Photo by Freedom Forum Institute | Students from all 50 states whom attended the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference pose for a picture in front of the Capitol building.
By Hunter Franklin ’19
High school journalism students representing each state were specially selected through a highly competitive application process to attend the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference hosted by the Freedom Forum Institute in June.
Each student selected was also awarded a thousand dollar college scholarship and an all-expenses paid trip to attend the week long conference in Washington D.C.
The Freedom Forum Institute was founded in 1991 by Al Neuharth the former CEO and founder of the USA Today. Neuharth also founded The Newseum as a museum to educate the public about the history of journalism and the effect it’s had on our democracy.
This journalism conference has been going on since 1999. “The conference promotes the vital role of the First Amendment as a cornerstone of democracy and, we hope, inspires students to pursue careers in journalism,” said program director Karen Catone.
The weeklong conference gave students immense opportunities with chances to meet prominent figures in the news media such as television broadcaster Chuck Todd, Ken Paulson, Erik Brady, Doug Mills, David Fahrenthold, Gene Policinski, and Lesley Visser.
Doug Mills is a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and was one of the many guest lecturers who advised the students.
“My goals are to show what I’ve learned covering the White House and sports and to give insight into what my job requires,” said Mr. Mills. “My hope is to inspire and bring out the passion it takes to do this job,” Mr. Mills continued.
His advice to the aspiring journalists, “Hard work and and a strong work ethic pays off; If you’re lucky enough to get an internship, don’t waste a minute of that opportunity. Make connections, work hard and don’t give up!,” said Mr. Mills.
Students met important government officials and activists as well, such as D.C. Circuit Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth and the Freedom Riders Joan Mulholland, and Ernest “Rip” Patton.
“We always look for ways to improve the conference. This year, we added sessions that attempted to address topical issues such as how to combat “Fake News” and another session titled “Power to the Interns: Strengthening College Internship Preparation in a #MeToo World,” explained Ms. Catone.
Students were given behind the scenes tours of Capitol Hill, The FISA Courts, and night tours of the monuments and memorials around the Potomac River.
At first glance one could presume the managers of this conference did not want these future journalists to be exposed to the harsh realities and hardships facing the industry currently. But a closer glance would show that they did indeed show the students the harsh realities.
For instance they informed the students about the yearly averages in deaths and imprisonment of journalists across the world and with the recent Annapolis Gazette shooting the danger for journalists is more present than ever. Some of the students left the conference feeling inspired to protect and advance First Amendment rights in their state.
“I learned some key strategies to implement this upcoming year when working with my staff and also for how to succeed in passing the free student press bill in our State,” said Will Howes, an online editor for his high school newspaper representing South Dakota.
“The visits from the Freedom Riders inspired me because they were so young when they accomplished so much in such a broken nation and I’m hoping I can do the same,” said Emma Bennett, Editor in Chief of her high school news magazine representing Tennessee.
“Each year it is a joy to watch the transformation that occurs between the first day of the conference, when the students arrive and are a bit fearful, to the last day, when they cheer one another on at our closing commencement ceremony,” finished Ms. Catone.