Iowa high schoolers power statewide investigations

Image by conrail6809, via Flickr.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism—better known as IowaWatch—published a statewide investigative story in the spring of 2016 on a disparity in how high school science teachers discuss climate change in the classroom. Nearly half of teachers surveyed by IowaWatch journalists teach climate change “as theory, informing students about the variety of thought that exists.” The rest of the responses fell evenly across a variety of strategies for treating climate change as fact, and IowaWatch’s work corroborated the findings of a larger national study published by Science that same season.

The IowaWatch story ran in several prominent state newspapers, including The Des Moines Register and The Waterloo Courier, and prompted concerns that students could complete their high-school experience with an inconsistent understanding of human impact on the environment. The absence of administrative measures to monitor how discussions of climate change play out in science curriculums shocked educators, students, and parents alike.

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But inside that story, another one lingered. Aside from the light supervision of Lyle Muller, IowaWatch’s executive director and editor, and Brian Winkel, a journalism teacher at Cedar Falls High School, the piece had been researched and written by high schoolers.

Over the course of three months, Tana Gam-Ad, Olivia Fabos Martin, and Sarah Stortz contributed on-the-ground reporting to that initial story (which Muller collected and stitched together), and became the first participants in IowaWatch’s efforts to produce collaborative, investigative reporting in high schools around the state. Muller, himself a veteran reporter, saw the program as an opportunity to escort the next generation of journalists into the field, but also as a strategy to cover relevant stories that might otherwise go unheard—stories high-schoolers were uniquely positioned to tell. In the process of that intensive coursework and reporting, Muller hoped administrators would recognize the vitality and necessity of “extracurricular” journalism courses, and think twice before sacrificing them to frequent budget cuts.

“I wanted to prove that high school students can do this,” says Muller. “I wanted to prove that they were capable of producing reporting that people would pay attention to, and that high school journalism programs are worthwhile and important.”

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Teachers and administrators listened. They had no choice; their quotes, many of them contradictory, were in print throughout the state. IowaWatch published the climate change piece on Earth Day, and made the story available to any newspapers willing to pick it up. Right away, student-journalists got a taste of how original, investigative data and reportage could influence popular conversation.

“It was so enlightening to see people supporting us, even though we were just teenagers,” says Sarah Stortz, on the response to her team’s publication. “They made us feel like professional journalists.”  

 

 

 

In the year following the climate education story, IowaWatch broadened its reach to five high schools and bolstered Muller’s effort with a crew of mentors and instructors. The project’s team included Stephen J. Berry, IowaWatch co-founder and Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter, and Julia Davis, then a senior at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism & Mass Communications. Davis led the program as an extension of her honor’s thesis, visiting classes and helping students hone pitches, while Berry provided line edits, did his own supplemental reporting, and worked to synthesize material students eventually brought in from the field. As a result of that collaboration, the IowaWatch High School Journalism Project produced an article on the state of mental health among high schoolers and the resources available to those battling mental illness on campus. Once again, students had offered a dispatch from within their own community, interviewing peers and teachers, applying invaluable shape and nuance to a world uniquely theirs.

 

What better motivator than the fear of accused inaccuracy? As Muller routinely tells his students, “If it’s coming out of someone’s mouth, that’s a good sign it needs to be fact-checked.”

 

“They’re the ones living these issues,” says Davis, who is now a reporter for the GroundTruth Project in Boston. “They had friends that were living these issues. They’re not parachuting in and reporting on problems they aren’t experiencing themselves.”

This year, continuing their tradition of generating relevant and pressing journalism, IowaWatch’s high school reporters set out to investigate the dangers of pesticide spray drift near high school campuses in Iowa, a state whose vast majority of schools lie near or completely within the bounds of a working farm field. The resulting story, which will examine the extent to which school administrations enforce buffer zones and monitor air quality, is slated to run this spring.  

 

 

More than any one-off accomplishments that may be credited to IowaWatch’s name, the success of its high school programming speaks to the growing necessity for initiatives that raise media literacy among young Americans. General trust in the press has dropped drastically over the last decade, the most severe slope of that decline occurring under the current presidential administration. Add to that the fact that such declines span party and generational lines, plus the incessant wounds public schools endure in the face of legislative cuts and the looming dissolution of rural newsrooms—of which states like Iowa have many, of course—and the High School Journalism Project begins to look, vocational training aside, like an impromptu handbook for citizen engagement. It becomes, as Lyle Muller has observed many times, a vital if unintentional crash course in civics. In the process of rigorous investigation, would-be journalists learn crucial lessons otherwise absent from core curriculum. They navigate bias, retrieve and handle documents of public record, and familiarize themselves with the workings of local government and school administrations. They fact-check. They become comfortable answering, in thorough terms, what may be the most important questions of today: How is a story made, and how can I tell which ones are made with integrity?

Similar programs certainly exist throughout the United States, many of them acclaimed and long-standing, including Princeton’s Summer Journalism Program, or Emerson’s three-week, “pre-college” journalism camp, or The Oregonian’s progressive partnership with the High School Journalism Institute. There are, too, independently operating high school papers publishing work of genuine consequence, such as The Booster Redux, at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas, whose investigation of a principal’s fudged credentials prompted that principal’s resignation.

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What seems exceptional about IowaWatch is the empowering chain of mentorship it affords without instruction getting in the way. Folks like Lyle Muller and Stephen J. Berry, both established, senior figures, and Julia Davis, an active reporter and recent college graduate, serve as uniquely important models for what a career in journalism actually looks like. They are there to impart what wisdom they can, but largely serve as facilitators for work that reaches beyond their own scope, or in different directions than they’d expect. Rather than didactic methods, students are showed the tools and set free to use them how they see fit, to report on the stories they deem most important.

They are also free to fail. IowaWatch is not a journalism lab; the work students produce is in no way protected by the vacuum of academia. There are legal and ethical standards in place, as with any outlet, and with that responsibility comes an expectation of self-motivated best practices. What better motivator than the fear of accused inaccuracy? As Muller routinely tells his students, “If it’s coming out of someone’s mouth, that’s a good sign it needs to be fact-checked.”

Too often, lately, in laments of its vulnerability, journalism gets broken into a dichotomy: the old guard and the new. It’s a binary in which the junior journalist must weasel forcibly and alone into the industry, lest they slip and become the forever-intern—or, worse perhaps, the reporter who abandons ship for lack of adequate mentorship and motivation, or pay, or equal treatment, and on and on. But programs such as IowaWatch’s High School Journalism Project negate that separation and move toward a more fluid transference of skill, a collaboration across expertise. They exhibit an optimism we can afford to invest in. And they bestow a gift one could wish to receive as a high-schooler, headed in any path to a job, journalistic or not: to be listened to, and be taken seriously.

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Micah Fields is a freelancer and teacher based in Iowa City.