By Ed Otte
Colorado Pro Chapter member Lee Anne Peck was named Volunteer of the Month for October by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Peck, a journalism professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, was selected for the national honor for her work on a study and a soon-to-be published book on high school journalism education. “Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism” is scheduled to be published by New Forums Press in early 2015.
The book is the result of a three-year research project that surveyed 250 Journalism Education Association members in 47 states. Peck is a member of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.
In 2012, Peck and Guy Reel of Winthrop University co-edited “Media Studies at Work: True Stories from Young Professionals.”
Before joining the UNC faculty in 2003, Peck taught international communications at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland, and she received a Fulbright grant to teach at the University of Dubrovnik in Croatia.
Peck earned a Ph.D. in journalism ethics at Ohio University, an M.A. in philosophy at Ohio, an M.A. in journalism studies at the University of South Florida (Poynter Institute), an M.A. in English at Colorado State University and a B.A. in technical journalism at CSU. She teaches public relations, magazine writing and media ethics at UNC.
Peck, who is also a member of Colorado Press Women, worked at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, Columbus (Ind.) Republic, Fort Collins Coloradoan and the Rocky Mountain News. She began teaching full time in 2001.
Question: Why did the SPJ Education Committee want to do this study?
Peck: In the fall of 2011, then-national SPJ president John Ensslin asked the journalism ed committee members if we had heard that high school journalism programs were facing elimination because of administrators’ belief that “journalism was dying.” Many of us with acquaintances who teach high school journalism had heard some horror stories, so to speak, but not necessarily about the elimination of their programs. The committee agreed to look into the status of high school journalism.
I remembered that in 1994, the Freedom Forum published a report on high school journalism titled “Death by Cheeseburger: High School Journalism in the 1990s and Beyond,” which led us to the earlier 1974 report by the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation titled “Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America.” We had our hook – we would look at high school journalism 20 years after “Cheeseburger.”
Question: Based on your research, what is the No. 1 challenge facing high school journalism teachers and advisers?
Peck: It needs to be noted that more than one-third of our respondents said they had no significant challenges. It’s the other two-thirds whom we have to worrry about – and help however we can. We found that funding was one of the biggest problems. We heard from people who had ancient computers – or just one computer – and both the magazine and newspaper staffs had to share it. They need updated software. The stories go on and on. One teacher said she paid for the printing of her school newspaper out of her own pocket. Yet these teachers or advisers keep at it.
Question: Is censorship a problem with high school newspapers?
Peck: A little less than 15 percent of our respondents said they were “constantly worried” their journalism teaching or student media advising would be reprimanded because of their students’ work that might create a controversy while a little more than 60 percent reported they were “sometimes” worried. Although a quarter of the respondents said they were never afraid of being reprimanded, what is alarming is that almost three-fourths of the respondents reported they are either constantly or sometimes afraid of reprimand. What needs to be done so these teachers are not afraid to do their jobs?
Question: Are high schools eliminating or reducing journalism classes as a result of budget cuts?
Peck: Oftentimes journalism courses are not considered part of the “Common Core.” Therefore, they become electives for students. However, our report points out how journalism courses meet many of the requirements needed to be a Common Core class. For instance, they offer a skill such as critical thinking. One of the challenges teachers face, too, is the fact students don’t have any interest in participating in student media. More research needs to be done with students to find out why they don’t have the passion to participate – like many of us did in high school.
Question: What is the most interesting thing you discovered?
Peck: One of the chapters I wrote was about the beginnings of U.S. high school journalism. It was amazing to me to find that the problems from almost 100 years ago that teachers faced are still the same today. For instance, today many English teachers have to take on the extra burden of student media; many don’t have proper journalism training. It was the same situation at the beginning. No funding, no equipment and so on.
Question: What are your recommendations for high school journalism education?
Peck: We need advocates for journalism classes in the high schools. We need to educate administrators about the value of journalism classes. Student media teaches about the First Amendment and democracy. These classes are steps toward students becoming active citizens.
Question: What role should professional journalists have in high school journalism education?
Peck: The last chapter of the book shares our recommendations. Those that involve professional journalists include the following:
1. Professional media involvement. Many professional journalists began their careers in high school classrooms, and it would be their gift to future journalists to provide moral and material support to scholastic programs and their teachers. Funding college scholarships or offering internships for highly motiviated high school students need to become priorities again.
2. Education of school administrators. Professionals should help administrators understand what journalism really teaches: the Journalism Education Association identified critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills, all of which are valuable tools no matter what field a person eventually enters.
3. Lobbying of school districts. Professional news organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists should lobby school districts for improved funding for scholastic journalism programs. Programs should be adequately funded in order for students to learn the skills offered in journalism classes.
Finally, I think the report will be of interest to anyone who is worried about the future of journalism. We need to start recruiting students in high school.