Elizabeth Garcia still has a five-year-old copy of the student newspaper from her freshman year at Mission High School in San Francisco. She kept it all this time not because she wrote for it, nor because her name appears in it, but because it was one of the only issues of the paper she remembers ever being printed, and she’d hoped to write for it one day. But by the time Elizabeth was a sophomore, the paper was no more. “Something happened the next year, and it just wasn’t around anymore,” Elizabeth remembers. “They said it had to do with funding, and the paper was pretty good. It was a pretty big part of the school.”
Around the same time, another media movement was picking up steam at Mission. Soon students throughout the school—not just those in the journalism club—were making media. Staff at the small but fairly typical urban school of about 880 students with limited resources and over half its students eligible for free lunch had applied for grants to give their teachers technology training.
Teachers began assigning students projects like creating videos, webpages, and CDs in just about every subject. “There were more computer arts classes in the year after the paper shut down, and more computers in the school,” remembers Elizabeth. “There was always someone recording something. PowerPoint was really big.”
A group of Mission students formed a TV club that videotaped newscasts for their classmates to watch during free period. Their shows covered subjects typically found in student publications, like sports, school events, and club news.
But for Elizabeth, something was lost. She misses how the school paper had tackled serious subjects, like drugs and “rumors going around,” she says. The student-produced TV newscasts aired during free period “didn’t really mention those topics.” They were more about “fun and overall school spirit and cheering on, not what was really going on,” says Elizabeth.
Experts say that nationwide, student media is being transformed by multimedia as the traditional newspaper is fading out. So far media production, a critical part of media literacy, is turning out to be far more democratic than traditional school newspapers—engaging a more diverse range of students than just those enrolled in journalism class. But while advocates of student journalism commend the advent of media production in the classroom, they also share Elizabeth’s concern that these projects may not give students the same opportunity that papers have historically done: a voice to discuss the issues most relevant to them.
Many experts trace the slow death of the school paper back to Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave school administrators the right to censor high school papers, “essentially cutting the legs off of school journalism programs,” says Renee Hobbs, an associate professor of communications at Temple University. Now, over one-quarter of schools recently surveyed by the Knight Foundation do not have school papers, according to a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. Forty percent have lost their paper in the last five years, as did Mission. And, like Mission, the majority of those without papers—over three-quarters—were urban or rural schools.
As these are the schools most likely to have high concentrations of poor students and students of color, the Columbia Journalism Review reported, some believe the disappearance of the urban school paper has made it even more difficult for news outlets to improve their low minority-employment rates. About 14 percent of working journalists are minorities.
But as school papers stop their presses, media literacy—the ability to analyze, decode, understand, and produce media—is inadvertently helping fill the void. Just as learning to write is essential to being literate, educators believe that their students need to know how to produce media to be media savvy.
The changes Elizabeth observed at Mission are part of a growing belief among educators nationwide that media literacy is as important to being an informed 21st-century citizen as reading and writing—that it’s a “hard-core basic survival” skill, as media educators, perhaps overstating their case, described it at a 2004 conference hosted by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy.
“Today we are inundated with information and we need media literacy in order to think for ourselves and to not be under the influence of those who are doing the thinking” and making media, explains Michelle Powers, Mission’s library media specialist who helped spearhead the school’s media movement. “Every single student should be learning media literacy.”
The movement to bring media literacy and production education to schools has been slow in the U.S. compared to other countries like Australia, which have long made media education a nuts-and-bolts part of public education. But in early 2002, the notion of media literacy began to catch on in the U.S. when the White House released a policy paper laying out its importance. Around the same time, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), an organization funded by the Department of Education that recommends what students at each grade level should learn, stated that viewing and creating media should be required in language arts.
While it can take a lag time of several years between McRel recommending standards and school districts adopting them, and longer still before schools accommodate this, teachers and administrators have begun to seek ways to bring media production into classrooms, and not just into English class.
A number of educational institutions offer prospective teachers master’s-level courses on how to teach media production. Textbook companies, which study state standards, have been putting out “really comprehensive guides” on teaching media production, says David Considine, professor of instructional technology and media studies at Appalachian University’s school of education.
In Philadelphia, AmeriCorps—the domestic version of the Peace Corps—is sending media specialists into public high schools to provide technical support to students and teachers. And a growing number of youth media nonprofits, which have long worked with young people in after-school settings, are being approached by schools to help bring media production into their classrooms. As school newspapers are “dying out for limitations placed on them,” explains Hobbs, “media literacy is replacing them.”
There are important differences between print journalism and newer forms of media—some positive, some not.
But there are important differences—some positive, some not. Students staffing newspapers generally choose to take journalism as an elective, usually because they are already enthusiastic writers. Media production, on the other hand, is taught in a number of subject areas—not just AP English class, but social studies, history, health—thereby exposing a far wider and more diverse range of students to media skills than those who generally populate a school paper. “Even science and math teachers are now also teaching” media production, says Kathleen Tyner, assistant professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas. “It grows out of the idea of experiential education where you think first and then you do.”
Elizabeth’s younger sister, Lydia, is a case in point. Lydia transferred to Mission High School, where she is now a freshman, only three weeks ago. Already, she says, she’s made a music CD for English class; interviewed classmates about drugs for a Power Point presentation for social studies; and in art, she’s created her own website where she opines about food, fashion, and religion.
But like her sister, Lydia misses having a school paper. Lydia wrote for the paper in middle school and loved it when people told her they’d read her articles. Reading the paper made her feel more like the school was one big community, she says.
Advocates of student journalism say Lydia’s concern is not to be taken lightly. Media production is often, though not always, produced and presented in-class, whereas the student newspaper gives students an opportunity to voice their views to the entire school. Not having this sort of forum, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, is a “diminishment in student voice.”
Not having an audience can also affect the quality of the media produced. The best school papers allow students to do what often comes naturally to teenagers—question authority. Writing with an audience in mind requires they do so in a responsible manner, through solid reporting, fact-checking, and exploring questions of journalistic ethics and etiquette.
Even for school-based multimedia projects not confined to the classroom, Goodman has noticed that many require heavy adult oversight due to the technology involved. Too often, the adults in charge set the agenda, and the students’ voices get lost in the process. “It’s much less likely that you’ll have a student truly serving as an editor of the medium, deciding what issues will be covered. If that is lost it’s a tremendous limitation on really understanding and appreciating what young people are thinking and what’s important to them,” says Goodman.
Hobbs warns that the censorship that is partly responsible for school papers’ disappearance will likely remain an issue with other student-produced media. While many media programs working independently of schools produce probing material, says Hobbs, “In order to export their practices [to schools] you’d have to introduce all sorts of learning experiences for administrators to understand why they don’t have to be afraid of student opinions.”
Powers never envisioned that multimedia production would replace the school paper at Mission. The paper was just more difficult to fund than computers, and, like the Garcia sisters, she feels “it’s a huge problem” that Mission lost it. But she also seems hopeful that Mission is in transition, and the loss of its student publication is temporary, just part of the school’s growing pains. Perhaps one day there will be funding to bring back the school paper. Then, she says, with all the media and design skills Mission students—all of its students—have been learning, the new paper would have the potential to be stronger than ever.
For Goodman, the key question schools like Mission should ask is not in what medium student work is being produced, but whether students truly have a voice and the chance to share it with the larger community. “It’s possible to have a web-based publication or television news program dealing with issues that student editors think are important,” he says. “But if they’re not being operated that way, then there’s truly something missing.”
Above left: Mission High School in San Francisco has all students dabbling in multimedia.
At schools nationwide, multimedia projects are coming on strong as the student newspaper is fading out. What’s the trade-off?