Editor’s note: Shannon Chaffers was the representative for Massachusetts at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in June, 2017.

On June 17, 51 student journalists from around the country arrived in Washington D.C. eager to absorb wisdom from some of the best in the news business as part of a five day, all-expenses paid journalism conference.

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference accepts one student from every state and Washington D.C., for an opportunity to meet with accomplished journalists and editors from all fields of journalism. This summer I was lucky enough to be among them.

The conference, sponsored by the Freedom Forum, is the brainchild of Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, America’s first national newspaper. The program selects students who apply during their junior year who exhibit a commitment to journalism and the qualities of a free spirit. My parents and advisor convinced me to apply for the program, but I had little expectations of being accepted. When I opened my email before history class to see I had been selected, I had to check it twice more to confirm the news.

Though thrilled for the opportunity, I became nervous as June 17th approached. I would be away from home alone for the first time. I would be with fifty total strangers from around the country. For a quiet person like me, the prospect was intimidating.

As the other Free Spirits and I walked to the National Geographic Museum on the first day, I began to feel more comfortable as we bonded over our excitement about meeting Meet the Press host Chuck Todd the next day. By the end of that first night, my worries had eased and I felt right at home in the Washington D.C.

The next four days interacting and befriending people from many different backgrounds made for an eye-opening experience. We all brought different perspectives and learned so much from each other. I remember being impressed by the perseverance of my fellow Free Spirits as they described their extensive efforts to fight their school’s attempts to censor student journalism. Hearing these stories, I realized how fortunate I am to live in a state with strong laws that protect the rights of student journalists.   

As for the lineup of speakers, I could not have been more awe-struck. We met with Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters David Fahrenthold and Sara Ganim, and White House photographer Doug Mills, and many other accomplished journalists. We also met with a U.S. Court Senior District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the director of the Student Press Law Center, and activists from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

We also traveled to NBC studios, to watch the filming of Meet The Press with Chuck Todd, and visited the headquarters of  USA Today and we talked to their reporters and editors about their experiences in the news world.  

As each speaker delivered his or her message about the importance of journalism, a practice repeatedly attacked by President Trump, the message from Baron assured us that journalists are “not at war,” but “at work.”

Baron’s message resonated with my own notion of what it means to be a journalist. The essence of a journalist’s job is to hold those in power accountable. As Baron explained, “journalism is essential to democracy” because it keeps the general public informed of the government’s actions.  

I have always looked up to Baron because of his role in uncovering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal during his time as Executive Editor of the Boston Globe. Baron’s simple advice to us aspiring journalists brought home with clarity the true power of journalism; the ability to illuminate the struggles of our most vulnerable citizens.  

Another discussion that had a profound impact on me was when we talked with Freedom Riders Bernard LaFayette, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Ernest Patton about their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. It was an extraordinary opportunity to ask questions of American heroes who risked their own lives to improve the lives of others. As they discussed about the role journalism played in shining a spotlight on their efforts, I better appreciated how journalists can help  give voices to the voiceless.

All in all, the Free Spirit Conference was an incredible experience. Attending the conference helped me to better appreciate the true power of journalism and to meet other students who are just as passionate about journalism as I am.


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