NCAC is proud to partner with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to celebrate the 3rd annual Student Press Freedom Day. NCAC is s strong supporter of student journalism as an enabling force in maintaining a free and open civil society and robust democracy. Student journalists, like professional journalists, provide an essential–and constitutionally-protected–service to their communities. This year’s theme is Journalism Against the Odds in acknowledgment of the phenomenal news coverage student journalists have produced despite being faced with incredible challenges of a year consumed by not only a global pandemic, but widespread racial justice protests, a major election and a rise in targeting and censorship of journalists.
Young people have every right to participate in the social and political conversations that shape their world. Young journalists, in particular, provide a unique, essential perspective. They understand and can identify issues that their older colleagues might miss. They speak their readers’ language and provide a trusted forum for young voices to share their concerns and have their questions answered. Student-run media outlets and student journalists often fill the gaps left behind by diminishing or dying local news media in news deserts, all while juggling school work.
This past year has highlighted just how vital student journalists are to public discourse, to informing their communities with unbiased and accurate information, and to holding those in power accountable to those they serve.
Student Journalism and COVID-19
As the entire school experience was reimagined in 2020, student journalists had a front row seat. They moved from reporting on lead pipes in schools or health violations in the cafeteria, to vital reporting on mask mandates, overcrowded hallways (at in-person schools), social distancing and quarantine violations on campus, and community spread. Students also overcame pushback to break stories about critical public health issues related to campuses that many students were residents of. Student journalists have revealed gaps in the communication between administrators and students, shared how the pandemic has affected sports and other extracurricular activities and reported on the particular experience of exchange students whose home countries are facing lockdowns. This past year, students also navigated the difficulties of publications that stopped printing and publications that rapidly transitioned to online formats – an entirely different economic model.
Student Journalism and Racial Justice
Student journalists have boldly reported on issues of race and representation, sparking important conversations beyond their schools. Students of color and allies are highlighting the racism they see and experience or that calls them to action in incredible ways. From censorship of stories related to students of color or harassment of journalists of color to microaggressions in newsrooms and disparities in investments in journalism programs in majority-minority schools, racism in student journalism is not a short-term issue and will require intensive, ongoing work by everyone in the media community. Black students face structural barriers impeding them as they seek to report their truths and serve as journalists in their school communities and beyond. Underinvesting in and chilling the speech of Black and Brown student journalists sets them up for a lifetime of believing that their voices don’t matter and that their role as journalists is not important. They do and it is.
Censorship of Student Journalists
Administrative censorship and prior review is widespread in high schools due to a free speech exception that the U.S. Supreme Court carved out for student journalists in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision. In an ideal world, no student journalist or adviser would ever be faced with a censorship conflict. But censorship is an unfortunate reality for many. Targeting of students includes schools attempting to discipline students for posting social media which could reflect badly on the school. Student journalists have been prevented from attending important meetings and they often had to fight administrators to obtain information in the public interest. Censorship of yearbook content is increasing this year, as yearbooks reinvent to report on the pandemic school year.
Police Targeting of Student Journalists
As protests escalated, student journalists faced real threats of violence and arrest, not to mention the risk of contracting the coronavirus when social distancing protocols are not observed. When police engage in crowd control, journalists – especially students, who may be unrecognized by police officers – often find themselves rounded up and jailed along with the participants they’re covering. Despite identifying themselves as journalists, they are arrested or targeted. The U.S Press Freedom Tracker documented an alarming number of attacks on journalists in 2020. For instance, Julia Lerner, a student journalist at the University of Maryland, was chased by police and maced three times while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio, in the early hours of May 30. The staff of The Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University were repeatedly targeted by Richmond police officers. At some protests, students were arrested and tear gassed even after identifying themselves to police, suggesting an intent by some law enforcement to thwart journalistic coverage of important events. Students also got in trouble for breaking curfews even though media are exempt from those curfews in the service of providing an essential service to the public.