Polarization has reached a feverish pitch in American politics. It seems that every fringe group knows how to massage its media message to great effect - just witness the firestorm over the recent Burn a Quran Day idea initiated by Florida pastor Terry Jones. The media, once controlled by the hands of elite gatekeepers, has now been democratized, and every person has a voice.
At the same time, there are growing concerns that students lack the ability to critically analyze and judge sources for quality and bias - in short, to evaluate the information they read (for some discussion, check out the Project Information Literacy group at the University of Washington on key skills for the digital age). This raises enormous problems when coupled with the lack of editorial judgment displayed by the new media. As I have written about before, people can find websites to match any political point of view, making it difficult to find common ground.
It is here that I feel that high school newspapers offer tremendous positive skills, and why I believe that increasing funding for them is crucial if America is not only to weather these massive changes in the media landscape but also to increase the written communication skills of our workforce.
My story may shed some light on this value. I applied to join the newspaper staff in eighth grade, under recommendation from my English teacher. The decision was not easy, since my high school uses block scheduling and newspaper was considered a full-block class (which means that a quarter of my schedule would be used up). I chose newspaper over orchestra because it sounded interesting, and I liked to write.
I would stay with newspaper throughout high school (with a one year sabbatical of sorts my junior year). I rose from staff writer to Opinions Editor, Business Manager, Chief Photographer and finally Editor in Chief over that time, learning something new in every position.
The most important skills that I improved were obviously related to writing. Every story written for the paper went through extensive editorial quality control, with five students and our advisor reading every line. These multiple rounds of editing not only ensured high quality, but also taught me something that English classes in high school tend to ignore: style.
The value of style should not be ignored. Having edited quite a few papers here at Stanford, I am willing to state that style is the biggest gap between good and bad writers at this university. I cannot ignore that much of my writing in college still has its roots in ninth grade newspaper, when we learned the basics of journalistic practice: show, don't tell (but don't take too long).
My high school newspaper also offered me the opportunity to exercise editorial judgment. Case in point: our National Honor Society put together a variety show to raise money for charity. During the show, there was a skit that was considered homophobic to some members of the audience (I was not in attendance, although I was Vice President of the organization). An audience member submitted an op-ed to our staff to bring attention to this matter, a submission that was discovered by the advisor of NHS. She came to me to ask that I not publish the piece.
Beyond the conflict of interest that arises in the incestuous world of high school extracurricular actives rests a very fundamental question: what is more important, the rights of the individual or the rights of an honors society to avoid negative publicity. We were also dealing with the issue of high school journalism law, which allows for the principal to use prior restraint on any article (notably, my high school principal vowed never to use such power in the name of teaching us the value of First Amendment rights). My response was to publish the op-ed, with the opportunity for the advisor of NHS to respond (she declined).
These kinds of judgments not only allow for ethical debate with some level of importance - a decision has to be made and there will be a public response - but also teaches the importance of nuanced approaches to complex issues. Few classes in high school afford students the opportunity to build this kind of systematic analytical thinking.
Finally, working with a 30-person staff in the production of a publication builds excellent teamwork and interpersonal skills. Learning to manage people, build morale and define direction for an organization is something that few environments can teach.
I write these points up, because the holistic learning that took place in my high school newspaper classroom was crucial to my success in college, and yet, the budgets for high school newspaper are declining rapidly (in some cases entirely). One culprit is No Child Left Behind, which has encouraged a narrow view of English as the sole purview of English classes. Yet, it is the multidisciplinary and journalistic-oriented writing at newspaper that most people will use on an everyday basis writing memos and analyzing decisions. In a broader view, the issue is simply the declining budgets of schools everywhere, and a lack of perspective on the impact of classes like journalism, music and art.
The polarization in our country does not have to last another generation. Taking a high school journalism class was one of the best decisions I ever made, and led to a healthy skepticism and a nuanced view of the world around us. I just hope that students still have the opportunity to make the same one in the years to come.
Posted on September 26, 2010