Supporting Scholastic Media Programs

The fall semester is an exciting time for WTAMU’s journalism program. Students atThe Prairie, the campus news organization, take the reins from those who graduated in the spring. They start charting new directions while adhering to the expectations cultivated by their forebears. A new class of Mass Communication students begins its initial exploration of professional writing, experimenting with styles for journalism, public relations and advertising. And the advanced Multimedia Journalism course returns, where students endure what has become a rite of passage – some heavy journalistic copy editing from yours truly.

It is also when WT’s Communication Department hosts the Texas Association of Journalism Educators Region 1 Fall Media Workshop. Held on Sept. 30, this was the fifth consecutive year for the event. It brings high school journalism students and teachers from across the Texas Panhandle to campus for training, tours and camaraderie. This year’s crowd numbered more than 200.

A simple idea is at the heart of this workshop: give high school media students an opportunity to learn from professionals and professors, and give their teachers an opportunity to learn from each other. Journalism teachers Laura Smith of Canyon High School and Amy Neese of Randall High School helped launch this effort in 2011, and they have been committed to the workshop ever since. Both lead strong high school media programs.

Supporting scholastic journalism is important. Mark Newton, president of the Journalism Education Association, calls it “21st Century English.” What he means is scholastic journalism programs train students in a core list of competencies that are valued across professions. JEA calls them the “4 C’s” – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity.

Unfortunately, scholastic journalism programs are sometimes seen as throwaway courses without value or, even worse, as a threat to order. They can be treated as study halls or as a place to put students who aren’t doing anything else. Administrators who fear coverage of certain topics sometimes limit students’ First Amendment rights by censoring news content. And some programs are eliminated because of mistaken assumptions that they don’t contribute to Common Core standards or because “journalism is dying.”

Considering these challenges and misperceptions, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its Journalism Education Committee four years ago to begin examining the state of high school journalism in America. The results of that work were published earlier this year in Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism. The project updates two previous studies of high school journalism, one from 1974 and another from 1994. I was one of the editors for this project.

Among our most troubling findings are these statistics: 56 percent of high school journalism teachers said they receive no educational assistance from professional news outlets in their area, and 53 percent said they receive no help from their local college or university journalism program. One quarter of the respondents said they don’t receive help from anyone.

Thankfully, our community is not part of that trend. The media programs at West Texas A&M and Amarillo College regularly collaborate to provide learning experiences for high school and college journalists. Employees from our local television and radio stations, and from our local newspaper organizations, routinely volunteer their time and expertise when asked to share their experiences with students. And as evidenced by another large turnout at WT’s recent fall media workshop, high school journalism teachers from across the Texas Panhandle are eager to seek training opportunities for their students.

Strong communities support good journalism, and good journalism builds strong communities. Vibrant scholastic media programs are an integral component of that relationship.

Note: A version of this essay was published in the Thursday, Oct. 29, edition of The Canyon News.

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