Saving Democracy

Your job as student journalists

By Jeff Browne
Quill and Scroll Executive Director

After 28 years plus a few weeks of teaching journalism, I’ve finally become a Certified Journalism Educator, having passed the CJE exam administered by the Journalism Education Association.

It was a humbling experience, in that I thought it would be relatively easy. I was lucky to pass.

More importantly, I learned by taking the test that today’s journalism educators — your former and current teachers and advisers — possess an incredible breadth of knowledge in multiple areas:

  • They teach publication design and web design.
  • They teach photography and videography.
  • They teach photo and video editing.
  • They teach law and ethics.
  • They teach marketing, ad sales and public relations.
  • They teach reporting and writing across multiple platforms.
  • They teach this inside language called “AP Style.”

Then they go back to the classroom and do it all again on Tuesday.

So what else is there for you and your advisers to cram into another school day?

Saving democracy.

The United States is in a distressing period in our history. Public trust in journalism is at an all-time low. But that trust is much lower among specific demographics, namely political conservatives who view the basic journalistic enterprise as biased.

Combine that distrust with the emptying of newsrooms in small to mid-size and even to large daily newspapers, and you have a coverage gap that leaves politicians in city, county and state governments with much freer rein to do what they want without proper oversight.

When I served as the director of student media at Colorado State University, we did a count of the number of FTEs devoted to telling CSU’s story. The university had about 49 full-time professionals — from PR staff to photographers to video editors to web designers and others — to put CSU in the best light possible.

So you can probably guess what kind of reporters broke the news of President Larry Penley’s corrupt administration. Yep, student reporters got all the good leaks, followed all the best leads, and wrote all the breaking news that finally led CSU’s Board of Governors to dismiss Penley.

More recently, I finished a four-year run as the director of CU News Corps, an investigative and explanatory news project at the University of Colorado Boulder. Students there published a story outlining how the state incorrectly reported the number of officer-involved shootings. As a result of that story, the Colorado legislature passed a law in 2015 that requires the state to collect accurate data on officer-involved shootings.

The Pittsburg Six and IowaWatch

We saw a similar situation play out two years ago in Pittsburg, Kansas, when the local school board hired a new high school principal. In the course of doing background research to prepare for writing a profile on the new principal, student-journalists at Pittsburg High School’s The Booster Redux came across some confusing biographical points in the principal’s resume. They included a doctorate from a diploma mill and some disturbing performance reviews at a previous job.

The story came about not because the students had been trained investigators. It came about because they just exercised the regular practice of requesting documents, closely reviewing them, checking and double-checking the information, and then following up with phone calls to clarify what wasn’t initially clear.

As they went deeper into the case, their adviser realized she had a conflict of interest in helping them with the story, so they reached out to the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and asked its executive director to serve as adviser. Another professor at KU then also pitched in.

In Iowa, high school students have worked with a privately funded investigative organization called IowaWatch to do crowdsourced stories about education in the state.

In 2016, a group of students from across Iowa, under the direction of professional reporters at IowaWatch, looked into how science teachers at their school taught about climate change, if they taught it at all. They learned that nearly half the teachers taught climate change inconsistently across the state.

The next year, the students looked into the mental health of students, determining that dwindling resources left students in need of help without a place to turn for that help. And in 2018, students reported on pesticide “drift” and its impact on schools in their districts that sit right next to corn and soybean fields.

Of course, those are all unique situations, and you may never be in a position where you uncover malfeasance in your building or district administration. Yet even the best administrators would rather not release information if they don’t have to. If you’re in a public school, they have legal obligations to do that. Still, your relationship with your administration doesn’t have to be adversarial. Let’s say your student journalists want to look into the athletics budget or into administrative salaries. They can approach the administration with the idea that they need the administrator’s help in understanding the numbers.

Good administrators will embrace the opportunity to do so. Of course, as we’ve seen just this spring in Prosper, Texas, and in the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, bad administrators can react badly to having student journalists question administrative policies, practices and decisions. So tread lightly if that’s your situation.

Are you ready?

If so, I encourage you to dip your toe into some explanatory journalism, if not full-on investigative journalism at your school. It could take several forms, and it’s not likely that everybody will be interested in or capable of doing such work.

  • Can you start with a simple document request and review, working initially with administrators to look into school policy and practice before then seeking outside feedback?
  • Can you partner with an organization such as IowaWatch so that you can have more of that professional training and connection?
  • Can you develop an informal relationship with a professional reporter or a professional news outlet, and then work with or even just tip off that reporter to stories you may not be able to fully report on your own?
  • Do you want to take advantage of Quill and Scroll’s new partnership with to propose solutions to community and school problems?

Whatever you choose to do, Quill and Scroll can help. Our student-centered organization is dedicated to the capital-T “Truth” as our first and enduring guiding principle. Of course, we support all sorts of journalistic work, but think also about that first function of the Fourth Estate — holding our elected and appointed officials responsible for what they do and the decisions they make.

So, yeah. Add “Saving Democracy” to your list of things to do this year.

No biggie.