Opinion: The Increasingly Important Role of Student Journalists 

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By Josh Moore and Justin Silverman 

When student journalists at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts heard last spring that middle schoolers in their town were experiencing transphobic and homophobic bullying, they immediately got to work.1 

The students asked hard questions of administrators and conducted sensitive interviews with victims. With the help of their journalism teacher and an attorney at the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), they published a 5,000-word exposé. Within days of the story came the announcement of an external investigation and the leaves of absence of multiple staffers, including the superintendent. 

In a Boston Globe article about the controversy, one of the students who investigated the bullying allegations explained why her class so quickly pursued a story that would normally be the responsibility of their professional counterparts: “I think we all wanted to do something about it and make a change.” 

Do something. It’s a mantra more student journalists across the country are embracing. There couldn’t be a better time for them to act — and for the rest of us to stand behind them. 

The sixth annual Student Press Freedom Day is Feb. 22. It is an opportunity for us all to recognize the increasingly critical role student journalists play in our communities, but also to support the student press through legislation, legal and educational resources, and mentorships. 

While Amherst is covered by several local news organizations, many communities across New England and the country aren’t as lucky. According to the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the country has lost one-fourth of its newspapers since 2004.2 More than 200 of the nation’s counties have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible information on critical issues. 

Student journalists, however, are filling the void. 

Kyle Dobrie and Tommy Doe writing a political article after a town hall meeting from Chris Christie.

There are more than 120 university-based student reporting programs that provide local and statehouse coverage through partnerships with more than 1,500 professional news outlets, according to the Center for Community News at the University of Vermont.3 The center surveyed many of these programs and found that their students produced more than 10,000 stories in a 12-month span, meaning more than 14 million Americans received their news from these student reporters. 

In addition to these reporting programs working with professional news outlets, independent student reporters at the Harvard Crimson are breaking stories about Claudine Gay’s now-ended tenure as the university’s president.4 The Clock reporters at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire are battling administrators for more transparency within its student government.5 Students at Keene State College spent years successfully fighting for public records to help their reporting on city affairs.6 

1 https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/07/04/arts/amherst-teen-journalists-investigation-transphobia-middle-school forced-district-shake-up/ 

2 https://www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/news-deserts-and-ghost-newspapers-will-local-news-survive/the-news landscape-in-2020-transformed-and-diminished/vanishing-newspapers/ 

3 https://www.uvm.edu/ccn/impact 4 https://www.wbur.org/news/2024/01/12/harvard-university-crimson-student-newspaper-claudine-gay-stories 5

https://www.laconiadailysun.com/news/local/student-newspaper-school-disagree-over-whether-student government-is-subject-to-right-to-know-law/article_24fc42ec-8ad0-11ee-b00c-471a88388667.html 6 https://www.sentinelsource.com/news/local/nh-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-ksc-students-in-public-records case/article_94013c0f-57e9-5d23-bb0d-bc13a4001752.html

High schoolers too, as seen in Amherst and in many other towns, are reporting local stories and providing a much-needed public service. Student editors at Burlington (Vt.) High School in 2018 used public records to break a story about their guidance director who faced disciplinary charges from the Vermont Agency of Education.7 Students at Wayland (Mass.) High School were recognized nationally last year for their news coverage in a town that recently lost its corporate-owned community paper.8 

Student Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to support these journalists and to make sure their work continues. Here are five things those in New England can do to strengthen the student press: 

Call for New Voices Legislation | SPLC is leading an effort to pass laws that would protect student journalists from censorship and unreasonable interference from administrators. These protections are still needed in three of the six New England states: Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Learn more at splc.org/new-voices. 

Provide Legal Resources | SPLC offers a free legal hotline for student journalists in need of assistance and the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) can help connect students to local attorneys. If you are a lawyer in the region, please consider providing pro bono assistance to student journalists and contact our organizations to let us know you’re available. 

Offer More Journalism Education | Our organizations provide a large curriculum of free and publicly accessible print and video tutorials on journalism-related topics, such as public records, interviewing strategies and finding data for stories. NEFAC offers monthly online classes featuring many of the region’s leading attorneys and journalists. Share these opportunities widely and, if you’re an educator, incorporate these valuable lessons into your own curricula. 

Become a Mentor | As our reliance on the student press grows, mentorship and networking opportunities will be a critical part of journalism education. NEFAC Mentors pairs journalists of all experience levels with local reporters, editors and producers who then share their guidance and expertise. NEFAC also brings journalists into classrooms and onto campuses to discuss their experiences and to develop relationships with students. Get involved at nefac.org/mentors. 

Thank a Student Journalist | Perhaps most importantly, show your local student press the gratitude it deserves. At a time when animosity toward the media is growing — yet reliance on local news remains high — student journalists need to know they are an important part of their respective communities. Whether that means buying an ad in your town’s high school newspaper, donating to a college newsroom, or simply answering the phone when a student journalist calls about a story, give your support in any way possible. 

The NewEnglander team for the fall 2023 semester at New England College.

One of the lead student reporters at Amherst Regional High School told The Boston Globe that he didn’t need to speak much during his interviews with the bullying victims and their families. “I didn’t have to do that much talking,” he said. “They really wanted to tell their stories.” On Student Press Freedom Day — and every other day for that matter — let’s help student journalists make sure those stories are told. 

Josh Moore is assistant director of the Student Press Law Center and a former attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Connecticut. 

7 https://www.mychamplainvalley.com/news/local-news/burlington-high-editors-say-school-district-broke-vermont law/ 

8 https://jea.org/wp/home/awards-honors/first-amendment-press-freedom/; 

https://patch.com/massachusetts/wayland/wayland-high-school-student-paper-wins-press-freedom-award; https://patch.com/massachusetts/wayland/wayland-sudbury-town-criers-will-end-print-editions

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