In praise of student journalists


Like every other working, retired or aspiring journalist out there, I did a fist-pump when “Spotlight” captured the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

Maybe I’m delusional but I’m hoping this kind of high-profile validation of the film might prompt Americans to reconsider the importance of a free press and the impact of first-rate investigative journalism in holding the powerful to account.

“Spotlight,”  of course, tells the inspiring story of The Boston Globe’s exposé of the Catholic Church’s years-long cover-up of priests who molested boys and girls in the Boston archdiocese.

Lord knows our profession could use some help in opening some eyes and unlocking some minds. (Pun intended.)

The latest public opinion I’ve seen ranking the honesty and ethics of people in various fields shows journalists just above the middle of the pack.

We lag far behind nurses, pharmacists and medical doctors but ahead of bankers, lawyers and car salespeople. At the very bottom? Telemarketers, members of Congress and lobbyists.

See results of the December 2015 Gallup survey here: “Honesty/Ethics in Professions”

Maybe there’s hope.


Steve Duin, my former colleague at The Oregonian/OregonLive, cited “Spotlight” in a recent column praising the achievement and ambition of Grant Magazine, a monthly magazine published by and for students at the Northeast Portland high school that two of our three children attended.

N Word-largeLaunched in 2011 by a former principal and another former colleague, friend and neighbor of mine, David Austin, who serves as adviser, the magazine has gone after controversial topics with gusto. This month’s issue explores the history of the N-word and recent incidents of racial slurs at Grant. Previously, these student journalists have “fearlessly tackled drug and alcohol abuse, sexting, divorce, bullying, and homophobia and misogyny on social media,” Duin said.

Last week, I saw the same seriousness of purpose as I judged a national contest for scholastic journalists. I was the sole judge of a new category — the Profiles Division of Quill and Scroll’s Writing, Photo and Multimedia Contest.

From about 90 entries representing public and private schools from California to the Carolinas,  I selected three winners and a half-dozen honorable mentions. The stories explored issues involving depression, adoption, homelessness and sexual identity as experienced by the writers’ peers.

quill & scroll logo.As a high school journalist, one of the first signs that I was on the right career track came in the form of a graduation honor cord from Quill and Scroll, an honorary society for high school journalists founded 80 years ago at the University of Iowa. Later, as a professional, I served for many years on the organization’s board of trustees.

I stepped down a few years ago to give the same opportunity to others younger than me, but I was glad to step up as a judge, as I’ve done many times before for other professional and student journalist contests.

When the Quill and Scroll winners learn of their awards, I hope they will react as I did years ago. The recognition that someone already in the business thinks your work is pretty darned good not only is gratifying but it helps build self-confidence. Believing in yourself is a powerful asset moving forward into college and a career.

As “Spotlight” reminds us, we need journalists with top-notch skills and the highest ethical standards for the sake of our democracy and our communities. Here’s hoping some of these student journalists at Grant and elsewhere will rise up and become professionals too.

Word cloud:

Magazine cover: Grant Magazine


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