Media

The Parkland Students Win an Important Journalism and Activism Award

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are the deserving recipients of the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award.

Feb. 19, 2018: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull / Flickr

At 3:18 PM on February 14, 2018, as the world now knows all too well, fourteen students and three staff members were killed and seventeen others were wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The count made the shooting one of the deadliest of the many school massacres we have all endured in the decades since Columbine. This time, however, the response was different: an activist movement for greater gun safety legislation emerged in its aftermath, eventually leading to the launch of the ‘Never Again’ movement and the nationwide March for Our Lives protests. Despite their own grief and trauma, writers and editors at the Eagle Eye, the Stoneman Douglas student newspaper, responded professionally and courageously, at once reporting on and participating in the growing movement for social change.

Interviewed the following month on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Rebecca Schneid,  a 16-year-old junior who is co-editor of the Eagle Eye, told the cable news network’s senior media correspondent Brian Stelter that “the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people that maybe don’t have a voice. And so I think that in its own right journalism is a form of activism.” Speaking from the nation’s capital, where she and the other student journalists were covering the massive March for Our Lives rally, Schneid told CNN, “The partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make a change.”

Schneid also told Elle magazine she was marching as “a first-hand witness as both a journalist and a survivor of the destruction and devastation to the plague of gun violence” and “so that no other publication has to sit down with the parents of their dead classmates, teachers, and coaches to try to do them justice by writing a story in their memory.”

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Sophomore staff writer Brianna Fisher, 15, said she was marching “because my voice should be heard and will represent those who no longer have a voice.” And Zoe Gordon, another 15-year-old sophomore staff writer, added, “I am marching with the Eagle Eye newspaper staff and the rest of the Douglas community for not only my safety, but for the safety of the millions of kids across America.”

One would think the passionate empathy and brave actions of these young journalists would be universally praised—or at least not pilloried. But whether or not journalism should be a form of activism remains a controversial question, at least in some mainstream media circles, and the students’ remarks were predictably met with a torrent of commentary from all over the political and journalistic spectrum. Conservative websites disapproved, of course; but so did Associated Press reporters like Meg Kinnard, who said: “Journalism is not activism. This should not have gone unchallenged.” Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal agreed. “Journalism isn’t activism; it’s presenting the facts, honestly and objectively,” he said, adding, “It’s this mentality that’s killing trust in our profession.”

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times disagreed, tweeting that “Journalism *is* activism in its most basic form.” He added: “Does anybody think that even the fairest and most diligent of investigative reporters wrote their horrifying stories hoping that nothing would change?” And Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post noted, “Journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability.” A spokesperson for the NewsGuild union also weighed in, stating, “When people in power are sowing doubt about basic facts, journalism looks like activism.”So when the student journalists at the Eagle Eye noted that it was the job of journalists to “present facts and elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur,” they were not only speaking on behalf of other Parkland students, but many more mature practicing journalists as well.

The board of the Global Center, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, strongly agrees with the Parkland students’ assertion that “Journalists can USE the facts to describe an issue that plagues society.” That’s why, as board chair, I am proud to announce the selection of the student journalists at the Eagle Eye as this year’s recipients of “The DANNY,” more formally known as the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism, given annually to individuals who best emulate Schechter’s practice of combining excellent journalism with social advocacy. The award includes a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund to support future reporting. (Previous winners include Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American and Patrice O’Neill of Not in Our Town. )

The late Danny Schechter was one of the first journalists to marry reporting with ardent activism against racism and other social ills, and to advocate forcefully in his work for increased tolerance and openness. While at CNN and later ABC News, Schechter pushed hard against the constraints of the cable and broadcast news media. In frustration, he left ABC to partner with me in the independent production company Globalvision. Together we began producing regular programming about such controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.

We knew from first-hand experience at CNN, ABC, and CBS that the commercial world was not very open to such coverage. So we offered it instead to public television, where we both had started our broadcast careers. Rather than being welcomed, we were instead told by top PBS media executives that our public opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was “too controversial” and that human rights was “‘an insufficient organizing principle’ for a television program.” The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful, highly organized right-wing protests against us, led to our being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter “A” and told that our advocacy meant that we weren’t really journalists at all. 

Such views, while they are eroding, are still somewhat prevalent in today’s media world, as we see from some of the reaction to Rebecca Schneid’s comments on CNN. But as the pace of change in the media world continues to accelerate, more and more people within the field are beginning to raise questions about such outmoded views regarding the role of advocacy. Increasingly it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.“If what we’re doing is advocating for the public,” says Patricia Aufderheide, professor of communication studies at American University. “That’s our job.”

Media theorist Jeff Jarvis, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, agrees. He says if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism. 

“Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism?” Jarvis asks. “The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?”

Gun violence—and the epidemic of school shootings that is only one of its manifestations—is among the leading issues of our time, and we applaud the reporters and editors of the Eagle Eye for both their exemplary reporting in the face of personal tragedy and for advocating for change at the same time. As Danny Schechter’s life and work demonstrated, the two are not and should not be exclusive; after all, as Rebecca Schneid and the Parkland students’ courage and resolve show us once again, it’s the job of journalists to “elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur.” And as Rebecca Schneid reminded us all in a recent article for the Guardian, “We are articulate. We have opinions. We demand change. And we are not going anywhere.”

Rory O'Connor is an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker. He has written three books, including Friends, Followers and the Future.