If popular American culture tells us anything, heroes more often than not wear disguises and have super powers that protect us all from easily identifiable bad guys and mad scientists. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and even the hapless Guardians of the Galaxy, are all endowed with money, strength, god-like qualities, starships and other tools that generally guarantee that if the nemesis isn’t completely squashed, it’s at least compromised, giving hope for that next blockbuster sequel. Even Merriam-Webster’s definition begins with the idea that heroes are “mythological.”
But we’re journalists; let’s focus on reality.
In fact, heroes are all around us, but they don’t wear capes. More often than not, they do go armed, but not with starships, invisible planes or laser guns. The battlement for the heroes to whom I refer here usually consists of cameras, field recorders, laptops, and…most important, tenacity and courage.
Clearly, I’m referring to the guardians of truth on our campuses—student journalists.
“These are some of the cases that have made headlines. Many don’t. I worry about those we don’t hear from, those who are trying to pursue truth, but are for myriad reasons bullied to silence.”
This has been a banner year for attempts to censor student journalists across the nation. Efforts to shut down high school presses can be found in censorship, prior review, and threats to the advisor at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, and prior restraint at Plainfield High School in Indiana. But challenges don’t stop at the secondary school levels, as is evident at the University of North Alabama’s censorship-through- firing at the Flor-Ala student newspaper, or hundreds of stolen newspapers at Colgate University. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg and reveal consistent efforts to silence pesky student journalists seeking the truth. In fact, these are some of the cases that have made headlines. Many don’t. I worry about those we don’t hear from, those who are trying to pursue truth, but are for myriad reasons bullied to silence.
Time Magazine announced its annual Person-of-the-Year pick this week, choosing journalists who serve as the “guardians” of truth in the face of historic efforts to quell it by despotic world leaders. Karl Vick’s cover story highlights journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s murder apparently by the order of the Saudi crown, two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar for “illegally” reporting on the murder of ten Muslim men, and the remaining staff of reporters and editors at Capital Gazette, who resolutely “put out the damned paper” following the slaughter of their co-workers. These are just a few of the powerful narratives Time offers of journalists who have stood up, even at grave risk to their own lives or freedom, to deliver the truth to their communities.
In keeping with those amazing guardians highlighted by Vick’s powerful essay, it is important to recognize those student journalists who are standing up and putting out the news, even when doing so is costly. They know that by doing so, they offer their campuses access to what’s relevant and vital to their day-to-day experience. Without an unfettered press, community members run the risk of purposefully limited versions of reality designed and molded by those who seek to benefit from less light shed on the subject. They are indeed heroes—the real kind.
“The fight is hard and seemingly all around us right now, so as a national honor society for student media leaders, we have a responsibility to share our stories, listen to each other, offer support.”
But it is equally important that we champion a free press for all students, even those who aren’t making headlines by metaphorically holding their ground against the rolling the tanks. The fight is hard and seemingly all around us right now, so as a national honor society for student media leaders, we have a responsibility to share our stories, listen to each other, offer support. That is, of course, how Marvel built its universe, by bringing the likes of Iron Man, Wolverine, and Spiderman together, recognizing there is strength in numbers and shared purpose.
We have initiatives aimed at building just such a coalition of strength among the nation’s student press corps. The Society for Collegiate Journalists’ mission says, in part, “SCJ focuses on pre-professional development at the collegiate level. SCJ aims to advance ethical, innovative collegiate journalism nationally and to create a strong network of advocates for First Amendment education.” To that end, SCJ encourages chapters to plan and host an event on campus designed to raise awareness and educate about the First Amendment and journalism, and even offers a small grant to help support that effort.
It’s my hope that in 2019 all of our chapters share stories of the heroes in your newsrooms, students who are on the front lines championing truth and also working to educate others about the importance of journalism. If you send us your stories of #JournalismHeroes, we’ll share them on the website and tweet them out.
Thank you all for your hard work and dedication to truth. I can hardly wait to see what our chapters do in 2019.
Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., is professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. Frantz is Executive Director of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and a passionate advocate of the First Amendment.