School walkouts are made-for-media events

By Joe Sheller / Media Column

You couldn’t escape reminders of the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in the local news media on April 20, and you probably shouldn’t have.

All three local TV stations and The Gazette featured prominent stories about students in the Corridor who held events that day to mark the anniversary of the 1999 shootings, which seems to mark the dawn of the modern era of gun violence in our schools.

KCRG and The Gazette focused on students in Marion. KGAN had stories from Mount Vernon and Iowa City. KWWL had some video of protests from Des Moines, as well as in their own backyard.

It was both exhilarating and depressing. As a college professor, I’ve often noted a lack of knowledge about current events among young people, and the exhilarating part is to see high school and college students so committed to a political cause.

Then again, too often, a protest becomes sound and fury, signifying little. On the big, complicated issue of gun violence, there will be no quick action.

And yet, at least there is something happening here.

Veteran local reporter Dave Franzman, in his report on KCRG Friday night, summed up the heart of the matter. In covering students from Linn-Mar High School who marched a mile and a half from the school to Marion’s City Square Park, Franzman noted: “They want their voices heard.”

In effect, most school protests are media events. They aren’t unusual in that sense – after all, American history is rife with movements associated with “media events,” including the Boston Tea Party.

The April 20 walkouts weren’t the first protests that followed 17 students being killed two months ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and I’m certain they won’t be the last – a fact that seems normal to me.

Besides legally enshrining our freedom of speech, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies the rights “of the people to peaceably to assemble” and “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” And we’ve lived through times of protest before, such as the Vietnam War era, which was rife with dissent.

The times we are in now feel different than the Vietnam era, however. For one thing, there was more raw radicalism in the 1960s protest movement, with a whole counter-cultural revolution bubbling in the background. Today’s protests often feature more establishment figures. Much like Kennedy High School or Linn-Mar High School – two of the schools featured in local protests stories – Marjory Stoneman is a school with a middle-class student base. The protests today, compared with 1968, seem more staged, more media-oriented and less violent. At least for now. I hope that the current protest movement doesn’t erupt into something uglier.

The news media in the Corridor have done a fair job in reporting on local protests. Students in colleges and high schools are vowing to become politically active and to vote their convictions, and that’s a healthy trend worthy of coverage.

Whether the trend actually leads to any public policy changes partly depends on whether these newly energized students recognize that democracy is a game that has to be played professionally by amateurs. That same First Amendment that says you can chant and cry out also says the press can’t be regulated by government – precisely because a democracy depends on an educated and involved citizenry. These students will need to continue driving the discussion and telling their story, and persuading reporters and editors that it deserves ink and airtime with all of the other things confronting our society today.

One of my least favorite recent car commercials uses the snarky tagline “you used to buy newspapers, too.” The fact that many people don’t buy newspapers is part of the dysfunction of our current political mess – we’re too caught up in our own social media bubbles and not aware enough of good reporting in credible news media.

I commend high school students for speaking out and media outlets in the Corridor for paying attention. Having your voice heard is partly what the marketplace of ideas is about. These high school students may lack experience, but they are reacting to a world that they didn’t create.

What’s our excuse?

Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at