“When students learn to make sense of their world, they become the people who will transform it.” – John Spencer
By Caleb Talley
The legislative session can be a real slog for journalists. Each day offers more superfluous and sometimes problematic bills, an invariable muck of proposed legislation to sift through in search of some stroke of genius, something that may be of actual value to a majority of Arkansans.
To date, more than 1,600 bills have been filed in the Arkansas General Assembly this legislative session. And very rarely have I come across one and think to myself, ‘Oh yeah, we need that!’ Especially when that bill is to extend the length of the session (HCR1006) or to have them more frequently (SJR7).
But now, Rep. Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) is giving fellow journalists and me something to celebrate. In December, Mayberry filed a bill that would require high schools to offer a journalism elective (HB1015). In February, she followed that measure up with a bill that would protect student journalists (HB1432). Few bills have interested me this year as much as these two – not only because of the impact it could have on the next generation of young journalists, but also the impact it would have had on me as a student journalist more than a decade ago.
My introduction to journalism came by way of the Forrest City High School newspaper, The Emissary, which was published once a week inside our local daily newspaper, the Times-Herald. I quickly found it was something I enjoyed and jumped in with both feet. It also helped that I had an incredible teacher who encouraged me to chase stories and helped me recognize a talent for reporting that I may have never otherwise discovered.
My first assignment was a report on my school’s latest standardized test scores. They were abysmal. In an editorial, I pleaded with my peers to take advantage of the opportunities and resources they had been afforded, comparing their poor test scores to those of students in other, disadvantaged, parts of the world whose scores were comparatively better.
That editorial was not well received by the district’s superintendent, who took our first-year, 22-year-old Teach For America teacher to task for failing to guide his students toward more endorsing articles that reflected positively on his school. He wanted articles that highlighted just how great the cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria were. Failing test scores be damned. And from then on out, the superintendent wanted to see every story before it ran.
Well, I didn’t heed the superintendent’s advice, nor did my teacher pressure me to. My next article addressed the appalling state of the high school’s bathrooms. And it wasn’t yellow journalism; they were really bad. Soap dispensers ripped off walls were never replaced. At the time, I’d counted one working soap dispenser in the entire school that had several men’s restrooms. Trash cans overflowed. Stall doors had been removed. Et cetera. It was rough, and I wrote about every bit of it.
But the article was never published. In fact, there was never even another issue of The Emissary. When the superintendent got hold of the article, he ordered the newspaper to be disbanded. Our journalism class, which had become the highlight of my school day, became a creative writing class. And last I checked, efforts to restore the school newspaper have been fruitless in the decade since.
My heart went out to the staff of The Herald, the student-run newspaper of Har-Ber High School in Springdale when their publication was suspended and teacher threatened with termination over an investigative article that ran in December caused a stink with school administrators.
The suspension of The Herald got the attention it deserved; it was national news, landing on BuzzFeed News, Fox News and even making the pages of Teen Vogue. The abolition of my school newspaper was immaterial all the way back in 2007. Perhaps that’s a sign of progress. What Rep. Mayberry is proposing sure is.
Journalism courses teach students, especially high school students, unquantifiable skills. They help students develop their prose, social skills and grammar. But more importantly, they make students media literate, an ability that becomes more imperative every day. An ability that is sorely lacking among adults.
Media literacy is the ability to access, create, critically evaluate and analyze news and information. In the age in which we live, every American should know how to navigate the unfiltered gush of information, both legitimate and entirely made up, that flows from nearly every direction.
STEM courses will always be critical to learning, especially today. But so, too, is media literacy. According to a recent Stanford study, only 25 percent of students quizzed were able to identify an accurate news story when also given a fake one. How can we expect those students to be productive, informed voters once they turn 18 if they’re not even equipped to know what’s real and what’s not, especially when there are bad actors consistently pumping out actual “fake news?”
Journalism asks our students to make sense of their world through critical evaluation and analysis, while also equipping them to communicate it to a genuine audience. Why wouldn’t we want that for the next generation?
From one journalist to another: Thank you, Rep. Mayberry.