"It is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken man." - Frederick Douglass

American Civic Literacy Affords Citizens Greater Opportunities


All American citizens need to know the fundamental mechanisms of the government, and the historical events that shaped the nation so they may “be ready for active, engaged citizenship.”

Joe Mantegna, one of the five members of The Civics Education Initiative National Board of Advisors states:

Unfortunately today, too few students are learning basic civics. In Arizona and Oklahoma studies, for example, the vast majority of high school students failed the same basic civics test that 91% of those applying for U.S. citizenship passed. That’s why we need to pass the Civics Education Initiative in all 50 states.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 24 percent of American high school students are civics literate. In a different study, the Annenberg Foundation found that one-third of U.S. citizens are incapable of naming even one branch of the federal government.

In 2017, the Civics Education Initiative reported there were only 16 states that required their high school students to pass the same 100-question exam given to those applying for U.S. citizenship. Another 19 states announced their intent to propose adding this requirement. Unfortunately, Illinois is not one of them.

To combat the problem, St. Agatha’s News School in Lawndale, added civics to the syllabus. They did so because the educational staff and advisors recognize the importance of well-informed Americans.

The reasoning behind teaching civics to journalism interns is three-fold. First, citizens who understand the U.S. political structure are capable of making informed decisions when casting their ballots. Second, journalists who know their rights and how to use them are excellent reporters. Third, it is a journalist’s job to provide the public with the information they need to be self-governing.

Understanding the United States Constitution is equally important. The document is the backbone upon which this great country was built. The First Amendment powerfully reflects the Founding Fathers’ ideas of personal liberty. It instructs Congress to abstain from passing any of the following laws:

  • To bind citizens to a state-mandated religion,
  • Prohibit Americans the right to worship as they please,
  • Suppress the freedom of speech,
  • Curtail the freedom of the press,
  • Deny Americans the right to assemble peacefully,
  • To restrict citizens right to hold the government accountable for its actions.

For journalism interns, it is vital to learn the details of what these freedoms bring and the responsibilities involved on their part. They must understand the definitions of libel and actual malice; know how to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); what invasion of privacy means; what constitutes wiretapping; and how to handle sources who wish to remain anonymous.

An organization that offers writers guidance is the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). They have lawyers on staff who understand the Constitutional law and defend journalists’ rights. The Code of Ethics dictates reporters need to; seek the truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable; and above all, be transparent. The Code of Ethics can be found with greater detail on their website.

As defenders of the First Amendment, journalists have a responsibility to report accurately and objectively without causing harm. Understanding American values, the government structure, relevant historical facts, and the impact these facts have on their readers are vital skills for every reporter.

To fulfill their responsibility of providing the public with the information they need to be self-governing, journalists must be defenders of the First Amendment.

Written by Cathy Milne


CivicsQuestions: 100 Civics Questions for the Naturalization Test
Civics Education Initiative: 100 Facts Every High School Student Should Know
Society of Professional Journalists: Code of Ethics
Marion Street Press: Journalism Ethics; A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media 4th Edition; 2011; Revised by Fred Brown and other members of the SPJ Ethics Committee

Featured Image Courtesy of Dave Johnson’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image Courtesy of North Charleston’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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