(Appeared first in print 4/10/2017)
When you’re a teenager, it’s easy to wonder if you’ll ever make a difference.
That’s not a problem for the kids of Pittsburg High School. Not after turning their southeast Kansas school newspaper into a star of investigative journalism, and turning their school’s administration upside down in the process.
For those who missed it, the teens probed into the background of their newly hired principal and found that some of her credentials didn’t seem to add up – in particular, that the university where she earned two of her degrees didn’t appear to be an accredited institution or even to have a physical address or working website. In fact, they discovered, it had a reputation as a “diploma mill.”
By the time they were done, what could have been a routine story about a new principal ended up by asking some very awkward questions. Awkward enough that the principal announced her resignation, just a month after her hiring. By then, the kids had the attention of the national media and the thanks of the school district’s superintendent.
“We’d broken out of our comfort zones so much,” 17-year-old Connor Balthazor told the Washington Post. “To know that the administration saw that and respected that, it was a really great mo ment for us.”
I’ll add my own applause to that. These are the kind of lessons that need to be learned, not just by high school journalists, but by any citizen in a democracy.
And it happened because the kids had the opportunity to learn, the freedom to act, and the initiative to do something about it.
Kansas school papers, like Colorado ones, have a guaranteed freedom of the press for high school journalists. (In fact, Colorado passed that guarantee while I was still in high school myself.) The schools have only a limited ability to restrict what appears in the paper – mainly, things like libel or obscenity – allowing students, like their grown-up counterparts, to work uncensored.
But that only matters if you have writers who are willing to go past the obvious. And much journalism, whether high school or professional, is comfortable to stick with the routine. The state championship winners. A new class or a retiring teacher. Much of it is necessary stuff, but it doesn’t often demand much of the writer or the reader.
To go further, a good reporter needs to remember two principles. Always ask the next question. And always verify the answers you get, even if they seem to make sense. Especially then. “If your mother says she loves you,” the old newsman’s saying goes, “check it out.”
In a day when many newspapers are folding (no pun intended) and when social media allows the half-true and the false to circulate more rapidly than ever before, that’s an important skill for everyone.
These kids have learned it. And then some.
And in the process, they’ve taught a few lessons of their own.
They’ve shown a reminder that learning isn’t limited to the classroom, the test, and the textbook. The extracurriculars – newspaper, theatre, music, and more – offer a host of valuable lessons for the student who’s willing and able to take advantage of them.
They’ve reminded us that an alert media can make a difference. That an alert citizenry can make a difference. All it takes is a willingness to look, and a determination to keep looking.
They’ve even given us some hope for the future, that the next generation is ready and eager to join the conversation.
That sounds like a lot to build on one article in one school paper, I know. But they’ve worked to build it. And I suspect they’ve learned that it’s a work that never stops. The name of “journalist” is always being re-earned. Much like the name of “freedom” or “democracy.”
Let’s get to work, shall we?