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Media Lit 101: WikiLeaks -- Espionage or Journalism?

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with Megan E. Fromm

If you have to ask, it's probably time to revisit your high school journalism class. Oh, sorry. You can't. It's been eliminated.

As the world media debates whether Julian Assange is a cyber-terrorist or the next Daniel Ellsberg, and the U.S. government scrambles to stop his next classified data dump, many of the best outlets to educate the public on the matter are closing up shop.

That's right -- high school journalism classes across the country are being eliminated in desperate measures to balance budgets and leave more time for schools to raise test scores in "core" subjects. If the pen truly is mightier than the sword, oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Just this week, the third-largest school district in Illinois (Rockford Public Schools) held a special board meeting to consider eliminating journalism and honors courses from its curriculum. A vote is expected on Dec. 14. Rockford would not be the first to decide to make such drastic cuts.

In Kansas, the department of education approved in September a measure to pull from the 2012-2013 budget all vocational funding dollars and federal grants used to support many high school journalism programs across the state. Their rationale? There are fewer journalists, fewer journalism jobs, and thus less need to fund this "vocational" profession.

But without journalism and media literacy classes, there is no one training the high school generation to be our future Fourth Estate -- the judicious watchdogs we all need, who keep an eye on the powerful, but who also understand the responsibilities and ramifications of reporting the news. Without journalism courses, students have one less venue for learning ethical decision-making, and have lost their opportunity to practice in the real world the hard work of making good decisions.

Students "hear about ethics, accountability and trust almost nowhere else in the curriculum," notes Jan Ewell, a former veteran high school journalism teacher in California. "They certainly will have no other opportunity in their academic training to apply these principles."

It seems frankly counter-intuitive that in the very midst of the international battle about the nature of cyber-information and the scope of the First Amendment, states and school districts are axing the classes that teach students to evaluate what they read and hear and see. Teaching all students to themselves speak out -- to the media, through the media, and by creating their own media -- is essential to moving them beyond passive media consumption to active civic engagement. Teaching students about their responsibilities and their rights as citizens is crucial to their eventual exercise of those as adults.

"When the kids learn to publish on the Internet... we give them a loaded gun," Jan Ewell, a former veteran high school journalism teacher in California, said about today's Internet-dominated media culture. "Journalism is the gun-safety training."

The state of scholastic journalism has prompted some foundations and professional journalism organizations to organize a defense: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for example, has a High School Journalism Initiative and website dedicated to increase student media and improve First Amendment awareness and use of news in the classroom. And recently journalism teachers, themselves -- many of whom are high school newspaper and yearbook advisers -- have come together to create a grassroots organization devoted to saving high school journalism programs, one class at a time. The Scholastic Journalism Institute and its website ThinkSJI are in their first year of shoring up support for teachers who say their journalism programs are on the verge of being (or have already been) cut.

"Journalism delivers nearly every skill that is critical to 21st century success," notes Mark Newton, a founding member of ThinkSJI and a high school journalism teacher in Colorado. "If we can show that, then journalism will become a class/program that every school that wants best of its students will deliver."

Teaching students journalism standards and ethics is key, even if the kids aren't heading for careers in media. Today, with cell phone cameras, Twitter and Facebook, everyone can put news and information out there.

"Information may long to be free, but not all information deserves to be free -- and someone needs to make those calls," says Jack Kennedy, Journalism Education Association president and a former high school journalism teacher. Kennedy, who also teaches college freshman composition and has discussed Wikileaks in his classes, notes that the majority of his students "are remarkably uninformed and don't seem engaged in the issue."

Journalism and media literacy classes, both at the high school and college level, facilitate discussions on breaking news stories in ways that allow tomorrow's reporters, as well as tomorrow's pundits and policymakers, to consider all sides. Especially important, Kennedy argues, is prodding students to consider the credibility of sources and the integrity of information presented.

To teach journalism is to teach the delicate balance among the public's right to know, the value of the information at hand, and the risks involved with divulging that information. The news today is full of those crying that Assange is saving democracy one data dump at a time. And there are other voices charging that the effect of Wikileaks will be to push international diplomacy behind even more firmly closed doors. Still others are calling his actions "terrorist." But if journalism classes continue to be eliminated from high schools across the country, the number of people capable of understanding what is at stake will be few and far between.

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Megan E. Fromm holds a Ph.D. in Journalism Studies from the University of Maryland and is currently the publications director and student newspaper adviser at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland.