Haley Jackson shares her experiences writing one of her favorite, and most challenging, stories: “Critical Controversy”

Haley Jackson headshot with the Behind The Story logo to the right.

Interview by Rei Wolfsohn, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In SPLC’s series, Behind the Story, we highlight examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists across the country.

Headshot of Haley Jackson.

SPLC spoke with Haley Jackson, a 2022 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She was the senior news editor for The Eagle Eye when she wrote her story, “Critical Controversy.” 

Check out past Q&As here.

RW: How did you initially come across this story about Critical Race Theory?

HJ: I went to a predominantly white school, so the whole point of this issue was to focus on voices that we felt were unheard in our community, unheard at our school. Mainly, those of a minority. Whether it’s by race, sexual orientation, gender, background, religion. As the only African American writing editor on the board, I felt like it was only right that I write about it. Just to make sure the topic was handled with care and delivered in a way that was true to the feelings of the African American community; making sure it was done correctly and sensitively. 

In the process of me writing it, it became like this really big deal in the media. All of a sudden, Critical Race Theory was this big deal thing and I’m in the state of Florida. So it just got super interesting to be writing about something that all of a sudden has blown up. And it ended up being super timely. Because, when the print issue came out, there was this whole issue of like what’s going on and also sort of dealing with maybe not censorship but also changing of some laws in Florida and the Department of Education in regards to library books, what can be in a library, what books are allowed, what books aren’t, what teachers can talk about and what teachers can’t talk about.

RW: What was it like reporting on the story? Were there any challenges you faced? 

HJ: I faced a lot of challenges just within myself. I wanted to make sure I did my due diligence to the topic. I felt a lot of pressure just to do it right and do it the correct way and make sure that it was clear that it was an informational piece, because I felt there was a lot of misconceptions within the media and just within people in our community and just in general in the world.

I won’t necessarily say I faced much pressure at school. We were nervous that we would possibly be censored. But that was before we went to our school admin. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is famous for being the site of the mass shooting and as part of the newspaper staff, we covered that a lot. So, if there was ever something similar to that, or similar to Critical Race Theory, that we thought would be put out into the community via the school (we are student-run and student-funded) we still would let admin know.

In the past we’ve gotten a lot of heat. So we went to admin a few days before the issue was dispersed at school. We said, “hey this is a story. We’re not gonna not publish it. We already sent it to the press to be printed and it is and it’s not an opinion piece. But this is a future piece. It’s not saying that the school supports it. It’s not saying that it’s good or bad. It’s just something stating this is what it is.” 

RW: So you didn’t have pushback from the staff, the community or school while you were doing this story?

HJ: No. I didn’t receive any pushback on my Critical Race Theory story. Admin told me they thought the story was amazing. They all kept a copy of it, and I signed it. And it was awesome, which was surprising because I really wasn’t expecting that response from them. 

RW: What was something you learned while you were working on this story?

HJ: While working on this story I definitely learned what exactly was Critical Race Theory. I was working closely alongside our debate teacher [Dr. Abraham] at the school because he’s actually someone who has studied Critical Race Theory. I don’t think I necessarily knew as much as I thought I did about racism and Critical Race Theory until writing this story. 

RW: What is some advice you would give to other student journalists looking to report on an important story like yours?

HJ: I would tell them to go out and do it. Most of the stories I’ve written, we were very nervous about how the community would receive it, or what we would uncover, or about backlash. So I would just tell them to go out and do it. With every story you write you should be comfortable. Because if someone goes and looks that story up online is that a story that you want someone to judge you based on? 

I have no problem if someone looks me up online and sees that I’ve written about Critical Race Theory. I’ve written about racism, I’ve written about a lot of other things. I’ve written about Stoneman Douglas [high school] and how we’re affected and how horrible gun violence is. So I would tell students to use their craft how they see fit. And how I personally saw fit and how I still see fit, just kind of support things that are important to you.

I think it’s important that when you are a journalist and you are someone who is writing or even taking photos or videos or anything like that, to just always be true to who you are. 

Haley Jackson

RW: Why is it so important to tell stories about race?

HJ: It’s important to tell stories about race because if we don’t do it then [the stories] die. And, while times do change, I think it’s important to know where we come from. I think if we don’t tell stories about race, from the Black perspective, from the Latinx perspective, from the white perspective, then we won’t know what each other feels. 

It’s our job to come together as a society and be open and apologetic when necessary. And to be open to people calling us out to higher levels of how we conduct ourselves. So, I think stories of race are good for people to come to places of vulnerability and really see themselves for who they possibly could be and see where we’ve come and how we can make improvements and just hold people to a higher standard.

RW: Do you have anything else to add about this story or student journalism in general?

HJ: I would say that the process for this story was probably the second hardest process for a story I’ve ever written. The story took me about nine weeks to write. I would go every day to Dr. Abraham and I would print out the story. It was seven or eight pages long. And, he would take a red pen, every single day, and slash through it. And make so many edits. And every day I was like, I’m so sick of this story. I don’t want to write it anymore. It’s stressing me out. I still love writing to this day, it’s what I plan to do with my life. But that story was gonna be the death of me. 

While I absolutely hated it while I was writing it, it is my favorite story to this day. I don’t have a single regret. Which is why I would encourage students to give their all. I write every story as if it was my last story. I would say I’m very proud to have written that story. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and that’s something that’s very important to me, to make sure I make them proud. So I really hope that that story did that. I really hope it teaches a lesson to some people and that it serves as a wake-up call. 

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