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What I’ve Learned as a Student Journalist

As a student journalist, I have been constantly told about the riskiness of journalism nowadays. As a field, journalism has traditionally been unstable, and it is ever-changing. That was part of the reason why I was so hesitant to formally take up journalism during high school, afraid that the goals I was chasing would reduce me to a classic stereotype: a poor writer, burned out from the constant hunt of stories.

My view of journalism as a field changed when I joined my high school newspaper’s editorial staff, where I currently work as a managing editor. Student journalism is necessary, now more than ever. It nurtures the next generation of good, passionate writers while also cultivating communities that many teenagers need to express themselves.

After two years on my editorial staff, I’ve learned many things that have shed light on the importance of protecting and preserving the press. Here are six of the lessons that I’ve learned as a high school journalist.

1. Journalism is a duty. 

No matter how risky journalism is, it is a good and necessary field. Considering the current state of the press and all the attacks being thrown against the media, it is undoubtedly becoming harder to be a journalist.

That is why we need good journalists — and more importantly, good people — to join the field. And while there definitely are some publications that do spread bias and misinformation, they cannot be used to generalize the entire media industry into a cesspool of “fake news.”

Most of the time, journalism isn’t meant to serve the writer themself. Journalists are people who are willing to use their own time to fight for others and ask the important, difficult questions.

Deciding to pursue journalism as a career isn’t a decision to be made lightly: it takes a significant commitment to a life of risk. Most of the time, reporters don’t go into the field for guaranteed fame or money; they do it out of a sense of duty to inform the public. 

Source: Muck Rack

My teacher puts this lesson in a way that I really like, which is that journalists are the “middle men and women of society.” It’s a privilege to be in that position, to be able to serve the masses and amplify underrepresented voices. That privilege isn’t something to be taken lightly.

2. Take constructive criticism. 

I used to be a rather sensitive writer, the type that would shrink back and internalize any constructive criticism I received as a personal attack. I still am sensitive, but I’ve become better at accepting these critiques. My entire job as an editor is to revise and criticize, to help my writers grow. Moreover, editing and revising is the essential part of the journalistic experience. 

Just because someone’s work can warrant constructive criticism doesn’t mean they are lesser as an individual. I’ve learned to try and get as much constructive criticism as possible on my work and actions. Someone else will always have a different perspective on the things I do, and their opinion can be quite valuable. 

Ultimately, journalists write for others, and editors must think about what is best for their readers. That almost always means a second, third, and fourth draft.

(Not to mention, trying to get a perfect first draft is often the recipe to crippling writer’s block).

3. Ask questions whenever possible. 

Communicate. It might seem a bit redundant, considering the fact that journalism is part of the communications field, but it merits emphasis. When confused, ask questions. When curious, ask questions. Even if you just want to confirm that you’re on the right track, ask that question.

The most important thing I’ve learned, throughout my editorships, is to just talk to one another. Being left in the dark and trying to lone-wolf your way out of it can hinder the entire newsroom, so ask questions and clarify whenever possible. 

Regarding stories, I’ve found that the majority of our best pieces and interviews are unscripted. My teacher has always said that interviews are a dynamic, organic process. While it’s good (and advised) to prepare topics to ask about beforehand, the best questions are original, springing up wherever the conversation turns.

4. Don’t be afraid of mistakes — just take responsibility for them.

Truthfully, I spent a lot of my editorship afraid of making mistakes. Worse, I was terrified of performing at any level less than perfection. I was so anxious about messing up that I wasn’t able to take in as much of my experience, in the past two years, as I should have. I can only look back with hindsight and realize how my editorships have shaped me.

Our paper has made mistakes, like any organization. From having to clarify editorial misunderstandings to fumbling some interviews to answering disgruntled emails from readers, I am also no exception. However, we got past these errors as a team and learned how to better avoid them in the future. Every mistake is a lesson learned, and while every self-help book or talk out there says this, it’s true. 

Do not eat up your time obsessing over avoiding errors. If and when they do happen, the best thing is to take responsibility for them. Be willing to acknowledge where you went wrong and make the necessary corrections. That’s all.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and redo my experiences, but this time actually be present enough to take everything in. But that’s just one other mistake from which I’ll learn a lesson.

5. Know your rights. 

Knowing how to write and edit is just one part of my journalism experience. I’ve found more and more that one of the most important things I’ve learned is my First Amendment rights, alongside the court cases that either protected or limited free student speech. Student journalists are arguably subjected to stricter limitations than professional journalists are.

Many times, I’ve had to use and recall the principles of these court cases — from Tinker v. Des Moines, which declared that students kept their First Amendment rights even when on campus, to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which established limitations on school-sponsored publications — in order to make the best decisions on the kinds of articles we publish. 

Mary Beth and John Tinker protested against the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

The First Amendment is arguably the lifeblood of journalism. Having learned the complexities and nuances to the kinds of rights it protects, especially for the press, has served me well, and undoubtedly will continue to in the professional field.

6. Journalism, and all its work and risk, is worth it.

I’ve spent most of my time in high school within my teacher’s journalism room. I’ve spent many late nights at school, double-checking layouts and articles and also many days planning for our staff and goals as an organization. Working for my school paper has been one of my most demanding, challenging experiences, but also one of the most worthwhile. 

Why? Because the best thing I’ve discovered is that the work is worth it. The risk is worth it. To be surrounded by other passionate individuals fighting for similar causes, to know that what I write and produce has the power to impact, give voice, and change minds in my community, is incredibly fulfilling.

Whether it’s writing something that truly resonates with someone else and puts their perspectives into words or publishing a national-level piece like Woodward and Bernstein did for the Watergate scandal, journalism is one of the most powerful forces in the world today. 

Ultimately, the greatest privilege, I’ve learned, is being able to take someone’s time: not just for the opportunity to make them think, but also to just tell them a story. 

Featured image by Brotin Biswas via Pexels

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Katie Liu
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I'm a high school senior who is passionate about art, identity, and words.

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