Recent years have been bad news for journalists. For the first time since 2007, journalists were killed in the line of work on U.S. soil. National and local news outlets continue to lay off staff. And President Donald Trump famously declared the press to be the “enemy of the people.”
In many of the nation’s schools, though, student interest in journalism is growing or holding steady, according to a new survey by the Education Week Research Center.
In coordination with the Journalism Education Association, the research center surveyed nearly 500 journalism and media educators in 45 states. The survey was conducted in December 2018.
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.
Respondents said participation in many school news outlets has grown in the past two years, with 44 percent of teachers reporting a rise in journalism class enrollment and more than 30 percent noticing an increase in students’ interest in majoring in journalism in college or pursuing a career in the field later in life. That compares with 33 percent who report a decrease in course enrollment and 21 percent seeing fewer students interested in staking a career in the field.
“This is this generation’s Watergate,” said Laura Widmer, the executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, referring to the scandal that ultimately led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon, largely as the result of illegal actions uncovered by The Washington Post. “With President Trump, everyone is really in tune to the importance of a free press.”
Of the approximately 200 survey respondents who supplemented their answers with theories on why student interest has increased, 39 percent linked the results to the national political climate, which respondents variously referred to as current events, the Trump-era presidency, “fake news” accusations, and other attacks on media.
Two other theories—better recruitment and the availability of new programs and opportunities—received a similar share of responses, however.
The teachers said their journalism programs face competition from other academic programs and, to a lesser degree, from extracurricular activities, as well as inadequate funding, resources, and support from administrators. Fifty-three percent of suburban educators said that competition with STEM courses, Advanced Placement, and other academic commitments present the greatest challenges to their programs. Just 36 percent of media teachers in rural schools and 40 percent of those from urban schools said the same.
For some student journalists, criticism of the news media is not just experienced at the national level but in the hallways of the schools that they cover.
When students walked out of Regis Jesuit High School last March in support of the March for Our Lives, student journalists at RJ Media, the Aurora, Colo., high school’s student-media group, covered the event. The students photographed students, interviewed their classmates, and flew a drone over the walkout to get a head count of the students protesting. Their work resulted in a story posted on the private school’s website that same day, a 10-page spread in their magazine, and a second-place award for breaking news coverage from the Colorado Student Media Association.
But when RJ Media posted a photo gallery to Instagram, noting that the walkout on the school’s campus had drawn more than 700 students, almost half of the students on campus—the number that five reporters counted in the drone photo—the student journalists were faced with accusations of deception and lying.
Student commenters argued that fewer than 400 students participated. Another comment, which has since been deleted, accused the student paper of posting “fake news,” according to RJ Media’s adviser, Adam Dawkins.
“It’s one thing to ask adults to [have thick skin], and it’s another thing to ask high school kids to do that because they’re essentially working for like a small-town newspaper,” Dawkins said. “I think it’s hard for a young person to put themselves out there, to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what I believe,’ or, ‘Here’s a story that I think is important, and I’m going to do it,’ and put their name on it. It makes me really proud when they do that.”
Despite such experiences with criticism, 75 percent of educators said that censorship and other challenges related to student press freedom have not changed in the past two years.
Most educators and advisers surveyed also said they have brought national-level criticism of the press from Trump into their classroom discussions. Twenty-two percent said they extensively discussed it with students.
“It’s advisers today who are really the backbone in teaching these students to be good, strong, fair journalists and [telling] them ‘there are more levels [of proof] that we need to go through today just because there’s this shadow of fake news,’ ” Widmer said.
For most teachers and advisers, the most sensible way to do so is to include such conversations in lessons that cover media ethics and journalistic bias; however, some teachers said students were the ones to spark the discussion.
At The Hillsboro Globe, in Nashville, Tenn., students read, compare, and contrast a variety of news sources, including the Associated Press, the BBC, and NPR. But more recently, Susan Strasinger, the school’s journalism adviser, said she has noticed her students rely less on national broadcasting stations in general and are more likely to find certain networks, like CNN and Fox News, to be less objective. While students may have used such outlets as sources in the past, they now will only go to national news for story ideas, and even then they may be wary.
“I think they’re aware of [bias], but they don’t know what to call it. … They’re looking at more objective writing, they’re looking at writing with more than two sources,” Strasinger said. “They appreciate the truth probably more than people give them credit for appreciating the truth.”
Strasinger also noticed that students of color and those who are less advantaged are often more likely than more-privileged students to point out bias or believe that it exists within the media.
Trust Issues Nationwide
Her observations are reflected in schools across the country. According to the Education Week Research Center analysis, 37 percent of teachers surveyed said that their student journalists have “not very much” trust in mass media outlets, such as newspapers, TV, and radio, when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Thirty-six percent of educators said that this level of trust has decreased in the past two years.
A smaller share of educators—19 percent—said that students feel the same way about their own school news media.
Trust issues seem to be particularly acute in schools where the majority of students are from low-income families. In schools with higher concentrations of lower-income students, 47 percent of journalism educators said their students had “not very much” trust in mass media—13 percentage points more than those in schools where fewer than half of students are from low-income households.
And the educators themselves in majority-minority journalism programs were also 10 percentage points more likely than those in schools with larger numbers of white students to have “not very much” trust in the mass media.
Students in more-affluent schools were also more likely to become more interested in journalism following criticism of the press by Trump than their peers in low-income schools, according to their teachers. Forty-five percent of the journalism teachers from the better-off schools said such events increased participation compared with 36 percent of teachers from low-income schools.
“There is a well-documented diversity problem in media, and people of color don’t generally see themselves. They don’t see themselves behind the news desk, but they also don’t see themselves in the stories,” said Frank LoMonte, a University of Florida media law professor and a former executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
When teachers bring civics discussions into the classroom, their students are more likely to be engaged, according to LoMonte. He has also noticed media teachers question on social media how to make legal issues related to press freedom and libel on the national level a teachable moment in their classrooms. “Put aside what is right or wrong, or what is fair or unfair, because that is where the discussion is going to go south,” LoMonte said. “I would stick to legal and illegal. I would use the opportunity to just teach the principles of the law and why we have those principles.”
He also advised having students focus more on state and local news, as it may lead to a more productive dialogue in class. Instead of discussing newsmakers that students may never be able to interview, LoMonte said, students will have more opportunity to cover and influence community events.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Poll Finds Journalism Classes Going Strong