This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website and the Main Line Media News‘ website.
Justice Bennett never pictured himself as a journalist when he started high school.
In fact, the Malvern Prep senior didn’t even think his paper was very journalistic at that time.
However, that all changed when he joined “The Blackfriar Chronicle” and now, the 18-year-old is the recipient of the 2016 Journalism Education Association’s Student Impact Award and was named the Pennsylvania Press Association Student Journalist of the Year.
“I was really, really ecstatic about (the awards),” Bennett said. “My adviser didn’t even tell me she entered me for the award because she had zero expectations that I was going to win. I was on a college visit to Harvard when I found out and was super ecstatic. It was a crazy moment.”
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It was Bennett’s adviser who pushed him onto the paper, despite his feelings about what he would contribute.
“I wrote her an email back that was essentially to the sense of, ‘I’m not really sure that you want me on the paper. My voice kind of just causes disgruntled faculty members and it’s generally not really productive,’” Bennett said.
However, Bennett’s “voice” in the “Chronicle,” along with the other staff members, helped turned the once ho-hum paper around. As Bennett puts it, the paper did not “have a long-standing tradition of journalism excellence.”
On the Malvern native’s web portfolio, he even describes the turnaround and how it even affected himself.
“We were challenging conventional wisdom and affecting our community,” he wrote. “Developing this application has been a wonderful reflection on my progression.”
That progression can truly be noted in his piece which sparked not only the readers of the “Chronicle,” but caught the attention of the Journalism Education Association, which serves as an adviser-focused organization to develop and support effective media advisers.
The Student Journalist Impact Award, given to a student or team of student journalists in a secondary school who, through the use of journalism, made a significant difference in their own lives, the lives of others or the school or community they are in.
Bennett received the award for his article addressing the issue of teen suicide, entitled “A light of exposure.”
“I looked around and realized there were a lot of high-profile youth suicides in the area,” he said. “Once I investigated more, I found out it was even bigger than I had thought.”
The story started off as just a 500-word column, but people began telling him he needed to make it a longer feature.
And so Bennett started to reach out to people and came away with a piece which intertwines the research, facts and impact on the area seamlessly in over 4,000 words.
His story not only showed the gut-wrenching facts about teen suicide rates in Chester County and the Philadelphia region as a whole, but also had in there interviews with a parent who lost a child and a person who was at that critical moment where he was going to take his life.
“It was really kind of difficult talking to someone who has been through that,” Bennett said. “It definitely was some of the hardest interviews I’ve ever had to do. You couldn’t go through all those interviews without feeling emotional.”
The judges for the Impact Award praised Bennett’s work on the article, which he spent about two months on.
“This student journalist clearly demonstrated the power of the student press and the impact it can have,” said Kenson Siver, chair of the Impact Award panel, in a news release. “The article was thoroughly researched, well-written and tapped into local resources.”
The feedback was immediate for Bennett.
He heard from people he never realized had a connection to teen suicide and, more surprisingly, his school now uses it as a reference.
“People who I never knew had a connection would come up to me and tell me about their story and what is was like to deal with it, which was really interesting,” Bennett said. “They are now using it in the counseling classes at my school in terms of, ‘here’s education about youth suicide and depression and all these different factors that can weigh into it.’”
Bennett’s story continues to have an impact as he attempts to bring something new to the school.
Act 71, part of Public School Code of 1949, states that as of the 2015-16 school year, each public school will have an age-appropriate youth suicide awareness and prevention policy, include in the professional development plan four hours of training in youth suicide awareness and prevention every five years for teachers in sixth through 12th grade and more.
Due to Malvern’s independent school status, it is not required to follow Act 71, but Bennett has been working with the school to change that.
“I think they are going to be implemented for next year,” he said.
It’s just another example of how Bennett deserved the Impact Award as he may have started a ripple of change in the community and school’s approach to youth suicide.