspects of the humanities,” says Ravina, who plans to study philosophy at Davidson College (Davidson, North Carolina) in the fall. “In history, I can spot significant causes of events, and interpret a variety of sources to understand both sides of an argument. In English, my writing is astronomically more precise, and I developed a sharper eye for tone and complexity in literature. My leadership experience in the newsroom also transformed my ability to evaluate my own writing, and give and receive feedback to others. I cannot say enough about the extent to which journalism has helped me, and many others, develop the ability to think, reason, and write.”
To hear from someone in academia who straddles both worlds, I reconnected with Michael J. Socolow of the University of Maine, a media historian and one of my favorite journalism professors as an undergraduate at Brandeis University (Waltham, MA). “Journalism and history emphasize similar skills, such as learning how to build credibility by documenting sources and attributing information appropriately, and learning how to argue persuasively,” he wrote to me.
Reinforcing Writing and Thinking Skills
To reinforce those skills, my history students read newspaper and magazine articles — not just to keep them informed about today, which I care about, but also to foster discussion about sources and how journalists use evidence to craft a narrative. Whether analyzing works of history or conducting their own research, my students apply similar levels of scrutiny. Meanwhile, debate over what constitutes “fake news,” as well as how to spot it, encourages young minds to be vigilant about the types of sources they find and cite. As just one example, before they refer to a source, I ask if a New York Times reporter would trust that source. Whatever the response, before proceeding, students must defend their reasoning to me.
In this respect, Font intends to employ a similar strategy into her fifth-grade classroom next year, when she launches her own teaching career. “I recall how you constantly asked students to question where they got information, and how they planned to use it to express their learning,” she says. “You helped me think carefully about what sources should be trusted, especially if I wanted to be taken seriously by anyone who read my writing. I want to impart that crucial lesson to my own, much younger students, as well as introduce them to the news gathering, reporting, and writing process.”
With Font’s final point in mind, I have found that introducing students to journalistic writing also helps them find and engage an audience. Too often, high school teachers (including me) ask that students follow formal, academic structure — a worthwhile endeavor, but not if it precludes introducing history students to different forms of written expression. To address this deficiency, when teaching about Old Hickory, I read aloud several of my favorite passages from American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham. The first line of the opening chapter grabs their attention and leaves them wanting me to continue: “Christmas in 1828 should have been the happiest of seasons at the Hermitage, Jackson’s Plantation twelve miles outside Nashville.”
I tell students how much I admire Meacham, a former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, whose work has appeared in the nation’s most respected publications. I recently contacted him, curious whether he thinks academic historians, in the trenches of archival research, could or should learn from how he crafts engaging narratives, which appeal to a wider readership than historical monographs might. “It’s not my place to lecture or speculate on other people’s literary styles,” he says. “If we are writers, we all have different seasons, if you will . . . There’s room for everything.”
Meacham nails what I hope to convey to my students — that even as teachers defend the virtues of the five-paragraph essay, they should also make room in the curriculum for not just narrative writing, but journalistic writing as well. I also want my history students to want to share their work with others, and the idea of sharing academic writing seldom excites them. With that in mind, last fall, capitalizing on their heightened interest in Jackson, I assigned my students a more creative task:
“This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment,” Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, told MSBNC’s Chris Matthews. “And that’s how he [Donald Trump] posited right from the beginning: the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional. And yes, it’s a defeat for the Democrats, but this is a defeat for some Republicans too.”
In what respects, if any, do similarities exist between President Andrew Jackson and President-elect Donald Trump? What might these parallels reveal about our nation’s future? Or is Giuliani off base here? Either way, please compose a well-written, convincing piece that supports your stance.
Several students asked to post their work to The Gator. “Apart from their flamboyant hairstyles, Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson share a variety of frightening similarities — and this could spell more than just a fashion disaster for America’s future,” writes Sophie Lapat ’18 for the lede of her story, “Trump: The New Jackson?”
Her article doesn’t qualify as history writing, but in this case, that doesn’t bother me. Rather, I care that Lapat expresses herself clearly, in a way that grabs my interest.
After completing this assignment, Lapat may have a better idea of how to employ similar tactics of clarity and engagement to succeed on a more traditional essay assignment, such as assessing whether Truman acted wisely by using atomic warfare to end World War II. “As someone who enjoys writing, I’ve often felt there is a prescribed way to do research and shape my voice,” Lapat told me. “This assignment gave me a new sense of confidence and provided me with a creative avenue to enjoy History.”
Coming Back Around
All of this leads us back to something else Hochschild told me:
Spending ten years as a magazine editor was hugely useful to me. All the time you are making judgments: Are people going to want to read this article? Why? Why not? How can we make it better? Does it need more scenes, characters, suspense? How can we draw in readers who don’t have a pre-existing interest in the subject? Those are things that a historian always has to think about if you want people to read what you write.
I want people to read what high school students write — and teaching journalism along with history is helping make that a reality.
If you’re still not sold on the potential value of teaching journalism to history students, Meacham says, “I see a direct connection between what I learned in journalism and what I’m doing now,” explaining that insofar as he has anything to say in his books, it’s because journalism exposed him to politics and public life at an early age.”
For his part, Michelson credits much of his success at Northwestern with his experience in the high school student newsroom. “That’s when I really started to understand the importance of journalism and the universality of it. I felt that in many of my other high school classes, I was taught different ways of approaching research, whereas in journalism, simplicity was key. It was about understanding the story and telling the story, while adding expert analysis where applicable. That’s a blueprint to succeed across the board.”
I couldn’t put it better myself.