An interview with Demian Bulwa, Director of News from the San Francisco Chronicle on awareness and controversy.
Just hearing the words “current events” brings up traumatizing memories for the upperclassmen of American High School and anticipatory fear for the underclassmen. Interpreted in the context of AP English Language news summaries and AP United States Government cold-called presentations, the widely-known “current events” projects instill a collective student dread for reading the news.
In AP English Language, eleventh grade students are assigned to pick a news article each month and engage in a tedious three-layer process of annotations leading up to a final two-page summary. For most students who took the course like Krishiv Kumar (12), “current events” summaries were just an assignment, not encouragement to read the news.
“Although doing the assignment was enlightening and eye-opening regarding the current events happening around the world, at the time I was interested in just getting a good grade on it. I did it for the grade. In retrospect, however, it was a really fun assignment to do and I would encourage this assignment.” says Kumar. “It was not the worst thing, but it was like a drag.”
Caden Kwon (12), a student in AP Government, prepares for his cold call on current events each week in class. “While they don’t necessarily motivate students to want to read the news, the cold calls ensure that we are prepared to answer the AP exam questions that call for contemporary examples of a variety of doctrines, historical trends, legal disputes, and the like.”
Demian Bulwa, the Director of News from the San Francisco Chronicle, explains that student intake of news—genuine intake, not just for an academic purpose—is crucial to contemporary society.
“I think papers like the Chronicle have done a good job of evolving the news to be a little more useful to people—giving people information about COVID, or vaccines or things that they’re encountering in their everyday life. I think it’s good for people to understand that so they can take part in it. People always have feelings about the city where they live in, about the roads or the schools or housing. If they have some clear understanding of the different laws and debate and policies, then they can feel like they can participate, rather than sort of assuming they understand something. We’ve tried to provide people with actionable information that helps them understand what’s going on. So if they want to participate, they understand.”
Bulwa asserts that reading the news applies not just within classwork, but also to real life.
“There was a murder the other day where the police initially said the woman was beheaded by her estranged boyfriend and it’s very sensational. But on the other hand, we also didn’t want to ignore it. It’s a really terrible thing and an act of domestic violence, weighing those things. But when it’s that serious, we still want to publish it.”
Reading the news is important, but there is also an important aspect to having an open mind when interpreting information one does not agree with.
“I think it’s important to know how other people are seeing the world and what you’re pushing for. I think a lot of people are closed off to that. And for people that are open to that, I still think it’s valuable. I think it’s good to engage with people’s opinions. If you’re not, you’re not seeing that perhaps there might be other viewpoints. If you’re advocating for a policy, but there’s people that are actually affected by a policy that you don’t want to even hear from, that can be a problematic way to view the world,” he establishes.
On controversial news, Bulwa believes that the response comes from a place of understanding.
“If students are interested in journalism or the ethics of the media, I think [controversy] is a good thing to be discussing. It’s definitely important. There are a lot of sites that have profited and there’s whole television networks that profit from very sensational, very one-sided news. That’s just the kind of the model they found, and they’ve obviously decided that they’d rather pursue that model and make money than do more responsible journalism. I think the readers just need to see it for what it is. I don’t think they always do, but anybody who watches Sean Hannity on Fox News—whether you like Sean Hannity or not—you should know that’s not news.”
The role of student journalism—both readers and writers—plays a defining role in the world.
“If it’s done really well, then it can make a big difference. There’s been for sure college newspapers, but even high school papers that have broken big stories that have made a difference. It can hold people to account and can shed light on things. You see these instances unwind when you see students doing this work that the school will push back, thinking they have power over these young journalists. That’s where it’s really important to try to say no. We want to give more power to these young journalists to do these stories and not let people silence them.”
Journalism expands understanding of the world, and it is this knowledge that is essential to every student.
Two students crowd around a stack of their school’s newspaper.
Picture Credit: Ozier Muhammad