Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference: A lesson to dream, dare and do

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In late June, I took a trip to Washington, D.C., and was immersed in the powerful world of journalism. In 1999, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, the Freedom Forum and its Newseum, created a journalism conference for 51 rising senior high school students (referred to in the program as Free Spirits). Each student is picked to represent their state and the District of Columbia. I was honored to represent the state of New York and met engaging, unbelievable role models and friends. Never have I been surrounded by so many kind and intelligent people.  I don’t know many people who can say that they have a friend from every state in this country. Now, I can say that! All of our expenses were included for the conference, as well as a scholarship to the college we choose to attend in fall 2020.

Going into the Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, I had many emotions. I was quite nervous but more excited than ever. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to represent the state of New York. Of all the emotions that I felt, curiosity was the strongest. My 11-page itinerary from the organizers of the conference was planned minute by minute,  filled with panels, discussions and tours. I was curious to see whether I would come back loving or hating journalism. Turns out, I came out loving it. After being exposed to the lives of journalists in every field, I knew that this is a profession that attracts passionate and dedicated people.

The Journalism Conference’s emphasis is on the five principles of the First Amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to petition and assemble. According to the 2015 State of the First Amendment survey, only 27% to 40% of citizens could name a single right protected by the First Amendment.

My favorite part of the First Amendment is freedom of the press. This freedom is crucial in a democratic society and allows us, as citizens, to vocalize our opinions without being censored by the government. The Freedom Forum and Newseum emphasize the importance of the First Amendment and our rights as a democracy. 

Freedom of the press is a vital aspect of the First Amendment, but sadly, some school newspapers are suffering from the effects of censorship.  I talked to many high school students from all across the country and learned of their struggles with publishing certain articles or covering controversial topics. This is because their high schools don’t want to “look bad” or have a “bad reputation.” Is that what the world has come to? Do we do everything because we don’t want to look bad? It sounds like walking on eggshells to me.

Unfortunately, many high school papers around the U.S. are censored.  This limits the contributions of student journalists and what they have to offer. When does this come to an end? Why are people across the country facing this issue when the First Amendment allows people to voice their own opinion without having blockades. These are questions, I believe, that need consideration.  Should faculty advisors override students opinions in articles they write? How can student’s opinions be taken seriously?

On the second day of the conference, each one of us spoke about our publications. So many students talked about the issue of censorship in their schools.  These and many other topics were discussed throughout the conference. The world of journalism is unique. It ranges from questioning issues such as censorship to broadcasting and investigative reporting and freelancing.   

One freelancer, Mary Pilon, spoke to the group of Free Spirits. She said she believes that adaptability is crucial, and that it is important to do something different each and everyday. Pilon is the author of the New York Times 2015 bestseller “The Monopolists” and was a former Free Spirit.  She talked to the Free Spirits about her journey in journalism and the adventures she has had. For example, she covered multiple Olympic Games. I took her saying, “to do something different everyday” to heart. In fact, I loved how focusing on the good and doing something new every day is vital. 

Another activity that I thoroughly enjoyed was visiting the NBC News studios. Our enormous group of 51 Free Spirits was admitted to the NBC studios early on Sunday morning. It was quite an early wake up call, but it proved worth it. We were ecstatic, over-tired and star-struck as we walked into the studio. We were going to meet Chuck Todd, anchor of “Meet the Press.” All 51 of us crunched on the bleachers on the set waiting to watch in awe the famous live television show. After the broadcast, Chuck Todd came over to have a discussion with us. Everyone’s hands flew up in the air, but we only had so much time with him; he’s a busy man. I admired his advice to young journalists and walked out of the studios inspired because he said he had faith in our generation. 

In the following days of the conference, speakers and famous figures repeated a version of this phrase: “All 51 of you sitting in this room are the next generation to change this world.” I kept revisiting one part of the phrase: “Change the world.” I’m only 17 years old, and I’m supposed to change the world. Talk about pressure. But I am always up for the challenge, and as I move forward into senior year at Pelham Memorial High School, I cannot wait to change this world and make a difference. As the late Al Neuharth said, all it takes are three words: Dream, Dare and Do.