Good journalists distinguish themselves with their drive to discover the truth, but too few students have a chance to practice that skill early in their lives. I’m lucky enough to have helped a team of wide-eyed high school journalists discover the tenacity they will need to be successful reporters.
Six years ago, I was in the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program—a 10-day, all-expenses-paid journalism seminar for high school students from low-income backgrounds. This summer, I returned as a counselor for the program’s 10-year anniversary, and I found that even six years after I left SJP (as we call it), the program continues to ignite an ardent love for journalism among high school students whose high school newspapers have been stymied by restrictive school policies.
Often trained to write fluffy journalism, invariably a profile on the new football coach or a bake sale, many students are not permitted to practice real journalism—exposing the truth. For example, their principal might ban a story on teen pregnancy or drug use among students, calling the reporting “inappropriate” for the school paper. The SJP students shared stories like this and many others about their experiences with principals and journalism teachers who prohibited them from publishing stories everyone knew and no one wanted to talk about.
SJP, which is also mostly composed of minority students, serves as the impetus for high school teenagers to change that. The students attended news-writing workshops taught by reporters and editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, and The New Republic, among others. They received intense college application advice and took the SAT as preparation. At the end of the program, the students published a newspaper, The Princeton Summer Journal.
Their first real taste of gutsy reporting was the investigative story. The students reported on expired medications and other products sold at drug stores and pharmacies in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. Although many of the stores have already faced lawsuits by New York State authorities, students discovered the stores continue to sell spoiled items, such as infant vitamin supplements, pain killers, baby food, dog food, milk, sunscreen and hemorrhoid treatment cream.
As I watched them confront store managers at CVS, Duane Reade, Rite Aid and Walgreens, I witnessed their growth. They had the same nervousness in their eyes that I had when I stepped onto Princeton’s campus in the summer of 2005, but they were quickly learning to overcome it. They asked hard questions. They pressed for real answers. Until they got the truth, they did not stop. A few store managers took the expired medications off the shelves. Some offered explanations. Others did not.
The students beamed with excitement on the ride back to Princeton’s campus after our New York City day trip. They knew their investigation shook up a few stores, and they were eager to see the story in print. It was the first time many of them had seen the direct impact of reporting.
At the end of the program, many of the students discussed plans for overhauling parts of their school newspapers. They didn’t know it the first day, but they knew it the last: This program would change their lives. They were sad to say goodbye to SJP but knew they were leaving Princeton much bolder and better prepared to begin their future.
To see a copy of this year’s Princeton Summer Journal, visit the SJP website.