November 2015 Podcast: The link between high school journalism and civic participation

By Student Press Law Center

Peter Bobkowski, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, discusses his research on the impact of scholastic journalism experience on students’ readiness for civic participation.

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone, and welcome to another installment of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast, a run down of developments of importance to the rights of student journalists. On the Student Press Law Center podcast, we interview newsmakers about developments in the field of journalism that might impact the ability of young people to gather and report news on issues of public concern. The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student voices, and we maintain a law library of legal materials of interest to teachers and students at www.splc.org.

The Student Press Law Center was founded back in 1974 as a vehicle for involving young people in the civic life of their community through journalism. The SPLC has always appreciated and understood the linkage between civic awareness, civic participation and journalism, but until recently, we didn’t have much in the way of documentation of that link until now. A new study published by our guest Peter Bobkowski from the University of Kansas actually used survey data from interviews with students to establish that linkage — that students who are in a supportive environment as student journalists feel a greater sense of civic efficacy.

To explain that, I’d like to welcome Peter Bobkowski. Peter is an assistant professor in the school of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas where he’s been since 2011. Peter has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He’s an authority on the field of scholastic journalism, has taught high school himself. He actually was a participant in one of the leading censuses of scholastic journalism that was done under the auspices of Kent State University back in 2011. He’s on the board of directors of the National Scholastic Press Association, as many of you recognize as the organization that gives out the Pacemaker awards each year. Peter was just recently recognized by the NSPA with its prestigious Pioneer Award for his long-time support of scholastic journalism.

So Peter, thanks so much for joining us and I’m going to give a shout out to your website where this research is posted, and I want you to remind people as well, but its civicsandjournalists.org. Peter, please take it away and tell us about your study and your findings.

Peter Bobkowski: Thanks, Frank, that was a wonderful introduction. I’m going to start by acknowledging that this research couldn’t be done without the support of the Spencer Foundation from Chicago which sponsors a lot of educational research, and one of the initiatives that the Spencer Foundation was interested in was the connection between education and civic engagement — how do young people develop civic skills, civic dispositions? And so I proposed to the Spencer Foundation that I would like to do a study that looks at journalism specifically and civics because just like you said Frank, we have the sense that young people who are in journalism are engaged in their communities, have a better sense of their communities perhaps than those who aren’t as engaged in journalism, but we haven’t really had data to support that notion. And so I spent a little bit of time trying to figure out, as I was writing this proposal, looking at what other people have written on this topic, trying to figure out what could, what would be really, journalism’s contribution to this? What is it about journalism that could make people better citizens down the road? And what I came up with is the idea that it’s really about — what’s unique about journalism is that it helps young people understand their communities better and maybe understand issues a little bit better, but they can do that outside of journalism.

LoMonte: Right.

Bobkowski: But journalism is really about the communication of issues and using the tools of journalism and tools of media to effectively address those issues. So the idea that a journalism student develops a self-confidence about — if there’s a concern or if there’s an issue that they care about, through their journalistic work, they learn the tools of how to address that issue with whatever public they’re trying to address. I call this concept media civic efficacy. There’s writing about civic efficacy out there, but I really wanted to focus on the media part of this and ask the question, do journalists really see their media, their student media, as tools through which they can address their issues?

LoMonte: Well, first tell us the methodology by which you went about the study. How did you select the group that was surveyed? And as you carried out the survey, what were the takeaways and findings?

Bobkowski: Sure. I am, like you said Frank, at the University of Kansas, which is about 45 minutes west of Kansas City. And Kansas City has the unique characteristic — well there are two Kansas Cities first of all, there’s a Kansas side of Kansas City and there’s the Missouri side of Kansas City. I thought that was a really interesting place to do a study about that, specifically focusing on high school students, because as you probably know, Kansas has a law protecting high school journalists’ speech and Missouri doesn’t. And I thought that in itself is a really interesting variable to include in the study. So I focused on high school journalists in the Kansas City area both on the Missouri and Kansas side. I selected 10 counties around the Kansas City area so we weren’t just looking inside the city but also suburb and more rural areas around the city. Eventually I also included private schools in that. So it was public, private schools and as the study progressed, I was also invited by teachers in the Wichita area to include their schools in the study. So Wichita Public Schools are also part of the study.

So in the end, there are about 42 schools, I believe. And that represented 20-some districts and then a handful of private schools. All in all, there were about 900 high school students who took the survey last spring, between February and April. And 40 high school journalism teachers. All of the students who were in the study, their teachers took a separate study just for teachers.

LoMonte: And you really focused on two different but related questions here. There was a line of questioning about students’ own support for First Amendment values and there was a second line of questioning about the climate in which they were doing their journalism, whether it was a climate that was supportive, positive and a relatively hands-off level of supervision. Explain both of those lines of questioning and what the responses told you.

Bobkowski: Sure. So going back to the Future of First Amendment studies, we know from that work that high school newspaper journalists have a better sense, a better understanding of First Amendment rights, speech rights, than student who aren’t in newspaper. So I wanted to follow up on that and see if there were differences within journalism programs and with respect to the understanding and support of the First Amendment, and asking whether or not that translated to support for addressing issues of importance in the student media. And so the key question I ask, the first question students answer, is identify an issue in your school that should be addressed somehow — some issue that needs changing. Students identified — and these are classic things that we’ve seen for many, many years, even going back to Death by Cheeseburger — some students said ‘our lunches are not very good.’

LoMonte: Dress codes, I’m guessing, were high on the list.

Bobkowski: (Laughs.) Yes, students talked about things like bullying and discipline, and dress codes and certain policies on grading and so on. The key thing here is that these are perennial issues but they’re not trivial. These are the issues that students learn how to be citizens on. These are the issues that help students figure out how to make change, how to do citizenship. I asked students to identify the issue and then I asked them several questions about how likely or how confident they felt they could address the issue in their newspaper or online publication.

So students who supported more First Amendment rights, so these would be things like — and these are questions from the Future of First Amendment studies — students should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive, newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval on a story. The more students endorsed those First Amendment rights, the more likely they were also likely to say I feel confidence I can address issues of importance in my student media. I think this underlines the importance and really sort of the conduit that First Amendment literacy has to feeling like you can make a difference, feeling like you can step out of line and say there’s an issue here that I need to address and I have a right to do that because the First Amendment protects that kind of speech.

So that’s the First Amendment element of the study. The climate and the teacher support is also really interesting. I asked students a number of questions about the climate in their schools. Do they feel supported by their teachers? Do teachers step in when students are being disrespectful? Do teachers believe in their students? Students in schools that had a higher score on the climate — and I averaged the scores based on all the students who answered the questions from that school, so this is a school wide number — so schools that scored higher had students in them who felt more confident that they could address issues in their student media which tells me that this is not necessarily about the journalism program and the journalism teacher. It is about that but it’s a broader environment that we’re dealing with. If we want to make sure our students feel empowered, this has to be a school-wide effort by the whole faculty by saying to students, you know, your voice is important, your voice matters, we respect your voice. It’s not just the journalism teachers whose job it is to cultivate that.

I did ask journalism teachers in their survey about how comfortable they were with controversial issues in their students’ media. I asked them things like, how frequently do you rewrite newspaper articles other than for style and grammar? How frequently do you emphasize to the staff that controversial subjects should not be covered in the student newspaper? How much do you worry that your students will publish controversial things in the paper? And so actually it was interesting to see that very few teachers said that they were heavy-handed about controversial topics. But overall those who were lower on this sort of heavy-handedness, their students scored higher on media civic efficacy — this sense that I can address issues in my student media. Those students scored higher than the students of teachers who are more heavy-handed, who are more worried about controversial issues in student media.

LoMonte: Right and those two findings together just seem huge in terms of pointing us toward a roadmap for producing more civically-inclined and participatory students. Your findings suggest both that if the overall school climate is supportive and if the journalism teacher is him or herself supportive, then the students will have a higher feeling of efficacy in their ability to use media to advocate for social and political change.

Bobkowski: Right and I think it directly supports the efforts that you do, working with administrators and working with advisers. It’s a multi prong kind of an approach and they sort of need slightly different types of information, slightly different kinds of support, but they have to work in concert for this to really happen.

LoMonte: So I don’t know if you were able to discern this, I don’t see this as part of the public portion of the published findings but were you able to draw any conclusions based on comparing the Kansas and the Missouri findings to determine if there was a discernible difference between the practices of a state like Kansas with a student press rights statute and a state like Missouri that lacks one?

Bobkowski: I have not fully analyzed that question, so I’m going to not speak to it right now. I think there’s more to sort of tease out there, so I don’t have that information. I do want to say that there were several questions that I asked students about their future citizenship and their future civic activities because I think this is really the — if this has no implications for later in life, then it doesn’t really matter, right? I mean it would be sort of an exercise in citizenship in high school, but those students who feel stronger about addressing their issues in the student media, they’re the ones who say, I’ll be more vocal in the future, I will be talking about political and civic issues on social media, I’m going to be following candidates and issues online and in person, I’m going to be volunteering, I’m going to be voting — more than students who feel less engaged and less empowered.

LoMonte: That’s remarkable and I should say also that your study indicates that you found a positive correlation between the duration of participating in journalism and your sense of civic efficacy. That those who participated for a longer period of time also saw a corresponding increase in their feeling of effectively being able to participate as citizens.

Bobkowski: That’s right. So the more experience you have, the more practice you have using these media tools, the more confident you feel that you will be able to make a difference. Which intuitively makes sense but it’s nice that it worked out the way we predicted.

LoMonte: Well this is an incredibly timely publication because there’s a movement taking shape around the country right now toward enacting statutes like the one in Kansas and like the one recently enacted in North Dakota — the New Voices Act which conferred upon students a measure of legally-protected freedom greater than the bare minimum recognized by the Supreme Court in its 1988 Hazelwood ruling enabling students to talk about issues of social and political concern without undue concern that they’ll be either censored or retaliated against or that their teachers will be punished simply because the topic caused some dispute or difference of opinion. I can certainly see these findings going into a presentation to state legislators about why a law like that has a civic payoff to it, has an educational payoff to it beyond the newsroom. When we were presenting the New Voices legislation to legislators in North Dakota, one of the points that seemed especially resonant with them was not journalism for journalism’s sake, but journalism as a vehicle for civic participation. Many states, North Dakota included, has been wrestling with this and has been enacting measures such as mandatory civics exams as a prerequisite for graduation, and so it seems like we’re hitting the states at an opportune time when civic education and civic preparedness is front and center on the minds of a lot of policy makers. And I guess that’s a very long way of asking you, Peter, how do you see that these findings might in fact be used in application and do you see a second act to this? What would be the follow-on?

Bobkowski: I think it’s important to emphasize that this, this is not just about civics — sort of textbook civics, it’s not: journalism helps you know who your representative is or where to go vote and things like that. It might do that but more than that, journalism is about civics in action. It’s about, how do you make things happen? How do you take issues and address them in your communities? How do you make people care about issues? How do you make them see that these are issues they should care about? I think it’s so much richer than something like an exam where you say, who are the founders of the Republic, and so on. I think that’s a really exciting part of this, of the study, and if that element can be used for the benefit of journalist, high school and college journalists in states around the country, I think that would be really terrific.

In terms of a follow-up, you can always do a larger study and I think people might say well this is a very special case of Kansas and Missouri, and those are Midwestern states that often have very strong journalism programs and so on, so maybe those don’t translate to the rest of the country. So I would love to engage other parts of the country in this and see how it works elsewhere. One of the things I’ve done is we have a set of lessons on our website, which again is civicsandjournalists.org, a set of lessons that a social studies teacher, a journalism teacher and an english teacher put together about how to apply this, this idea of media civic ethicacy in your classroom, how to inspire that in your students and how to translate that into editorial writing. But also on that website is the survey itself, the survey that students took if you’re in Kansas and Missouri, so I would love for students around the country to be taking this so their teachers could see whether or not this holds in other parts of the country.

I also think that there’s a need for understanding what happens at the adviser-student level. I think that’s where so much of this efficacy gets transferred. When a student says to an adviser, I think this is an issue, I want to address it, how does the adviser deal with that? What types of questions does the adviser ask, what advice does the adviser give? I think understanding that and giving advisers resources for how to deal with issues like this would be really helpful, especially for those advisers who don’t have as much experience or education in this as others, so I’d love to go in and observe what actually happens to high school journalism classrooms when those conversations are brought up.

LoMonte: Absolutely, that would be a fascinating follow-up piece research. As we sign off, I want to give a shout out to the three students who worked with you on this research — Kayla Schwartz, Alec Voss and Becky Miller were the student researchers assisting our guest Peter Bobkowski from the University of Kansas. And again that website is civicsandjournalists.org. We certainly commend the study and the attached lessons to your attention and encourage people to share it widely. Peter Bobkowski, thanks so much for joining us on the Student Press Law Center podcast and thanks to all of you for joining us as well. There’s much more information about the rights of student journalists available online at www.splc.org. We hope you’ll follow us on twitter @SPLC and use our email address with any questions about your own legal rights, that’s splc@splc.org. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next month.