Teachable moments occur frequently in scholastic journalism – probably daily. But the lessons of Sept. 11 illustrate how journalism students can use what they are taught to document history and to inform and enlighten readers.
Within minutes of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, high school journalism teachers began putting this tragedy into perspective. As they rallied the staffs of their student papers, teachers reminded students of the journalist’s obligation to report the news and to chronicle history. And from coast to coast, school newspaper staffs threw out stories and reassigned pages as they sought ways to provide meaningful local angles to a national tragedy.
At Jeffersonville High School in Carmel, Ind., Tony Willis’ students were finishing a 16-page broadsheet issue to be published Sept. 13 when they learned of the first incident. Having just sent the front page to the printer, the HiLite staff immediately began working on a new Page 1. Shortly after the second plane hit, 24 high school journalism students were sent out to conduct interviews and gather initial reaction from the school community. By 2 p.m. that day, the HiLite’s Web site had a photo of the burning World Trade Center (taken by a former staff member and e-mailed to the HiLite staff), an e-mail from a Carmel High School graduate who works in Lower Manhattan, reactions from Jeffersonville High students, faculty and staff and former students attending school in New York, and other stories. When the Sept. 13 issue of the HiLite was distributed, it included a four-page special edition localizing the tragedy.
“Those editors, reporters and photographers always will remember where they were, and even more importantly, what they did, on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the hours and days that followed,” Willis said.
In Rolla, Mo., teacher Mary Gillis’ students put out an “Echo Extra” that went to press Friday at 7:30 a.m. and was distributed shortly after the noon moment of silence that same day.
“Our front page was a huge two-word headline, ‘Classes Halt,’ with big and very emotional pictures of students’ faces as they watched the coverage Tuesday,” Gillis said.
The special edition included coverage about Rolla graduates who had completed basic training over the summer or who had already signed a commitment into the armed forces upon graduation, a story about the school’s international students, and a feature about a 1999 graduate who worked on the 85th floor of the World Trade Center and who made it out alive.
“She was a former staffer,” Gillis said. “A feature reporter called and interviewed her and cried almost the whole time. It was heartbreaking.”
Former students, in fact, played a key role in helping many high school newspaper staffs get a first-person account of the attacks. In Orlando, Fla., The Paw Street Journal’s front page included a picture of the Pentagon burning – a picture that was taken by a former newspaper editor “who knew the staff would want them,” said adviser Anne G. Whit.
A graduate of Palmyra High School in Pennsylvania lives in a New Jersey waterfront apartment that faces the World Trade Center. She provided the Cougar Chronicle with pictures she took from her window as the event unfolded and a narrative of her experience that morning. “She wrote a chronicle of the whole terrible experience and at our request sent it to one of our reporters,” said adviser Aura M. Hill.
The lessons of Sept. 11 also were evident in the type of coverage that was included in the newspapers. Special editions – like the four-page insert done by the Lion staff at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Ill. – avoided the coverage found in commercial newspapers.
“They (my students) deliberately did not rehash what kids could have gotten from the Chicago papers or news magazines,” said Barb Thill, Lion adviser.
Beyond the lessons learned about the type of coverage needed for such an important historical event, journalism students also learned a great deal in the days and weeks following Sept. 11 about the quality of coverage provided by all of the different media outlets.
“When students came to class the day after the attack, I had the front pages of five daily newspapers hanging on the wall,” said Wayne Welch, adviser of The War Whoop in Tulare, Calif. “We critiqued not only coverage but design, headlines, use of photos, etc. We also compared and contrasted TV coverage with print coverage. I made a big effort to work in the responsibility of the press (and them, as young journalists) not to spread rumors and to dispel those that are spread.”
At La Costa Canyon High School in California, journalism teacher Susan Coppock also used copies of daily newspapers to help her students analyze the print media’s response to Sept. 11. “We talked at length about the responsibility of the media during a national crisis and what the public needed to know (as opposed to any sensationalism that might result),” Coppock said. “We decided that the media, for the most part, was scrupulously avoiding any sensationalism – the event was probably horrific enough.”
That was not the opinion of Timm Pilcher of Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa. “As a member of the Fourth Estate, I actually encouraged some great discussions in my classroom on how long it would take the media to come up with theme music and a logo for the tragedy,” Pilcher said. “Sure enough, it happened within about two hours. I know this probably doesn’t help, but it’s sometimes difficult to teach and defend modern American journalism when everything is boiled down to the tabloid coverage of very real issues which, by the way, we didn’t even begin to think about as a nation until it very literally hit home.”
Robin Sawyer is adviser to the student newspaper at Manteo (N.C.) High School. She was named the 2000 National High School Teacher of the Year by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.