Commentary: Why Small Towns Need Student Journalists

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February 26 is Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of awareness for student media that highlights the challenges and experiences of high school and college journalists.

Growing up in a small town has become a sort of glorified trope in movies and television. The idea of living in a community where everyone knows everyone and the annual rivalry football game is the highlight of the school year seems to be idealized in the media today.

But in reality, living in a small town is not always picturesque, especially when your town has little diversity or opportunity for economic growth. According to the U.S. News’ overview of West Virginia, 95 percent of the population is white, the median income per capita is less than $30,000 and only about 27 percent of the population is college educated.              

My hometown, Parkersburg, West Virginia, is one of the largest in our state with a population of about 28,000. Confederate flags wave with false pride as you drive down our streets, and verbal abuse from anti-maskers and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists has become an everyday occurrence at my part-time job. And all of these experiences have reinforced for me the importance of press freedom. 

I work at my high school’s newspaper and this year, Student Press Freedom Day, February 26, is an opportunity for student journalists like myself to reflect on how critical student press freedom is. I joined this initiative to underscore the importance of protecting student journalism  in a small town that is heavily influenced by the hysteria around “fake news” and a general distrust in the media, which many times fuels their pushback on important issues like mask-wearing.

Student Press Freedom Day was launched in 2018 by the Student Press Law Center in order to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeler. The decision expanded public school administrators’ rights to censor student publications, deeming them as lesser than professional news outlets and having weaker protections under the first amendment. Since then, many school administrators across the country have stopped student publications from reporting on serious topics they deem inappropriate or unsuitable for school news. Although since 1988 there have been several legal cases that have expanded protections for student journalists, there likely have been just as many instances that didn’t go to court but have still denied the free speech of students and censored their ability to report what’s happening in their communities.

There are so many reasons why student press freedom is important, but access to information in rural communities is among them. With newspapers shutting down across the country, small towns lack an often vital community-based news source, which student journalism can provide. Censoring student media only denies them access to an ethical news source that may be their only source of trusted local information. 

As local newspapers close, distrust in and the delegitimization of news publications in rural areas has continued to grow, and those feelings trickle down to student publications. In my state in January of 2020, the Times West Virginian released an op-ed pleading with readers to trust local journalists over the “news” they find on social media. Relying on information shared on social media is becoming more common in towns like mine, where the spread of misinformation can make it difficult for someone to tell the difference between fact or fiction. Student publications work to provide a reliable and credible source their community members can trust. 

Although youth are generally disregarded due to the belief that they are not educated or experienced enough to offer any sort of critical thought, it is hard to find someone who understands a community as well as a person who grew up there does. Student journalists work to gain a sense of legitimacy or professionalism in our communities, where it is easier to dismiss us rather than listen to us, but we know the challenges our peers, our parents and our hometowns face as well as anyone. Student journalists are embedded in their school and outside communities and they know what their values are.

Student publications also have the ability to reach their peers in a way that larger publications can’t. Media and news can be difficult to digest when it is targeted to an older audience. With student publications, news can be presented by young adults to their peers in a more comprehensible, accessible way, and in the long term can rebuild trust in media. Student journalists are able to connect with their peers through their shared experiences in a way that national publications can’t.

As a student raised in West Virginia, I have seen all kinds of conservative attempts to discredit legitimate new sources, while relying on sources which have been long confirmed as untrustworthy. As a student in the workforce, I often have to bite my tongue when confronted with accusations that I am “buying into the liberal media’s lies,” especially when I have to enforce our store’s COVID-19 policies. Because of these experiences, it is important to me to continue writing articles that discuss the factual evidence supporting the validity and seriousness of COVID-19, and that we also discuss the effects it has on us as students, but it also helps to know someone is out there to help defend my rights as a journalist when I’m writing about a topic that is considered controversial by most members of my community, is comforting. 

Growing up in an environment that discredits news has only strengthened the importance of student press freedom for me. It allows student publications to begin to rebuild trust between their communities and news and provides them with access to critical information they may not otherwise have. Living in a small conservative town where my views don’t always align with many of my peers’, it can feel like I’m suffocating at times, but I have been fortunate enough to find news writing and journalism as a way to connect with people inside and outside of my community who value truth and facts. The preservation of student press freedom is something I am thankful for, as it is the reason I am able to continue reporting on important topics that matter to me and my community.

Kelsey Golden is a 17-year-old junior at Parkersburg High School Parkersburg, West Virginia. She is a writer for the school newspaper, The Journal.

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