Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part V: Engaging the Media

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

As we engage students in the public policy process, media outreach is a vital ingredient for victory, and the lessons learned are transferrable to lifelong participation in our democracy. It goes without saying that we must begin by building students’ appetite for news of all varieties, especially state and local coverage. Weaving current and controversial discussions of these issues into class is a proven practice and part of the new civics course requirement.

But students themselves can contribute to media themselves. Many are savvy consumers of social media. True, much of their activity is likely friendship-driven and perhaps tilted towards celebrity gossip. Yet social media is also a venue for interest-drive activities, some with an overtly political focus like #BlackLivesMatter. Depending on the issue students select, they may contribute to an already active social media movement, or better yet, create one of their own.

In our push for a civics course requirement, we used the #BringCivicsBack hash tag to coordinate advocacy and provide continuous updates to supporters. Upon passage, we switched to #CivicsIsBack, which has gone viral nationally to spread the good word about the civic learning movement, its epicenter increasingly right here in Illinois.

We must not discount traditional media in student policy advocacy. Scholastic journalism outlets serve as low-hanging fruit and coverage in a student newspaper or TV broadcast can help build broader movement for a cause within a school community. And local newspapers are hungry for stories of student civic engagement. Teaching students to write, disseminate, and follow up on a press release is one option, as is placement of letters to the editor in publications serving targeted legislators’ districts.

Favorable press coverage was vital to the #BringCivicsBack campaign. We placed two front page stories in the Chicago Tribune, were endorsed on the editorial pages of both major Chicago dailies, and had powerful letters to the editor run in a number of downstate newspapers. I conducted a number of radio and television interviews along the way, and found that reporters were cheering for our cause because they understood how important civic education is for news consumption and a healthy democracy.

We later compiled these favorable press clippings and shared them with legislators. It’s hard to say what intervention turns the tide in the successful legislative effort, but earned media is a net positive and something political insiders still privilege. It also develops a healthy skill set for students to deploy throughout life both personally and professionally.

We’ll be back on Wednesday to wrap up this series, focusing on finding resources to support implementation or learning from defeat.

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