Some of the headlines from my high school newspaper, "The Lance," in 1991-1992.
Long before I was a public relations professional, a TV producer or a news reporter, I was a student journalist. And today, thanks to a young lady at Carmel High School, I’m more proud of that accomplishment than ever before.
Selena Qian is one of ten student journalists who have helped Indiana lawmakers craft House Bill 1130. The bill protects the rights of student journalists by allowing them to operate free of pressure or censorship from school boards, administrators and others. Qian testified on behalf of the law last week. And I couldn’t be more proud of her.
You see, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, “The Lance,” in small-town Eldridge, Iowa. I led a team of a dozen students in determining the direction of our monthly edition. And thanks to a solid J-head advisor, we were allowed to print stories about teen pregnancy, discrimination and student drug abuse. But not without some push-back.
Our local newspaper, “The North Scott Press,” published “The Lance” and inserted it into its papers for distribution. At the time, the publisher and editor raised red flags – saying student journalists couldn’t be trusted to handle such controversial topics. They threatened to stop publishing the school newspaper. But our advisor stood his ground and after much public debate – and a feature on the local NBC station – the issue was dropped. I’ll never know what conversations were had behind the scenes, how involved the school district got or what eventually made “The North Scott Press” back down, but I’m forever grateful to our advisor, Mike Kielkopf, who saw the value in allowing student journalists to find their voices and take responsibility for the content they chose to cover.
Selena has her own Mr. Kielkopf in Jim Streisel, a 22-year journalism veteran and high school advisor. Streisel says student journalists at Carmel High School are fortunate in that the administration understands the value of a strong, responsible student press. Censorship has never been an issue for them. And that’s important on so many levels:
1) Students Who Are Allowed to Decide Their Content, Produce Better Content
Streisel says students encouraged to make editorial and content decisions without prior restraint, often take their jobs more seriously. Students backed by a supportive administration tend to make more responsible decisions and publish more meaningful content because they feel what they have to say matters.
2) Students Who Publish in Fear, Often Censor Themselves
Streisel says students in school districts who don’t support First Amendment rights often get skittish. They’re not only afraid to publish about hard-hitting topics, but they are fearful of publishing things as innocuous as the school football team losing. Streisel says students eventually get to a point where they don’t even consider stories they think might be problematic.
3) Students Allowed to Publish Freely, Become Better Media Consumers
We live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Streisel says it’s important for student journalists to understand where the news comes from and how it’s created so they can make more informed decisions and become smarter consumers of media as they mature.
House Bill 1130 has received a great deal of bipartisan support. As of this writing it has been approved by the House and is sitting in the Senate’s Education and Career Development Committee. Here’s hoping it passes. Not just for Selena and student journalists like her, but for the future of the First Amendment which seems more threatened now than ever before. Long live our freedom of speech!
Tammy is the owner of Mother of Pearls, a full-service, boutique public relations agency in Carmel, IN, that specializes in media relations, media training and crisis communications.