Floyd Central journalists engage in Election 2016
by Jim Lang
One of the many blessings of teaching high school journalism is that student journalists develop and practice essential skills that prepare them for the real world and teach them how to preserve and protect our democracy.
This year’s contentious presidential election has provided Floyd Central High School journalists the chance to do just that on their opinion pages in the form of a presidential endorsement.
This morning in their fourth issue of the year, members of the Floyd Central Bagpiper staff endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president.
Now, I’m sure that decision will be met with a variety of reactions from readers. If this election has taught us anything, it’s that Americans have deeply-held opinions about Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
But, it’s also revealed that far too many voters on all sides of the political aisle have fundamental misunderstandings about the role of journalists and media in a democratic society.
As an educator and a journalism educator, I think it is important that those who question the decision to endorse set aside their partisan feelings toward specific candidates and their biases about the media, because the process of endorsing a candidate is one of the best learning activities for any high school student.
Candidate endorsements in the media are an extension of our democracy and offer opportunities for teen journalists to experience the First Amendment and civic journalism in action.
First, some background on how the Bagpiper editorial board arrived at its decision —
The board is comprised of the editor-in-chief, managing editor, graphics editor, photo editor, and editors from each section. This group of journalists, led and managed by the editor-in-chief, meets monthly to discuss and form a consensus opinion for the Bagpiper editorial, usually connected to a news story elsewhere in each issue.
This month the editorial board met twice. As their adviser, their editorial opinion is not mine — I do not attend most meetings other than as their adviser, and this month I attended none.
Let’s be clear — the editorial is the consensus opinion of the student leaders based on their reporting, research, and discussion.
As their adviser, I offered some guidance as they debated candidates. My suggestions included:
- I didn’t care who they endorsed, as long as they came to a consensus and researched each candidate;
- I suggested also publishing additional columns on unendorsed candidates to offer a variety of perspectives, and they did;
- I encouraged an online opinion poll on the Bagpiper website at http://www.fchsbagpiper.wordpress.com published several days prior to the release of the editorial to give readers a chance to vote and become involved in the process;
- I reminded my students they could encourage reader feedback in the form of letters to the editor to encourage discourse and alternate opinions from readers.
From there, the editorial board met and came to a consensus decision to endorse Clinton.
My editor-in-chief wrote multiple drafts of the editorial, checking with his peers on the board regularly throughout the process to ensure he captured their collective opinion accurately. Special attention was given to ensure each editor agreed with the editorial stance; in fact, each editorial board member literally signed off on the final draft.
Three days (so far) of Floyd Central students and readers visiting our website to vote, register their opinion, and even discuss their views in the comment section. Civic discourse and involvement at its best.
Just as importantly, though, have been the debates, discussions, and compromises that have resulted from high school journalists who care enough about the democratic process to take a stand and offer leadership.
This is what real learning looks like in a democracy founded on differing views and dissent. We must remember this, especially in our most challenging times.
Because that’s what opinion pages in high school newspapers are for — to offer perspectives and encourage discussion. To give students a chance to lead. To research and compromise. To learn how to support and defend their opinions. To learn how to take a stand. To encourage discussion and real debate. To take ownership of their learning and pride in their publications.
As my students were working on this issue, I showed them a story about a Colorado Springs community in an uproar because a local high school newspaper endorsed Clinton. Some in the Colorado Springs community were outraged that high school students would actually — gasp! — use their critical thinking skills to research and then form and publish an opinion piece designed to create some discussion around who the next leader of our nation should be.
Those who condemn such outstanding learning opportunities for high school students should be ashamed. They seek not to educate, but to stifle discourse, critical thinking, and learning.
They’re not interested in learning. They’re interested in control.
Real schools offer the chance for their students to discuss, debate, lead, produce, and make decisions.
Real schools grant the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights.
I’m proud that Floyd Central High School has always been one of those schools.
And in the coming days, as we inch (thankfully) toward the end of this seemingly endless election cycle, I’m sure members of the Bagpiper staff will hear a variety of opinions on their editorial, columns, and election coverage.
I’m sure, too, that some of these reactions will be positive, and others negative. That’s part of the learning process, too. The same First Amendment that protects their right to editorialize also protects those who disagree.
I’m hopeful, though, that regardless of the feedback they receive that it is as insightful as the opinion pieces they published today.
Because we don’t have to agree.
But this election reminds us, too, of the effects of uncivil discourse and hateful rhetoric on our democracy.
This is why I’m so very proud of the Floyd Central Bagpiper staff today. They’ve taken a stand. They’ve offered different perspectives. They’ve encouraged discussion and debate over difficult, complex issues.
They’ve practiced good journalism.
They’ve proven they’re good stewards of our democracy.
And this kind of valuable learning would have taken place regardless of who they chose to endorse.