by Sheila Jones, JEA Mentor, Colorado
Student reporters learn several important lessons when they enter a journalism classroom. One of the first is how to ask good questions. This definitely proved true for my JEA mentee Hannah Shapiro’s eight-person crew of broadcast journalists at Eagle Valley High School during Election Week 2016. That’s when they took on a First Amendment debate brewing in Eagle County, Colorado, home to Vail and their bedroom community of Gypsum.
Asking the question was the easy part of the lesson they learned in preparing an episode that would air two days after the election. The more challenging lesson would come later in what to do once they knew the answer.
On Monday second year teacher and adviser Hannah Shapiro encouraged her students to include a current event story for the Thursday episode. No one mentioned the election. She then asked about what was happening in Eagle County or what the local newspaper, the Vail Daily, was covering. And that was when the story of Luis Juarez and the Trump campaign sign destruction came up.
A week before the election Colorado Mountain College student Luis Juarez had cut up some Trump campaign signs on the college campus. The Eagle County Republicans confronted Luis claiming he had violated their free speech rights, insisted he pay for the signs, write a letter of apology to be published in the Vail Daily newspaper, and campaign with them for two days holding a Trump sign. Luis complied with all three, and after his letter was published, it was a topic of disagreement and misunderstanding among students at Eagle Valley High School, in the community, and on the social media and website pages of the Vail Daily.
After the students discussed the growing controversy, Hannah said, “All of them thought that making Luis hold the Trump sign was a violation of his free speech, and they wanted to talk about it.”
As they began planning the segment, this was their story focus.
For the broadcast crew in only their second semester as a program, this decision also marked their first venture into addressing hard news rather than offering features targeted to entertain their audience.
It also marked the beginning of the second lesson to be learned — the story a reporter initially plans to tell may be very different from the story that needs to be told.
Hannah said reporter Alondra Escobar quickly discovered, after reading the letters to the editor on the Vail Daily’s website and the posts on its Facebook page, that the community was taking sides.
“When I first thought about doing this piece,” Alondra said, “I instantly thought about just getting Luis’s side on it and how his actions were justified. That was the original plan for me simply because of who I am and what I believe in. Later on when planning the piece out, I realized, with the guidance of my teacher, that I am a student journalist and need to get both sides of the story because the people deserve the whole story. “
Alondra then realized she needed to alter her purpose — to focus on exploring whose free speech had actually been violated — Luis’ or the county Republicans’.
It was at this point that Hannah contacted me as her mentor for advice. She had many questions about what the students could and could not do legally and ethically, and we talked and texted several times over the next 36 hours.
“I had quite a few concerns because we hadn’t really done anything on a topic our community was so sensitive about before, and I wanted to make sure the students were covering it in a way that was ethical and fair, that I was advising them appropriately, and that none of us would have any legal consequences that wouldn’t be in our favor if they arose,” Hannah told me afterwards. “Every step of the way your involvement guided us.”
We discussed whether or not Alondra could reference the online letters to the editor and Facebook postings and also about various potential conflicts of interest and how to address them. I encouraged her to have Alondra contact a lawyer well-versed in First Amendment law to address legally the answer about whose free speech had been affected. I suggested several options including the ACLU and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC). However, finding a First Amendment lawyer in a small mountain town on election day is not easy. Adam Goldstein of the SPLC did get back with Alondra, who recorded her two conversations with him. Parts of these interviews appear in the final episode.
It was in talking to Goldstein that Alondra discovered that her focus needed not merely a tweaking, but a reversal.
“When I called the experts at the SPLC,” Alondra said, “I wasn’t as right as I thought I was. This made me take a step back and look at who I am and realize my mind isn’t as open as I thought it was. When Adam Goldstein told me that no one’s right was really violated because they each had had options, it blew me away.”
That realization shifted the purpose of her piece again. “She then refined the purpose into exposing that our community doesn’t actually understand what free speech is and is not,” Hannah said.
Through a team effort and working well past school hours on Wednesday night, the students revised, edited and completed the episode in time for posting it for their weekly show on Thursday.
“The students came together to help make this piece happen,” Hannah said. “Two students collected b-roll, another student conducted the man-on-the-street interviews, and two intro students assisted with the camera on those man-on-the-street interviews, another student helped edit when the reporter had to go home for the night. There was so much incredible teamwork and peer support.”
As a result of the students’ work on this story, Hannah said, “six of the eight have expressed that they want to do more ‘hard-hitting’ reporting as well. They’re excited to be ‘fearless’ reporters, and they aren’t as worried about entertaining our audience because they’ve seen that they can engage them in important conversations as well.”
This experience has definitely enabled the students to grow and develop as journalists.
Nate Felton, who conducted the man-on-the-street interviews, said, “What I got out of the freedom of speech package was that we went against the system. We rebelled, which I though was awesome. The [Republican] party said it was in violation of freedom of speech, but Alondra figured out it wasn’t, and I thought that was cool.”
For Natalie Marner, who filmed b-roll, “The free speech package helped me realize we can discuss whatever we want. I knew that technically we were entitled to write and show what we wanted, but I thought I would never have the guts to actually do that. Then Alondra did the package and that served as the realization that we really can say what we want. No one can take that away.”
For Xochilt Villaseñor, who filmed b-roll and also the reporter standup, it was the collaborative effort that made the difference. “I was really proud of everyone who helped Alondra out, and I know it wasn’t an easy package to do, and I was able to see how the script was well thought out.”
Rose Sandell, another reporter, has found a world of new topics open to her. “This piece made me think about the projects within the journalism spectrum that I could do, to things that can create controversy but are still informative and unbiased. This is the first very hard hitting and somewhat controversial piece the class did this year. People can now see EVTV as not only a place to laugh or smile, but a place to get new information about events within the [Vail] Valley.”
Additionally, every student in the introductory journalism class who helped out on this story plans to switch their schedules to be in the Advanced Broadcast class for next semester.
Not only were the journalism students’ responses to the First Amendment story positive, so too were the reactions of the school community.
“We actually had had a couple of incidences where students and parents were accusing teachers of ‘violating their free speech’ by talking or not talking about the election results and/or teachers indicating who they voted for, so the principal thanked the EVTV staff for this piece being so timely, illuminating that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what free speech is and initiating a conversation about the difference between ethics and laws,” Hannah said. “Teachers were also impressed with the depth of the reporting and the whole crew’s enthusiasm. All the EVTV students said folks in their homerooms were talking about it in ways they hadn’t seen people respond to their coverage before — about the issues they had raised instead of whether or not it was funny or entertaining.”
As for Alondra, who began the process on Monday thinking it was Luis’ free speech that was violated, she was passionate about the chance to talk about it. In the end Hannah said, “It was a really great experience for her to put aside her feelings about the event to objectively pursue the story,” or as Alondra put it using a Spiderman reference, “Like Uncle Ben said. ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.”
For this high school broadcast crew, the story they thought they had on Monday ended up to be so much more when they completed it Wednesday night. The free speech segment can be viewed at 3:45 here. For Eagle Valley’s EVTV, the story has only just begun.