In the hills of eastern Kentucky, music is a living tradition, home to bluegrass and folk and the cradle of America’s traditional music. So it was perhaps not surprising that students in the journalism summer camp organized by the Morehead Writing Project as part of a National Writing Project’s (NWP) civic journalism initiative were able to write about a documentary being shot on the music.
What was surprising was that they learned more than journalism skills in doing so.
In 2019, PBS had come to the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY, to film segments for the bluegrass documentary, “Big Family.” NWP also has a writing program onsite, and Deanna Mascle, the NWP site director, was hosting 10 students for a two-week immersive summer journalism camp at the time.
Journalism professor and renowned photojournalist John Flavell, one of the instructors in the camp, saw the documentary as an opportunity for the high school students to get hands-on experience in interviewing and reporting. He convinced The Daily Independent in nearby Ashland to let the students interview the director of the Center, Raymond McLain, famed bluegrass musician and part of the legendary McLain Family Band, who was to be featured in the documentary.
“There was video, photographs, interviewing—everyone had a job,” said Mascle, who leads the civic journalism program. The students dove quickly into the history of bluegrass to prepare for their interviews.
“I don’t think many of them knew a ton about bluegrass. No one was a big fan or grew up in a house that played a lot,” said Mascle. But by the end, they were impressed, and proud of their history.
One of the students has since applied for the convergent media program at Morehead and will be an intern at the local public radio station.
The Morehead camp was one of five held at campuses across the country. The goal of the Civic Journalism initiative is to not only hone students’ writing chops, but to make them smarter consumers of news and media as well and allow them to see journalism as a springboard for tackling the issues in their often overlooked rural communities.
Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the initiative also hopes to create a powerful and spreadable model for engaging rural youth in investigating and documenting issues of public concern to rural communities. Key aspects of the model are the ability to embed with practicing journalists and to get their work published in local media outlets.
For many students, who seldom get to write about issues they care about in school given the tight standardized testing and assessment parameters, the camp is revelatory.
“For many it’s a moment of ‘Oh you mean I can write about something like this?” said Ellen Shelton, director of University of Mississippi Writing Project and a second site for the Civic Journalism initiative.
At the University of Mississippi, Shelton brings in professors from the School of Journalism to work with the students, most of whom are in their first few years of high school.
Well known southern food writer John T. Edge helped students think about how to enter a story that tackles a big issue of the day. Instead of starting from a wide angle, he urged them, zero in on a human story and then zoom out.
“There were aha moments like crazy after that,” said Shelton.
To write about poverty in Mississippi, one student started with a license plate on a truck broken down on the side of a highway, asking where the license plate came from, why the truck was broken down. With that he was then able to zoom out to the wider issues of rural poverty.
“For some kids, they just see journalism as telling the story as it happened,” said Shelton. But with this approach they realized, “Oh wait, I could be driving policy or exposing something that can lead to change. It’s more than just reporting.”
It also made them better consumers of news.
Working through the process of telling a good story—knowing that journalists keep poking and interviewing until they have a balanced story—made them realize that journalism is more than just writing whatever comes to mind.
“They felt it was more trustworthy because they hadn’t thought about the process before and the work that goes into it and the number of ways you have to go at a story to get the picture. It’s not one-dimensional,” said Deanna Mascle from Kentucky.
The power of seeing their byline in the local newspaper or their story reported on the radio station has convinced many students that journalism not only could be a career but a chance to right the wrongs they see around them and change the narrative about where they live.
“The big national papers portray eastern Kentucky as backward and poor and living in trailers,” said Mascle, speaking to an issue that many rural areas face and one these future journalists can help change.
Featured Photo: Student journalists, Kentucky, Hallie Adams, Jasmine Jackson, and Faith Wallace