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Journalism student wins 2 SPJ honors

Sep 22, 2016

Posted in: News

By Jeff South, Associate Professor, Journalism

SaraRose Martin conducting an interview at Excellence in Journalism 2016. She was part of the team of college journalists selected to cover the national conference in New Orleans.
SaraRose Martin conducting an interview at Excellence in Journalism 2016. She was part of the team of college journalists selected to cover the national conference in New Orleans.

In 2015, SaraRose Martin, then co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at Fauquier High School in Northern Virginia, wrote a story about “dabbing” – extracting the psychoactive ingredient from marijuana and smoking it for an immediate and powerful high.

Martin’s article for The Falconer noted that dabbing had become popular among teenagers, including some at her high school in Warrenton; that inhaling such a concentrated dose of THC could trigger paranoia and other health problems; and that school officials were unaware of this new method of drug use because it was hard to detect.

The story never ran in The Falconer, however. It was spiked by the school’s principal, who feared the article might encourage students to use drugs. So Martin published her story on a local news website, FauquierNow.com. Instead of a piece about the dangers of dabbing, the Falconer staff printed an editorial warning about the dangers of censorship.

“Because of censorship, being a part of the student newspaper is no longer a way to learn about real journalism and write real stories about real issues,” the editorial stated. “If The Falconer does put in the hours to write stories that matter to the lives of students, the administration can kill them with the stroke of a censor’s pen.”

Martin is now a journalism major at VCU, but her fight against censorship is still reverberating. In part because of that ordeal, she received two honors from the Society of Professional Journalists at its Excellence in Journalism conference, which was held Sunday through Tuesday in New Orleans.

The society, the world’s oldest organization of journalists, gave Martin its Robert D.G. Lewis First Amendment Award. The annual award recognizes “a student SPJ member who has demonstrated outstanding service to the First Amendment through the field of journalism.”

In addition, Martin was chosen from among college journalists nationwide for the EIJ News team, which covered the three-day conference. The team consisted of 14 undergraduate and graduate students from such schools as the universities of Maryland, Oregon and North Texas. At 19, Martin was the youngest member of the group.

“It’s been fun,” Martin said, though she admitted being nervous about the demanding pace of providing real-time news coverage. “I’m learning a lot more about media platforms.”

SaraRose Martin taking photos at the Excellence in Journalism 2016 conference as a member of the EIJ News team.
SaraRose Martin taking photos at the Excellence in Journalism 2016 conference as a member of the EIJ News team.

Besides writing stories and shooting photos, Martin used Twitter, Facebook Live and other tools to broadcast news from the conference. In today’s digital world, she said, “You can’t just be a print-online journalist; you have to be able to do all of it.”

The Excellence in Journalism conference featured speakers and panel discussions on topics ranging from virtual reality and drones to diversity and ethics, to freelancing and crime reporting.

Among other events, Martin covered a discussion about “Collegiate Student Journalists Under Fire” – a topic in which she had first-hand experience. The speakers included Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and one of Martin’s supporters in her battle with the Fauquier High School administration.

In the spring of 2015, that battle was chronicled by such media outlets as The Washington Post. “It definitely felt weird” being in the news instead of covering the news, Martin said.

“I’ve always been an introvert and have much preferred being the interviewer vs. the interviewee. I also felt the pressure of being the voice for this really important issue, and I was worried about not doing it justice,” she said.

“Fortunately, much like writing stories I’m passionate about is easy, talking about my censorship was easy because I was and am so passionate about it. And the more I learned, the easier it got. I also got a lot more confident and thicker skin, so I’m glad I experienced it.”