PITTSBURG — After the Booster Redux staff received international attention over a story about their incoming principal, the six journalists have been invited to the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner hosted by the White House Correspondents' Association in Washington, D.C. on April 29.
The six published a story late last month, which questioned the credentials of Amy Robertson, who had been hired as Pittsburg High School Principal.
After the story went viral, it became clear that Robertson, who claimed to have a PhD and masters degree, had actually obtained her “credentials” from diploma mill Corllins University.
Indeed, not only were her advanced degrees made up out of whole cloth, but she didn’t even complete her bachelor's degree at the University of Tulsa.
Student journalists Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor and Patrick Sullivan will be going to the dinner as guests of the Huffington Post with all expenses paid leaving at 3:45 a.m April 28.
The students’ teacher Emily Smith and Kansas Scholastic Press Association Executive Director Eric Thomas will be going with them.
“This is a huge honor and a very humbling experience for all involved,” Smith said. “The invitation is very flattering and exciting to look forward to.
“This is almost incomprehensible as an adult — I’m not sure how the students have made up to it.”
Freelance Journalist Andra Stefanoni, who helped guide the students through the story process, said in an email, the future is bright for this generation.
“None of us ever could have dreamed it would get the national attention it did, but I think that speaks to how hungry America is right now for fact-based journalism that matters,” Stefanoni said. “It's also an extremely positive story about this generation of young people and how bright their future is, despite some of the negative stories we sometimes hear about young people.”
Stefanoni said she was happy to help when Smith asked her to step in after she recused herself from the story.
“Andra gave a huge input during this story,” Smith said. “She gave them confidence and she was someone whose judgement they could trust — from a knowledgeable person, her reactions validated their concerns.”
Smith said throughout the years she had, and has, many great students — they have a wall filled with achievements and awards for Story of the Year, Pacemaker and more.
“Fate rolled the dice for these six lucky students,” she said.
In an article from The Washington Post from April 19, Huffington Post Editor in Chief Lydia Polgreen commented on the journalists’ reporting.
“There’s been a reconnection with the fundamentals of journalism — the brass tacks and the shoe leather,” she said. “That’s just the kind of reporting the teens used to blow the lid off the big story.
“I’m personally inspired by these kids.”
Baden said she took the student publication class simply because her siblings took it — but now after this experience she is considering a career in journalism.
“After all of this, talking with different media and journalists I’m more interested in journalism as a career,” she said.
When they arrive in D.C. Baden said she looks forward to meeting ‘big name’ journalists and to meet those who interviewed her — specifically Washington Post Reporter David Fahrenthold.
“When the journalists speak to us, I would like take something from that,” Baden said. “I want to gain knowledge from their presence.”
The students research became a catalyst for change according to Smith.
“The students were able to be a catalyst for change,” she said. “Although no one told them no, they persisted when they were told don't worry, it's okay, it will be fine.
“Only the students saw the red flag.”
Stefanoni helped the students by checking their work, verifying information, answering questions and getting the students through road blocks.
“I went to the high school several times to meet with them, reviewed their progress, making suggestions about the process of verifying information and nailing down facts,” she said. “As we went through their story together, it was an opportunity to show them the impact that even one word can have in changing the tone of a story from neutral to slightly biased or sensational.
“It was a wonderful experience to see it turn out the way it did: For the students to be successful, for them to make a difference with their writing — which is what all journalists hope for, whether it's a difference big or small — and for them to be recognized for it,” Stefanoni said.
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP.