Watch out, Kansas — your hard-hitting high school journalists are national leaders

Riley Atknson, editor of the Harbinger at Shawnee Mission East High School, is the Journalism Education Association's 2021 Journalist of the Year. (Julia Malley)

At Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, 41% of the students are afraid to share their political views.

A senior named Beau Warner summed up the feeling this way: “There’s always people who see somebody with a Trump flag and then they get mad or the other side around. People make big judgments about you if you say what side you’re on, so I don’t want to say anything that makes people think about me in a certain way.”

An English teacher, Samantha Feinberg, wished last year’s political debates “would stray away from the ad hominem mindset where argumentative attacks are thrown at one’s character rather than their policy beliefs.”

We have this glimpse of how the nation’s political climate is affecting young people — i.e. the future — thanks to the work of student journalists at the Shawnee Mission East Harbinger, which, with its 70-person staff, might be the state’s largest newsroom. Their info- and graphic-packed election package in November 2020 took home a best in show award for election coverage at last fall’s National Scholastic Press Association awards.

Leading this coverage was a senior named Riley Atkinson, who, as first reported by Juliana Garcia in the Shawnee Mission Post, has just been named 2021 Journalist of the Year by the Manhattan, Kansas-based Journalism Education Association.

As in newsrooms everywhere, the Harbinger’s staff had to adapt quickly to figure out how to work when the pandemic hit while also covering the year’s other huge stories: the presidential election and the racial justice movement.

“It was a crucial year for journalism, telling the story of our community during these hard times, and we were learning virtually. There was a lot of difficulty with that, and we had to be creative,” says Atkinson, giving much credit to her co-editor, Lauren West.

Despite all the stress, she says, their hard work paid off.

“We noticed that our school was more politically divided than ever,” Atkinson says of the winning election package. “We wrote a story about that, and how people at our school were noticing there was so much tension and so much disagreement.”

Covering racial justice presented a particular challenge, but Atkinson’s staff set an example for how to deal with it.

“We had a hard time because our staff was mostly made of white people and we had to realize that and educate ourselves before we could cover it,” she says. “We went to protests in our community and talked to people and experienced what that was like. We talked with Black students and community members all summer to hear their experiences and struggles.”

Following that coverage, they put together another package of stories to, as Atkinson puts it, “continue holding our community accountable.”

For that one, Atkinson wrote about a lack of diversity in the school district’s literature and curriculum.

“I had students in our school saying, ‘I’m not seeing myself,’ ” she says. “That opened teachers’ eyes as to how it feels for a student of color.”

Under the guidance of Shawnee Mission East journalism teacher and adviser Dow Tate, Harbinger staffers took home more hardware in the NSPA’s more recent spring contest, with their website winning a coveted Pacemaker Award. Trevor Paulus came in second for photojournalism; Sophie Henschel earned a second in COVID-19 reporting; the print publication came in fifth in the tabloid newspaper category.

Harbinger staffers aren’t the only ones signaling hope for the profession. Kansas has a formidable high school press corps.

Blue Valley Northwest won first place in the Newspaper/Newsmagazine (Special Edition) category for The Express; Izze Lentfer and Bella Rinne took home second place with their BVNWnews podcast; Ella Hutnick earned a fourth place in editorial leadership for her work at Horizon; Ashlyn Van Horn won first place in yearbook design and Allison Dragoo earned an eighth place in the same category.

At Shawnee’s Mill Valley High School, the JagWire came in fifth in Newspaper/Newsmagazine (Special Edition) category and seventh for its website.

Yearbook staffs at Shawnee Mission East, Shawnee Mission North and Chase County Junior/Senior High School in Cottonwood Falls all earned recognition in their respective page-count categories.

All of which means: Watch out, policymakers and powerful interests not just in the future but now.

“It’s very common for adults to doubt student journalists,” Atkinson says, “and I’ve had experiences where it’s hard to reach the people who are high up in policymaking.” (This problem is not limited to student journalists.)

“I don’t think they understand how dedicated we are to the work we’re doing, that we’re going to really dig in,” she continues. “If a student journalist emails and asks for an interview, higher-up people might overlook us. But we still have the power to make change. We did a lot of work this year to open our district’s eyes and community’s eyes to situations.”

Atkinson has award-winning advice for the people of Kansas.

“Try to educate yourself through journalism,” she says. “There are so many people who are dedicating their lives to telling stories. Pay attention to that. Don’t doubt the ability of student journalism and student journalists to cover those topics as well.”