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Student journalists build stories from the ground up

High school journalism

A visit to East High School in Duluth, Minn., finds high school journalists are active members in the communities they write about, and as a result, they report from the bottom up.

By Kathleen Grigg

Duluth East High School senior Patty Hodapp calls herself a journalist. As editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, the Greyhound, she is responsible for helping her peers interview, report, revise, design and print a 16- to 24-page publication every month.

Top that off with her other classes and extracurriculars and it’s apparent that, like her fellow classmate/coworkers in Room 206, Hodapp is an active member of the community she’s writing about.

“When I walk in this room, I am a journalist, and when I walk out, I have to remember to kind of keep that mentality as well as stay involved in the rest of my activities,” she said.

Greyhound journalists may spend time outside of class researching for an article, but the stories are unfolding right where the student body congregates. They have no choice but to report from the inside. Unlike a city newspaper, they don’t have the luxury of making phone calls from the office, quoting official documents and calling it a day.

In a sense, Room 206 becomes the office. This is where students brainstorm story ideas, debate about what is newsworthy and decide what is appropriate for their audience.

Kirstin Peterson is in her second year as the Greyhound faculty adviser. She also teaches the year-long journalism course students in grades 10 through 12 can apply for.

At the beginning of the year, she told her students that they had to have at least four Greyhound issues with serious center spreads, instead of what she calls “fluff.” However, her class has been choosing in-depth topics almost every time. Issues have included global warming, body image and school safety.

“I think we do report on whatever they choose to,” Peterson said. “There’s a big divide in my class between students who want to cover local news, world news, national news and that sort of thing and there are some who really believe that our readers want to read not-so-serious stuff.”

As editor-in-chief, Hodapp understands that by covering controversy the Greyhound will “stir things up” from time to time. In the November 2006 issue, she covered the ethics of censorship when a social studies teacher was asked to remove a poster of Michelangelo’s David from her classroom.

As a general rule, Hodapp is against censorship, but to report this story fairly, she had to consider the administration’s point of view, too.

“We focused mostly on art and about – not that the administration is censoring – but rather just trying to make a decision about what’s appropriate and not appropriate, to a point,” Hodapp said. “I learned a lot from sitting down and talking to the administrators.”

There is no prior review – administrators at East do not review the paper before it is published  — but Hodapp decided to approach Principal Laurie Knapp about whether or not the paper could run a picture of David.

“We could have just printed it, but I think there’s a level of respect there about approaching her and seeing what she thinks,” Hodapp said. “As long as we make them think they’re involved in what we’re doing a little bit and feel like they have a say in it, sort of, then I think we’re OK.”

According to the Student Press Law Center, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier “gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they chose to do so.” This ruling also gives a high school administrator the right of prior review, which is to look over a publication before it goes to print.

Principal Knapp said that while student reporters frequently come to her office for quotes, they rarely come to her for approval. Usually she sees the Greyhound when everyone else does.

“Part of why I don’t review the paper is I think my adviser knows the expectations too, and she wants to give the kids the leeway to think about these stories, and create the stories, and attack the stories from a neutral point of view,” she said.

Knapp’s office is located in a busy hallway on the second floor. At 8:59 on a Wednesday morning, the pace is maddening. The conversation gets louder, and then the circles break up following the five-minute warning bell. Between the flipflops sliding and the bright red lockers slamming, it’s hard to tell where all of the sounds are coming from.

Still, Knapp passed up a quiet room in the back of the main office so she could be accessible to parents and students, including the Greyhound reporters.

“Passing time, if kids have an issue, they know I’m here, and I think it gives you a good pulse on the school,” she said. “... They know they can come in whenever they want, and they do.”

Some schools haven’t always had that kind of cooperation between the newspaper and administration.

Ken Steinken, who is now a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, wrote about his experience as a high school newspaper adviser in “Teaching Censorship to the Next Generation.” (Columbia Journalism Review,November/December 2000).

When the Raider Generation at Stevens High School in Rapid City, S.D., published a photo of “a student lying in the hallway with a large dog sniffing his chest” to illustrate a new drug-search policy in the fall of 1998, the principal at the time decided to start reading the paper before it went to print.

As a result, the editorial page was also censored and students could no longer review school productions. If the principal didn’t agree with something, she could remove it, forcing the student editors to fill the empty space on an already-tight deadline.

“A student newspaper adviser lives in a perilous paradox,” Steinken wrote. “I must champion my students’ right to freedom of expression, and I must obey a supervisor who has neither journalistic training nor an understanding of the wall that should exist between the publisher, which my principal considers herself, and the publication.”

He also questioned what wall-free journalism at the high school level could mean for the students when they are working for other publications.

“Maybe they won’t revolt when the publisher shares profits with the subject of a special section or when the editor promises positive editorial coverage to a mayor who endorses a newspaper’s proposed merger,” Steinken wrote. “Maybe the world is changing for all of us.”

When the journalists at East High School meet at 9:05 every morning, they work on many different aspects of print journalism. They are learning how to pitch story ideas, debate their newsworthiness, and report and edit on deadline.

Each reporter is responsible for writing two articles and each section editor is responsible for one. If they have questions, Peterson tells them to go to their editors first before asking her. She wants them to treat it like a real publication.

Everyone is also responsible for selling one ad per issue to fund the paper, meaning they get to know the business side of media, too. Variety editor Ellen Maddy and copy editor Sooreen Lee agree that this is one of the hardest parts for a lot of students working on the paper.

“You want them to take you seriously, but you’re in high school and they’re a business owner,” Maddy said.

Katy Stech, who is now a business reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina, worked on the Greyhound for three years when she was at East. She called high school journalism a “live and learn” experience, complete with receiving irate phone calls and letters to the editor.

“And that’s just after it prints,” Stech added. “While you’re writing the article, there’re so many different twists and turns that there’s just really endless learning.”

Joan Knutsen, an English teacher at East, was the Greyhound’s adviser for eight years before Peterson took over.

“Every year you’re just thrown issues right out of the blue that you never thought would happen, and the kids step up to the plate like you never thought they would,” Knutsen said. “Every day is a different day.”

Because student journalists spend so much time interacting in their environment, they tend to have a good idea of student opinion, whether it is about the definition of hazing, restricted e-mail access or healthy lunch options.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep separated from the story because the issues student journalists are covering affect them, too. There was some tension at the Greyhound’s press conference with the administration this past fall, Maddy said.

“At the beginning of the year, there were a lot of decisions that students were kind of upset about,” she said, “and we kind of felt like we should represent the feelings of the students and ask (administrators) to account for some of the decisions they made, and I think they felt sort of attacked.”

Students come to work for the Greyhound for different reasons. Stech was following a dream from childhood that turned into a career. Maddy liked reading the paper and wanted to write. Hodapp inquired about it in the eighth grade, but found out she couldn’t apply for another year. Lee wanted to be part of a publication that was student-run but professional.

Defining truth, balance, accuracy and fairness becomes part of the learning process. Before the Greyound goes to print, Hodapp asks herself who her writing will affect, hurt or harm, and “as long as you answer that question honestly... I think you’re OK,” she said.
What student journalists aim for isn’t always so different from what professional journalists are trying to achieve. They want to grow as writers, but at the same time let their peers know what is going on.

“When you come out to print and you see kids reading it, and you realize that people actually read your stuff and people are affected by it,” Hodapp said. “There’s something about being an instrument or a vehicle for information that’s just really cool.”

Kathleen Grigg is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This article was written as part of a media law and ethics class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The comments in these articles are the opinions of individuals and don't represent the opinions of the University of Minnesota.