BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Skepticism of the news media is nothing new. Even before the term “fake news” was coined by opposition parties, the media has been the scapegoat for Americans spanning both sides of the political aisle. In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, the staff of “The Highlander” reflects on the importance of the First Amendment on a free school newspaper. 

Many students get involved in school journalism to share the stories of the school and community they are a part of. 

Junior Sasha Rtishchev, who is “The Highlander” Features Editor said, “I enjoy writing, and I appreciate the freedom we hold over what topics we choose to discuss.” 

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After seeing many journalists be assaulted or intimidated for doing their jobs, as well as having their equipment destroyed, as was seen during the Capitol insurrection on January 6, Rtishchev said, “All reporters are extremely brave for not only putting themselves in precarious situations to get the best story, [but] for writing the truth in the face of groups of people who do not want to believe in this truth.”

After moving to New Jersey from Florida and having had journalism experience in her last school, sophomore Medha Gollamudi said her biggest fear as a young journalist would be a situation where one of her articles receives public backlash. 

“We’re all so divided in our own opinions that facts start to become a bit more blurry as opinions start to matter more than the actual facts. As a journalist, it’s important to consider both sides of an argument, however, maintaining factually accurate information should come first. But, there are always radicals on both sides that can criticize how you report the truth, and how you present facts,” Gollamudi said.

Expressing ideas similar to Gollamudi’s, two-year staff writer and Content Manager Lily Collins said she uses this fear and public scrutiny of journalists to only enhance her commitment to the truth.

 “It just leads me to try and make sure my articles are factual,” Collins said.

Collins, a senior, also reflected on situations in which journalists were in danger reporting on a story. “I find it incredibly scary. These events on their own are terrifying, but the violence [towards the] reporters is very wrong. They were there to do their job and the treatment they received was not necessary at all.”

"The Highlander" newspaper and “The Claymore” yearbook advisor Staci Toporek said she wanted to teach journalism to educate students about how to use their voice and protect their First Amendment rights, something that, in her opinion, has come under fire in recent years. 

“It’s important for people in general to understand their First Amendment rights. We live in a country that gives us the ability to voice our opinions and appeal to the government when we feel like there are injustices. Without that ability to speak, and have our views heard, we lose the cornerstone of all our other freedoms,” Toporek said.

Senior Sara Fajardo, Co-Editor-in-Chief alongside Rebecca Mastropasqua, has been interested in journalism since seventh grade, after watching the “Gilmore Girls” piqued her interest in the field. 

Fajardo has seen the hostility and resistance towards the media transform since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The rise of social media has changed the way people get and perceive the news, says Fajardo.

“It started to become Washington Post, online. CNN online. With comment sections, more discussions and opinions were being shared at the moment between readers. Then came social media journalism, which [grew out of] the 2016 election. The two coincided in a very hostile environment. That turned into if your side wasn’t being represented in the mainstream then everything was ‘fake news’.”

Reflecting on her years as a student journalist, Fajardo offered a piece of advice to newcomers: “If you’re receiving pushback for a story, you’re doing something right. You got people to read, think about what you wrote, and then got them so interested in what you write to discuss it.”

While student journalism is important to tell the stories of the student body and support change in the school system, it also serves a bigger purpose: to uphold, as Benjamin Franklin said, the “liberty of a nation”.

Editor's note: Student writers and photographerspdf from The Highlander, Gov. Livingston's student led newspaper, have recently been recognized by The Garden State Scholastic Press Association with top awards and honors in News, Feature, Opinion, Review, Photo Gallery, and Special Coverage wrtiting. The GSSPA promotes scholastic journalism in the state of New Jersey.  Congratulations to all award recipients -- TAPinto Berkeley Heights is proud to support student journalism.