Founding Father Thomas Jefferson once said, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
Since the beginning of social media, provisions of the First Amendment have been put to the test regarding what is protected speech in our technologically driven society. Any individual who seeks to showcase an opinion or report pertinent information no longer has to rely on news organizations to serve as a medium. Now, simply opening a smartphone application provides a platform as well as the potential for a worldwide audience. But what are the dangers to society without credibility and accountability?
In the palms of their hands, millions of people, knowingly or not, are using the basis of what a journalism education teaches: ownership of an opinion and the reporting of knowledge.
Universities continue to offer degreed journalism programs as gateways to careers in multimedia. However, it is at the high school level, where critical thinking takes shape, that offers the greatest opportunity to instill responsibility and prepare future leaders in a high tech world. Journalism courses certainly provide the tools for communicating, but there are other benefits: Students become engaged in Democracy and are forced to be aware of issues affecting the community.
"If we want our students to learn democracy, what better way than to let them practice freedom of speech and press?" asks O'Fallon Township High School history teacher Kristin Strubhart.
At OTHS, journalism has traditionally been a revered program for upper grade levels. It is also coursework that Strubhart believes is a vital part of the curriculum. Strubhart, who teaches media broadcast under the umbrella of business, said journalism teaches students to think and communicate clearly, and helps them learn analytical thinking.
"I don't care what profession you're going into, those skills you are going to have to know how to do: Gathering information, researching information, synthesizing and analyzing -- and also looking at both sides of an issue, and communicating ideas in a clear and effective manner -- those are incredibly important skills for anybody, no matter your profession," Strubhart said.
In 2008, journalism switched from an English course to an elective course. When it was still an English class, students would have the option to take it in place of a course such as expository writing.
Through the past five years, OTHS has had three print journalism teachers. Over time, the popularity of journalism has decreased. Now, as an elective, journalism is only paid attention to by students specifically seeking a journalism education or simply filling course curriculum.
Nonetheless, Strubhart is a strong advocate for students taking advantage of what journalism as an elective has to offer. She said being involved in student publications gives students a sense of empowerment because of the "ownership" over the paper.
"What other class can you sit across from administration and ask them questions?" she said. "Our administration has always been so good about answering student questions. What a wonderful lesson for students to learn."
Strubhart has taught at OTHS since 1997. In 2005, she began teaching media broadcast.
"It's the only class that simulates a real work environment and prepares you for the workplace, because it is a work environment," she said. "You are producing a regular newspaper or broadcast -- you have to be able to work with a large number of people -- you have to be able to work as a team."
She also lauded journalism classes for providing leadership opportunities, allowing students to take ownership of their work and responsibility for their actions.
A basic tenet of journalism is to provide the public with trustworthy and factual information. High school students, whether or not they choose a career in media, would be well suited to take journalism courses even if their only communication is solely through social media.
In order for students to more fully participate in journalism courses in their high school years, school wide curriculums should prioritize journalism as a valuable class. One of the most important elements of our society is free speech, and when that is lost, taken away or taken for granted, liberty dies. Journalism coursework at the high school level provides the necessary basis for future leaders to ensure that freedom of the press is not limited and will never become lost.