‘We’re not at War. We’re at work’


The room was quiet with the inevitable awkwardness that comes with new strangers. Fifty states. Fifty different people from fifty different towns, communities, belief systems, and backgrounds. But despite all of our differences, the stagnant environment transformed over the common ground of all of us in the room. Everyone there loved journalism, and from the eager hands hovering over reporter pads to thumbs itching to start recorders, it wasn’t a secret.

This summer, from June 17 to 24, I embarked on one of the most influential weeks of my life. I was dropped off at Hartsfield-Jackson with a suitcase and boarding pass, unaware of what I was getting myself into. That winter, I’d applied to the Newseum Institute’s Free Spirit Scholar’s program for high school journalists. Fast forward five short months and there I stood, awkward and nervous, staring at the fifty faces of kids that I’d never met. I was nervous and second guessing myself, wondering how in the world I’d qualified for the recognition when all of these brilliant people did too. I’d never been more humbled, standing together with everyone for the first time.

After the introductions and failed attempts to remember everyone’s names, my apprehension melted away against the skyline of Washington D.C. I met a boy from South Dakota who showed me his school paper, the pride gleaming from his enthusiastic grin and sparkling eyes.

“It’s my baby,” he said as he flipped through the 20 pages, showing me all of his bylines.

The connections continued throughout the week as we woke up for early mornings and long days, fan girled over editors in chief of the Washington Post and New York Times and grilled Pulitzer winners with questions about their secrets to success. I remember thinking to myself in these moments that I was surrounded by the next generation of ground breaking reporters and editors. The ambition was overwhelming.

I learned that I was lucky. So many kids from every corner of the U.S faced crippling review and press restrictions at their schools. A girl from Wisconsin joked with me that she had the Student Press Law Center on speed dial. I was so used to the freedom that we experience at Decatur that hearing their stories made me view my access to the first amendment as a luxury.

From the characters I met from Nevada and Pennsylvania, to California and Missouri, I learned that now is the most important time for journalists to champion the first amendment. In this era of polarization and hatred, the media is ostracized. In D.C, I learned it doesn’t have to be that way.

The amazing friends that I made at the Freedom Forum in June taught me that journalists are never “enemies of the people.” They’re the ones that put everything on the line for stories, for telling global citizens the truth. All of us put our hearts, school acceptances, and reputability on the line with every character of our stories, and we love it. Being at the conference helped me rediscover the beauty in journalism, and the beauty in the passion of the people that tell stories.

Beyond my 50 new friends, I had the opportunity to soak up the presence of journalism’s best. From their panels and presentations, a spark awakened with in me. Their advice was life changing, and made me realize the dire importance of honest reporters today.

“We’re not at war,” David Fahrenthold, Pulitzer winner and Washington Post reporter, said. “We’re at work.”

“Think about today’s notes in the context of next week’s story,” he said. “Just because a story doesn’t have immediate impact doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.”

CNN reporter Sara Ganim inspired the investigator within me. Ganim won the Pulitzer for her work on the Penn State story about the Sandusky scandal and is the youngest journalist to ever receive the recognition.

“All it takes is one story,” she said. “You have to be careful with everything you write. Your credibility is everything.”

The advice didn’t stop there.

“Journalism isn’t about what you know,” NYT reporter Mary Pilon said. “It’s about how fast you can learn.”

The impact of the week wasn’t lost on any of us.

“I already had a passion for journalism,” Missouri representative Tony Maden said. “The conference changed everything. It made me confident that this is exactly what I was meant to do with my life.”

Piper Cooper attended the conference from Alaska. For her, it provided inspiration that she needed for her own school publication.

“I’ve never had the chance to be exposed to any good journalism programs,” she said. “My school doesn’t have all the opportunities to learn about it. But going there, attending the seminars and talking to everyone gave me so much inspiration.”

Though I had to say goodbye to 50 of the most amazing people in my life, I’m excited to get to work.