This high school journalist gains real-life experience and faces the hardships of this profession. After taking time off, a life-altering story calls her back to doing what she loves.
Vivian Wu is on the cusp of a major life transition. She had her first college visit earlier this week. Last night was her junior prom. The light of the coffee house catches remnants of glitter on her hand as she sleepily (but eagerly) talks about her true love — journalism.
“It’s a great outlet to highlight things going on in the community,” Wu says. “Our school newspaper brings people together.”
But it wasn’t always that way for her Ankeny, Iowa, high school newspaper.
The return of a platform — and its problems
The Ankeny High School (AHS) newspaper, The Talon, was MIA for many years. When journalism and English teacher Alissa Hansen joined the AHS faculty three years ago, she was determined to bring it back.
“This is their platform, and they deserve it,” Hansen says. “Adults don’t always take that fact seriously, and that can be really disheartening. But this is their chance to have a voice.”
High school newspapers teach students what it’s like to have their stories told in a community, and they allow young journalists to get practice in the field, teaching them what can’t be learned in the classroom.
“Journalism is best learned by doing,” says Barbara Allen, director of college programing at Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school and media research association. “Doing journalism is harder and more fun than learning about it in class, and it’s going to make you a much better journalist.”
Wu began writing when she took a journalism introduction class with Hansen. Then came the return of The Talon, which was gaining steam under Hansen’s guidance.
“Especially right now, so many things are hidden. I think it’s important for things to be brought to light,” Hansen says. “And [those students are] in the trenches. They see a lot of things that I don’t as a teacher, that our administrators don’t, that our district, our community might not see until it’s brought to light by students.”
Wu covered many of them, with a special interest in political stories. But she also experienced fear about potential backlash telling them.
“There is always a little bit of fear when writing about a topic that’s political,” Wu says. “I try to remain objective, and if people criticize me, I’m just telling it as it is.”
The public’s mistrust of news outlets is nothing new.
“People have been accusing journalists of bias since the Roman days, and the people who accuse you of bias are most often the people who disagree with you,” Allen says. “A good journalist agrees to comport themselves by a code of ethics that’s pretty universally accepted by journalists.”
Wu says she also feels restricted by authorities at times.
“I feel like once I move on to college [and] getting a job there won’t be as much restriction,” Wu says. “At school, they kind of stray away from some topics.”
Dedicated to making all voices heard
Hansen has been there to guide Wu as she works on her craft.
“The level of research far beat out last year,” Hansen says. “She was looking at the bills and the language used in the bills and asking questions to sources referencing that language, and that’s impressive.”
But reviving a student press is not easy. With only one introduction journalism elective, students had limited writing opportunities. But now that The Talon is back, Hansen was approved to teach an advanced journalism class starting next school year. This class allows students to work for the newspaper and gives them an opportunity to explore all realms of media.
“Here I’m starting absolutely from scratch,” Hansen says. “The goal was to have [the advanced journalism class] this year. A lot of [seniors] are going into journalism and that intro class was their only experience with this world and so that was a bummer.”
Once The Talon was up and running, Wu returned with a groundbreaking story after three semesters off. Wu discovered a life-changing story that she says she felt needed to be told. Students at AHS participated in the state-wide walk-out to support LGBTQ+ rights on March 1.
“This is where I live,” Wu says. “The school board is sometimes not very supportive, not always a safe space for LGBTQ people. A lot of kids spoke out about how they were bullied or how they didn’t feel safe in this school district and the state. I think it’s important to see that there is a community fighting for LGBTQ rights.”
Knowing that the walk-out was a newsworthy event, Wu faced pressure to get the story published while it was still relevant.
“It was a time crunch,” Wu says. “I had to get that thing out as soon as possible. I was working on that [story] 24/7.”
Despite the possibility of receiving criticism for writing about the event, she continued to cover the story by writing a follow-up about reactions to the walk-out.
Her work paid off. Wu earned the Best of School Newspapers Online Award (SNO) for her story published in The Talon. Not only that, but she also earned a top ten spot in the state of Iowa as Iowa High School Press Association’s Emerging Journalists.
The Talon won 13 awards through Iowa High School Press Association for online content, and it’s just getting started. Hansen is working hard to make sure all students’ stories are told.
“I just want to make sure that my students are seen by everyone as truly amazing, capable human beings that are making a difference,” Hansen says.