Teaching Journalism and News Literacy
Not all school years are good news years for student journalists, but 1996 was a banner year in Palo Alto. In that year, the Palo Alto High School student newspaper The Campanile published an investigative story that made big local news and resulted in some significant resignations. The story was about a topic that most kids would find boring: a school board meeting.
However, it was anything but boring when the student reporter Ben Hewlett uncovered some shocking facts. Ben, in reviewing the minutes from the meeting, questioned why the board had reopened a closed board meeting at 10:30 pm, kept it open for only three minutes, and passed several resolutions in that three minute time period. All of the resolutions pertained to salary increases for district office administrators.
What was the board discussing in closed session for several hours prior to their reopening of the board meeting at 10:30 pm? Why was it passing financial resolutions with no prior discussion? When Ben looked carefully at the minutes, it looked like the board had been discussing financial issues behind closed doors which is a violation of the California Brown Act which requires public entities to have open meetings when discussing financial issues.
After further investigation, Ben wrote the story. The student newspaper The Campanile published it on page one. Within two days of the publication, the board held an emergency session and retracted the raises. Within two months, after the publication of a follow up investigative story, the superintendent resigned. Within a year, multiple other district officials had also resigned.
The day after the story was first published it was picked up by the the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News as well as on Channels 4 and 5. The local press, the Palo Alto Weekly and the SF Chronicle both wrote supporting editorials.
There are many stories like this from the Palo Alto student press. Six years prior to the 1996 school board story, back in 1990, The Campanile wrote an expose about the ineffectiveness of the counselor program at the school and within a few months it was dismantled and replaced with a “Teacher Adviser”program that still exists today, recognized nationally for its excellence.
In 1991, The Campanile students published a front page story alerting the community to the prevalence of unsafe sexual practices among students. That story became the basis for the formation of a required course teaching safe sex and other important social and health topics for all students in the Palo Alto School District.
Almost every year for the past 25 years, students have written one story per academic year that has had a profound impact on the community. The impact doesn’t stop with graduation. Many of these students have gone on to careers in the professional press. Just to name a few, Gady Epstein is head of the Forbes bureau in China; Ben Elgin is a lead reporter for Business Week; Rachel Metz writes for Associated Press: Tim Dickenson writes for Rolling Stone, among others. Several students have started magazines at Berkeley, UCLA, and other universities.
Students with non-journalistic careers have kept their journalist experiences with them. The overarching idea is to empower students through giving them the writing skills and tools to express their views and the platform to be heard so they can pursue any career they choose.
These stories show the positive power that the student press can have on students and the community when teachers and administrators respect students’ First Amendment Rights.
The philosophy behind the Palo Alto High School journalism program is that students learn by doing, not by watching. Like in youth media programs focused on print, journalism, radio, and web, students get passionate about journalism and writing when they are given the freedom to write about issues of importance to them. In the process, they learn how to write well and become more interested in the world around them and at the state, national and international level.
Today we have more than 500 students enrolled in journalism courses such as magazine journalism, newspaper journalism, broadcast journalism, web journalism and video production and beginning journalism. All the courses are computer-based and the publications are available online at and in print, recognized by National Scholastic Press and Columbia Scholastic Press.
I am a strong advocate of making programs like the Palo Alto student journalism program available to all students. Today we have a nation of citizen journalists who are blogging, posting, and commenting on sites all over the web. Students are posting to Facebook and Twitter, but in time they will be posting to other sites and writing blogs or contributing to citizen news sites.
From a teacher’s perspective, news literacy is helping students become more aware of current events and developing strong technical, writing and collaboration skills—essential for success in today’s world. But teachers must also be trained to incorporate news literacy teaching. Traditionally, education schools focus on the teaching of fiction and five paragraph essays and poetry, neglecting the teaching of non-fiction or journalistic writing styles. This issue needs to be addressed from many angles, but in college education programs specifically.
Ideally, news literacy should be a required course for all students in the U.S.—a course in which students not only learn how to write for a publication online or in hard copy, but also learn how to be critical readers of web-based materials. We don’t need anymore studies of how the schools are failing; we need resources to get students engaged in their learning and excited about the world around them. From a high school teacher’s perspective, journalism and youth media are doing just that.
Esther Wojcicki was awarded a Knight Foundation grant to coordinate the writing of a Web-News Literacy program that will be called 21st Century Literacy. The program will have a variety of modules that teachers can use either in an English class or a social studies class. The units can be used individually or as the core of a semester class. Some of the units will be novel based; others will be article based and some will be project based.