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Engaging youth in democracy

  • Kristen Nevious



For the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, August 13, 2018 7:58PM

Let’s start a conversation about the extraordinary power of collaboration in engaging Granite State youth in our democracy.

Since the 2002 dedication of the Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication, the Granite State has embraced its mission to help young people find their voices in the public discourse. Academics from disciplines across the Franklin Pierce University curriculum, media professionals from the Town Hall to the State House to the White House, politicians from the right to the left, and engaged citizens in every corner of the state have collaborated with the Fitzwater Center to create immersive learning experiences – both in the classroom and in the field – that profoundly engage our students’ intellects and challenge their perspectives while giving them the skills to engage. What the Fitzwater Center does works because it is framed as a collaboration with the citizens of New Hampshire, and it is a model that yields results.

Since 2006, this collaboration has provided student journalists, columnists, photographers, videographers and others the opportunity to immerse themselves in the presidential election cycle. Working with press credentials and in partnership with local, state and regional media, its student media are there for town halls and national debates. They travel to the Iowa Caucuses and back to the N.H. Primary, and then to both national political conventions. Then, they road trip to Dixville Notch for the first-in-the-nation vote and complete the cycle begun almost two years earlier by traveling to the Presidential Inauguration.

In 2016, the Fitzwater Center took this model into the Granite State’s high schools. With the support of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the Fitzwater Center’s well-established summer high school journalism program, The Presidency & The Press, brought students and teachers from seven counties to Rindge for an immersive week of on-the-job training. After leaving campus, these high school teams launched themselves into covering the general election, publishing in their local media and the program’s online platform. Their efforts earned them press credentials to the 2017 Presidential Inauguration, where they worked alongside the Fitzwater Center’s credentialed collegiate team.

During the 2018 edition of The Presidency & The Press, just a few weeks ago, another team of high school journalists found themselves on a State House tour, something many of them had done as fourth graders. Spilling into the hallway outside the corner office suite where the road to the White House has begun for many candidates, these young journalists heard a kind voice behind them inquiring about the commotion. Turning, they found Secretary of State Bill Gardner returning from shutting his car windows against a storm – and he proceeded to gather them around for a conversation about the role of New Hampshire in our democracy. Less than an hour later, these students were deep in another conversation, this time with Gov. Chris Sununu, talking about the intersection of media and democracy.

Then it was on to NH1, the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News, and WMUR. Even as news of serious weather continued to break, editors and publishers, reporters, news directors, producers, anchors took the time to have a conversation with these young journalists.

One young Jaffrey resident – who had interviewed people at every stop, earned two bylines in the Boston Herald, and had anchored the program’s final webcast – told her mom she had never learned so much in four days.

She had immersed herself in the experience framed for her by people across the state, and in doing so demonstrated the power of collaboration to engage young people in conversations that fuel their growing passions for the enduring importance of a free and open press in our nation’s democracy.

New Hampshire excels at these kinds of conversations, and you can find them throughout the state in, for example, Milford High School’s “We the People” program and NHPBS’s robust educational outreach programming.

But the amazing communications technology of 2018 embodied in our ubiquitous smart phones brings a new dimension to the public discourse that we cannot ignore.

We construct our world from the millions of bits of information that confront us at any given moment, and there is little question we are still learning to navigate the digital age.

The News Literacy Project strives to teach “young people how to differentiate information that is presented fairly, accurately and contextually from opinion, rumor and disinformation ...”

And, Media Literacy Now advocates for media literacy education policy nationwide, arguing that teaching “students to apply critical thinking to media messages and to use media to create their own messages ... is a key 21st century skill (and) is critical to the health and well-being of America’s children, as well as to their future participation in the civic and economic life of our democracy.”

Granite State schools have brought news literacy, media literacy and/or digital citizenship into their classrooms. For example, Media Power Youth has partnered with the Office of Student Wellness and the N.H. Department of Education to support our teachers with evidence-based curriculum and tools as they have relevant conversations with our youth in the classroom.

The anonymity of the internet facilitates the proliferation of fake news, weaponized misinformation, trolls, and the like. A robust, collaborative conversation can go a long way toward countering such threats to the public discourse that is essential to the health of our democracy.

(Dr. Kristen D. Nevious is director of Franklin Pierce University’s Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication, which is dedicated to educating leaders of conscience in public communication. The Center’s robust body of public programming includes the Fry Lecture Series, the Fitzwater Center Medallion for Leadership in Public Communication, the Visiting Fitzwater Fellow, and IndieLens Pop-up. With a doctorate in journalism from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Nevious is affiliated with the departments of Communication and Social Media & Emergent Technology. She also manages the student-driven Pierce Media Group)