At Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., the newspaper staff was writing a story last week about a former student who was a pilot on the hijacked American Airlines jet that smashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Students in a high school in Wauwatosa, Wis., meanwhile, published a former student’s firsthand account of the World Trade Center attack in New York City.
And thousands of miles away in suburban Sacramento, Calif., student journalists chronicled the day of terrorism through the experiences of alumni and relatives who live in New York.
Over the past three weeks, student editors and reporters pushed aside stories of after-school events and classroom activities, instead concentrating on how the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history had affected their schools, their communities, and the nation.
“They have risen to the occasion—they’re trying to do far more than just what they’re seeing on TV,” said Linda S. Puntney, the executive director of the Journalism Education Association, a national group of journalism teachers and advisers based in Manhattan, Kan.
Inevitably, the quality of such student journalism varies, said Candace Perkins Bowen, a past president of the association.
She said good school newspapers found local angles, from covering student reactions to learning whether gas prices were rising at their local stations. “Others,” she said, “will cover it as straight news, which won’t be as timely.”
Meanwhile, a perennial concern of student-journalism advocates—censorship of student papers by school administrators—didn’t appear to be a problem in most places, according to several faculty advisers.
Many student reporters appeared to be pursuing stories with a great deal of freedom. At Yorktown High, for example, student reporters and editors of The Sentry were working on a special issue with a dozen stories related to the attacks. One story was about David Charlebois, a 1980 alumnus and the first officer of American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that struck the Pentagon.
Two of the newspaper’s reporters also visited the Pentagon, located about 3 miles from the school, last week in the hope of gathering more news.
Meanwhile, in Wauwatosa, Wis., which sits 900 miles west of New York City, Wauwatosa East High School’s student newspaper, Cardinal News, had an up-close account from a former student of what it was like to be in New York City on Sept. 11.
The two-page special insert featured the story by Ryan Hagen, a former editor of the paper. Now a freshman at New York University, he e-mailed a story of his experiences that day, as well as photos he took of people running from the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center.
At California’s Granite Bay High School, near Sacramento, students wrote about the experiences of former alumni in New York. They also published a piece about how one student’s mother almost flew on United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.
“The media aren’t telling our campus’s take,” said Karl Grubaugh, a teacher and the school’s newspaper adviser. “That’s what we try to do when the big stories come up.”
At Annandale High School, located 12 miles from the Pentagon in Annandale, Va., students produced a four-page special issue within a week. That issue of The A-Blast featured 10 stories, including articles about the fears of Muslim students and fund-raising efforts for local firefighters who responded to the destruction at the Pentagon.
The student news staff mobilized quickly after realizing their role at such a sensitive time, said Alan Weintraut, Annandale High’s newspaper adviser.
“I asked my students to process this on a personal level, and also for them to remember that they’re still journalists,” he said. “They have to cover events that are emotionally [wrenching].”