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An Open Letter To High School Journalists: Shine Your Light On The Truth

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Dear Student Journalists:

It’s rough being part of the media, and in a time when it’s socially acceptable—encouraged, even—to denounce the hard work journalists do to shine light on the truth, it’s even more important you know just how valuable and vital your work is.

High school journalists face challenges that those who work in the field professionally don’t. Often, administration has a say in what can and can’t be published. Part of this is thanks to the Hazelwood decision; you’re given lesser freedom under the First Amendment than a standard newspaper. The other part is administration bowing to pressure from school boards and other stakeholders to keep everything said about the school or its policies leaning positive. They use Hazelwood as their tool for doing just this.

A recent example comes from the Catholic high school in Denver which pulled a student article about sexism. The piece was a work that needed to be written, and bravo to the writer for doing that often thankless work. The principal pulling the piece was an act of cowardice and fear.

One of the most pivotal moments of my own young writing experience came on the high school newspaper. Each week, we pitched articles, which then were researched, written, edited, and, if they made it that far along, were sent to the principal for final approval. My junior year, the first article I took on was one that looked at the opinions of students impacted by a change made by the school: we went from a district with two high schools housing two years each (freshmen and sophomores at one, juniors and seniors at the other) to two high schools housing four years each. My junior class and the sophomore class were impacted most strongly by this, as we saw half of our respective classes moved to a different school. Friendships nurtured during those first years of high school were changed now that faces we’d become accustomed to seeing every day now attended a rival school.

I interviewed a wide range of students about the change, and not all of the feedback was positive. Sure, there were many advantages to this change—the schools became smaller and thus, smaller classroom sizes, more opportunities to get involved in student activities, etc.—but the touchy-feely human side of things wasn’t as clear cut.

The principal cut my article before publication, citing it as “not positive enough” for the student paper. That it might “upset some people,” in an “already delicate situation.” In other words, lie outright or lie by omission.

I chose to omit the piece, but that moment changed my writing life. It made me want to work harder for the truth and push those boundaries. Because being a journalist is just that: pushing boundaries to seek the truth.

As the new school year kicks off, remember that if you work in student journalism, your voice is as crucial to your audience as are the voices of those who have columns or beats in your local, state, or national newspapers. Your audience is the school body, made up of everyone from the cafeteria workers to the janitors, to your student peers, their parents, teachers, teacher aids, coaches, and more.

You will face barriers. There are people who, when you seek them out to interview, will turn you away. They will evade the truth or shy away from details. You will put in countless hours working on pieces that tackle heavy issues, as well as those human interest, feel-good stories. You will uncover things that make your stomach turn and things that remind you that one of the joys of what you’re doing is sharing the amazing work being done by those who are often overlooked or who don’t have their voices spotlighted in the way that they should be.

It’s likely that the stories that are hardest and darkest will face sharp criticism. They may even be pulled from publication or challenged by those in power. Let yourself feel hurt and angry.

Then act.

You’re living in an incredible age of digital information that people like me didn’t have. You have the power to use other tools to share the things that need to be shared. It’s power you need to use responsibly, but it’s power nonetheless. Get to know the Student Press Law Center. Get to know the ACLU. Get to know other local media organizations that exist in order to help you do work that you need to do.

But also use the tools at your disposal.

Can’t publish the piece you’ve done work for in the newspaper? Why not share it in a blog post? Enlist fellow journalists to help you spread the word. If it’s work that needs to be shared, if it’s something you feel passionate that your community needs to know, then sidestep the red tape. It might mean you find yourself in a principal’s office or find yourself being called any number of things—a trouble maker, a rabble-rouser, difficult—but those are merely names. Every person through history who has made a difference, be it on the micro level or the macro level, has found themselves called any number of names.

Those names? Mean someone is scared that you’re doing something that needs to be done. As legendary politician, human rights activist, and all-around badass John Lewis encourages: make good trouble.

Digging up the truth and sharing it is good trouble.

Returning for a moment to the story of the Catholic high school above. What’s most important about that story isn’t that the newspaper piece was pulled.

It’s that after it was pulled, the story took on a whole new life, reached a much wider audience, and caught the attention of people who otherwise would have never known there was such an issue of sexism at this school. It didn’t stop there, either: it’s a reminder of the ways sexism and quiet censorship happen everywhere, with immense frequency, and that those things deserve to be called out again and again and again.

That is the work.

Young writers, go into your new school year ready to fight like hell for the truth. Your work and your voices are vital for continuing to shine light on the things that need to be called out, the things that need to be changed, and the things which go against everything good and right in the world. Call out racism. Call out sexism. Call out ableism.

Call out homophobia and transphobia.

Write about the ways in which the dress code unfairly targets certain students and privileges others. Write about the ways that fellow students are made to feel lesser than because of school policies. Write about the ways that government actions impact your community on the ground level.

Write fiery opinion pieces that piss people off, and write about the amazing, thankless work many of those in your community partake in daily and never see kudos for.

Humanize. Always, always humanize.

If you’re in a position of privilege, stand up and support those doing the same work you are who don’t have those pillars of privilege. Give your fellow student journalists from marginalized backgrounds space to do the work the way they need to do the work, and don’t just encourage them. Share their work, and step in and up to take the criticism if necessary. You have far less to lose than they do, and their voices are not only far more vulnerable, but also crucial in ensuring that the truth pulses forward.

When the going gets tough and the cards feel stacked against you, keep going. Reach out to those who believe in your work and build relationships with other student media outlets for support, for feedback, and for help. Amplify others and be amplified.

You are the future of the media, and in a world that constantly tries to stub you out and shut you down, your shouting, your pounding, and your relentlessness is your power. You are the future of keeping the truth something accurate. You are the truth, and you need to keep pursing it day after day.

In a world that downplays facts and shifts the goalposts on what truth means, you’re pushing back and saying those things are things that matter. That do have meaning.

Words are power.

Keep using them.

You keep the system in check because you are the check on the system.



With love and in solidarity,

A fellow student journalist and fellow member of the media.