The theme for Student Press Freedom Day 2021 celebrates Journalism Against The Odds, and in 2020 the odds were certainly stacked against student journalists.
Last year, high school and college journalists dealt with the consequences of a life-changing pandemic, the sudden shift to remote learning, an outpouring of protests against racism, a contentious election and more. The stories were profoundly important, and they had to report on them while confronting unprecedented health and safety concerns which changed the way in which journalism was produced, and against the backdrop of unprecedented public hostility against the media.
Despite these overwhelming challenges, student journalists produced incredible journalism.
Here are just a few examples:
- Students all over the country covered summer 2020’s racial justice protests and why they were happening.
- They provided much-needed public health information about COVID-19, from data dives to evaluating school policies to exposing improper quarantining on campus.
- College students in North Carolina and Washington state won years-long legal battles to gain access to college sexual assault records.
- Others broke stories exposing discriminatory redlining policies, inequities in water quality in historically black neighborhoods and Nazi propaganda used in police training.
This list is far from comprehensive — the sheer volume of noteworthy student reporting in 2020 makes it impossible to condense here. But these stories will give you a sense of the powerful public good that comes from protecting student press freedom.
Student journalists provide an essential service, helping keep their communities safe and informed. Yet only 14 states have laws protecting student press freedom. In too many schools nationwide, administrators want to control, and in some cases censor student reporting, When students are prevented from doing this kind of hard-hitting public service journalism, the community misses out on a valuable source of information. And students begin to question if their voices truly matter.
It’s time for change. It’s time to protect student press freedom.
Journalism in the time of COVID
“The faces behind COVID-19”
El Estoque, a high school newspaper out of Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California, published this interactive series of stories including pieces on the spread of COVID-19 disinformation, xenophobic backlash against Asian students, an editorial from a student whose family lives in China, and a comprehensive timeline about the pandemic. See the full project.
“COVID-19: A data dive”
The Harker Aquila, a student newspaper from The Harker School in San Jose, California, published a stunning collection of data visualizations about COVID-19 statistics in their community and statewide. The article dives deeper than just the number of cases or deaths, adding nuances like racial demographics and risk level per county. See more.
“COVID-19 in our community”
Cavs Connect, a student newspaper from Coral Gables Senior High School in Florida, published a series of three articles examining how the pandemic has changed life on campus, from impact on sports to safety protocols in school, and from extracurricular activities to life on campus in general. Read more.
“Palo Verde West desk assistants encounter students with COVID outside of isolation”
Arizona State University’s State Press published an important investigative piece about the University’s conflicting protocols for managing infected students on campus. The article also detailed multiple cases of students infected with COVID-19 violating on-campus quarantine and provided compelling first-hand accounts by desk assistants who witnessed these violations. Read more.
Reckoning with Racial Justice
“Encountering Trauma in the Classroom”
This feature article from Washington Square News, the student newspaper of New York University, digs into how Black students experience the emotional and mental health effects of being exposed to racially traumatic content in classrooms. This piece contains powerfully emotive illustrations and calls for professors at predominantly white institutions like NYU to teach with active care and consideration. Read more.
“The 1619 Project”
Six reporters from The Kirkwood Call, a high school newspaper just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, crafted this compelling series of stories inspired by the The New York Times’ 1619 Project that aims to reframe the country’s history by centering the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The student project explored racism in their own school and community from personal experiences to redistricting to redlining policies. See the full project.
“Protestors advocate justice for deaths of Floyd, Ramos”
During their summer break, in the midst of a global pandemic, McCallum High School journalists covered a Black Lives Matter protest in Austin Texas, staying as tensions escalated and ultimately chronicling the violent police response. Their photo essay, published in The Shield, documented police using rubber bullets, tear gas and more, all of which the students had to face down to get the story. Read more.
“Bridging the gap: Episode 1: Diversity, Discomfort and Discrimination”
Two student publications at Duke University in North Carolina — The Bridge and The Chronicle — collaborated to create this deep dive podcast to explore race, gender and marginalization through community conversations. The first episode of this ongoing podcast features intimate and honest dialogue with BIPOC students about their personal experiences dealing with racism at Duke. Listen to the podcast
“How UGA IFC and Panhellenic recruitment hinders diversity”
Student reporters of The Red & Black published this feature article about the systemic racism ingrained within Greek life at the University of Georgia. This piece details the lack of diversity in the university’s Greek life recruitment process and critically analyzes the administration’s response through an informative interactive timeline and personal testimonials. Read more.
Elevating Civic Engagement
In 2020, students provided crucial information for young voters about how to register to vote, polling places, acceptable forms of ID, mail-in ballots, candidate profiles and, of course, the results of the election. But they also did watchdog reporting on their local government and policies that directly affect the community.
“Casting ballots: the politics of voting”
A Wingspan student reporter at Liberty High School in Texas published this special report on voting, diving into critical issues such as youth participation and the history of racial gerrymandering. This reporter powerfully presents information and statistics through engaging visual graphics and a podcast feature, breaking down complex topics for a young audience. See the story.
“In Focus: Loopholes in federal lead law left 5th Ward in the dark about what is in its water”
The Daily Northwestern reporters from Northwestern University in Illinois investigated the effects of discriminatory environmental policies on the drinking water and health of the historically Black 5th Ward in Evanston. The reporters dug deep into this issue through data analysis, visual graphics and a multi-episode podcast. See the full project.
“Staff Editorial: Antwon Stephens should step down”
High school reporters from Cedar BluePrints, the news magazine of Cedar Shoals High School in Georgia, broke the story of a new school board member lying about having graduated from their school. By investigating and critically analyzing the board member’s financial reports, reporters also uncovered a campaign finance scandal. Read more.
“KSP training slideshow quotes Hitler, advocates ‘ruthless’ violence”
High school reporters from Manual RedEye, the student news publication for duPont Manual High School in Kentucky, broke the story that local police were using a training presentation that quoted Hitler multiple times and advocated for extreme violence. See more.
Nine student journalists from Mount Mary University in Wisconsin reported extensively on environmental concerns affecting their community. “Climate 414” is a comprehensive project that highlights a variety of environmental issues, from solar energy in Milwaukee to zero waste coffee. The project is an example of solutions journalism meant to provide readers with actionable tasks to create effective change. See the full project.
Targeting and Censorship of Student Journalists
Too many student journalists are censored outright by their schools. Others have to contend with budget cuts, stonewalling over records, intimidation and other less direct, but equally insidious press freedom violations. These stories are from the student journalists who fought back and won. It’s worth noting that there are many important stories we will never see because students were prevented from reporting them.
“To the district: Communication (not censorship) is key”
Students from The Central Times, the high school student newspaper out of Naperville Central High School in Illinois, published this Op-Ed in response to a previous article that the school had censored. The piece is an articulate and concise response to the perils of censorship in journalism. Read more.
“University releases 15 sexual assault records following four-year lawsuit”
In January 2021, The Daily Tar Heel won their 4-year legal battle against the University of North Carolina system for the release of campus sexual assault records. Now, all public colleges in the state must release these records. The Tar Heel has covered the entire legal process in detail. This article discusses the outcome of the case and is a testament to persistent and tenacious reporting in the face of administrative obstruction of the truth. See more.
“Prior Review and Student Censorship – Where’s the Line?”
The editor-in-chief of the Beachcomber, the student news site of Beachwood High School in Ohio, wrote this editorial criticizing her school’s censorship of student voices and warning of the dangers of prior review. “While I respect the administration’s desire to protect students,” she wrote. “I often wonder who their decision protected: those marginalized or those in power?” Read more.
Documenting the Human Condition
“Live and learn”
This human-interest profile published by Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University tells the story of a high school student who returned to school two months after being shot six times. Through the intimate story of Da’Quincy Pittman, this piece contextualizes Indianapolis’ soaring rates of gun violence and homicides. Read the profile.
“Funded But Forgotten: Issues in foster care in New York City”
The NYCity News Service from the City University of New York published this comprehensive interactive project with many powerful multimedia elements to describe the struggles of young people who age out of the foster care system. See the full project.
“Reporting sexual misconduct”
Reporters from The Linfield Review at Linfield University in Oregon reported on an incident of a trustee who sexually assaulted a student. Over the course of several months, the student journalists reported on multiple stories of sexual misconduct and how the administration handled these incidents. See more.
“WCC and community navigate addiction recovery through pandemic, quarantine, and shutdowns”
The Washtenaw Voice, the student publication of Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, published this article that delves into how members of WWC as well as the community at large have been dealing with their addiction recovery throughout the pandemic. Read more.