What follows is my written, prepared presentation for Society of Professional Journalists’ Day at the American Community School, Abu Dhabi. Excerpts from my far more interactive and abbreviated oral presentation were transformed instantly into a professional podcast by Prof. Paul Lowman, to come. Click.
It disturbs me when I see high schools and colleges without much student-run media. I’m hoping that one of the outcomes of this SPJ conference will be to strengthen student-run media in Abu Dhabi. It seems to me that students are missing one of the most important ingredients of their education: to get “hands-on” experience in storytelling, to report for themselves the stories of who they are as a generation of students, what they have experienced as individuals and as part of a community, as competitors in a wide variety of sports, as learners in a particular time and in a particular place. In short, to start to develop their personal voices, their authentic voices, and their shared and individual identities through media.
You have tools right in your pockets — smart phones — that are far more powerful than the tools most journalists throughout history have had. I’m sure you’ve heard that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Well, today, the smart phone is mightier than the pen!
How many of you have a smart phone? How many of you have a data plan? How many of you use Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? Youtube.com? Ok, now you can start “committing acts of journalism.”
One problem, of course, is that a lot of these social media postings are fragmented, in different places online so that most people in your communities will never see them. But you can work on that. Surely in those statistics of smart phone usage you can think of ways to reach more people, and potentially reach the majority of people in your community.
In a wealthy community like Abu Dhabi, I bet you can find advertisers as well for your student publications, if you need to raise money to produce occasional print editions.
Let me tell you a little bit about my own career. I started my journalism career in high school writing for my student newspaper, then becoming co-editor of it. In journalism, you learn by doing, by writing or creating stories. I also wrote articles for the local newspaper that sometimes ended up on the front page. I believe you have that same opportunity here. Abu Dhabi Week welcomes submissions from high school students. There are few things more thrilling than over-hearing strangers — people you’ve never met — talking about an article you wrote.
Good experiences in high school journalism led me to major in journalism in college, where I worked for the student newspaper, was selected as editor of a monthly journalism school publication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the best schools of communication in the US, if I do say so myself. I interned one summer as a reporter at the Southern Pines Pilot, a well-regarded weekly newspaper near my home, and produced a number of stories that ended up on the front page. So that, too, gave me an incentive to keep writing and reporting.
After college, I worked for daily newspapers in North Carolina for six years. It was a lot of fun. I covered everything from the police to schools to the arts and entertainment. I wrote stories about local characters that are still of interest to local historical societies. Those stories continue to remind the community who they were in that time and place.
Being a journalist gave me a ticket to talk to people from all walks of life and try to see things from their points of view. Journalism gave me an opportunity to see life in all its grandeur and squalor, it gave me an excuse to ask impertinent questions. One day I might enter the home of a wealthy businessman and the next day the shack of someone living in abject poverty.
Journalism taught me to listen in an empathic but detached way and to report what people said without interjecting my personal opinion.
Journalism was an avenue to great, exciting, hands-on, life-long learning. One season I might be assigned to cover the education beat, and write about what’s going on in schools. A year or two later I might be assigned to cover arts and entertainment, to go to movies and plays and concerts, interview performers, write about it under deadline and call that work. As a features writer, I began to see stories everywhere I looked.
Mentors and Media Heroes
To consider a career in journalism, you need mentors and people who encourage you. My uncle, Mac Secrest, was the editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper in South Carolina who crusaded in favor of racial integration and negotiated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. So he was an inspiration.
And the media environment was quite different then. Let me ask you what is your impression of journalists? Positive or negative? What are some positive words to describe journalists? Some negative words.
Not surprisingly, your negative words for journalists far outweigh the positive.
When I was coming along, journalists were widely regarded as heroes because they had helped force a mean and corrupt US President, Richard Nixon, to resign. Reporters for The Washington Post uncovered the Watergate scandal. That was made into a classic movie called “All the President’s Men” which I highly recommend that you see.
Nearly every night at 6:30 pm, families like mine sat down together, with our dinners on trays and for half an hour we watched Walter Cronkite, called “the most trusted man in America” deliver the day’s news, in an authoritative voice.
How many of you sit down together as a family at 6:30 or 7:00 and watch the day’s news? How do you even get your news? (survey)
Let me recall for a few moments what my high school and college media did for me. I went to a high school that was about 49% white Southerners, 49% African-American, and 2% Native American in rural North Carolina, shortly after the end of segregation. Racial tensions were initially quite high in my high school. When black and white kids socialized together, it made some parents nervous. There were pressures to “stick with your own kind” but also natural curiosities and a desire to befriend students of other races.
My high school journalism teacher, who happened to be an African-American woman in a newly integrated school, was a very maternal lady who took a great personal interest in her students. She surprised me by recognizing a talent in me that I did not see in myself — a talent for writing and reporting — and appointed me co-editor of the school paper, giving me a chance to exercise some leadership in the school. She led us on field trips to a major metropolitan newspaper, where we met “famous” regional journalists and could envision ourselves working beside them one day.
Student media helped bring the students together under a common identity. While some students may still have had the mindset of segregationists, that they were still going to an all-white or all-black school, student media reported on the election of a black student body president, and the support he received from white students. He talked of his desire to unify the student body, black and white.
The movie, “Remember the Titans” — how many of you have seen that? — reminded me of my high school years. A newly integrated high school, full of racial tension, overcomes prejudices to unite around sports. Student media covered it quite well.
Students wrote about field trips, often in a humorous way. They wrote about the volunteer projects they were involved in. I wrote about my experiences as a page in the state legislature in a way that ridiculed some of the antics there.
We also did surveys of students on issues taking place in the wider world. They had a chance to show they were following the news, and to think about and express their opinions on issues of war and peace, scandal and corruption, or other controversial issues.
Can you think of some issues you might poll students on?
I’m sure you’ve got stories — hundreds of stories — right here in Abu Dhabi that are just as compelling if not more compelling than the ones I can tell about life in my high school and university.
You may think student media is insignificant. But let me tell you something.
I’m on Facebook with old codgers who graduated from high school in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. You will not believe — or maybe you will — what these old codgers treasure. On Throwback Thursdays and other days, they frequently post pages from their yearbooks, articles and photos from their student newspapers about their exploits in football or basketball or baseball or student activism in high school or college that have been sitting in attics for half a century or more.
You don’t realize it, but you have the opportunity to create literature, documenting stories and capturing memories that will be cherished for a long time to come.
I tell you this because 20, 30, 40, or 50 years from now, just like the old codgers I observe on Facebook, you will cherish your memories of your high school and college days, and you really ought to work at preserving your memories and your stories. You all have unique stories to tell, and I hope this SPJ Day will inspire you to work on telling them.