JOY winner Caroline Chen on dealing with pushback, inspiring community change with student journalism
By Emely Olmedo, West Brunswick High School ’23
When Caroline Chen set out to write a story about a local anti-development group, she didn’t expect for her article to go viral.
Chen published an article examining Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT)’s influence in town three weeks before Election Day. It ended up getting a lot of views from neighbors, journalists, and politicians around town.
Now Chen is being recognized for her work as Rachel Rivers-Coffey North Carolina High School Journalist of the Year. She received a $3,000 scholarship. The alternates for the award were Maren Ingram of First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills, Maggie McNinch of First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills and Aida Guo of Green Level High School in Cary, who each were awarded a $1000 scholarship.
“When I was in third grade, I had this idea that I would become a novelist,” Chen said. “Ever since then, I always kept writing.”
Chen’s writing continued to develop as her passion for journalism grew. Chen was introduced to journalism her freshman year of high school and liked the idea of how she could write about topics she cared about for her school newspaper, The Echo.
“I’m interested in various social justice causes and knew that would be a good way to incorporate my passion for writing, along with my passion for helping the community around me,” Chen said. “I just joined the staff and ever since then I just fell in love with every part of it.”
Neal Morgan, East Chapel Hill High’s journalism adviser, encouraged Chen to apply for the award, she said. When choosing her best work, most articles were community-focused and gained a lot of attention outside of school.
After her article on CHALT gained traction online, Chen was glad her article was being read because she was able to spread awareness. Soon after her story was published, Chen started receiving emails, tweets and blog posts from people affiliated with CHALT.
Chen was now thrown into a reality that many professional journalists face — pushback.
“This whole story really changed my view on high school journalists,” Morgan said. “She wrote this very thorough, extensively researched piece that outlined some significant criticism of this local political group.”
Chen’s story ended up being The Echo’s most viral story they ever had and became part of a community conversation.
“From my perspective, watching Caroline go through that, I was really impressed on how maturely she handled this kind of attention, both positive and negative,” said Morgan. “She handled it like a reporter and just let the story speak for itself and let the facts speak for themselves.”
When Chen joined journalism class with Morgan, she made an immediate impression on him, he said. Morgan saw her development of interest in reporting on the community grow within her very first year of high school journalism. Morgan was glad to have a student writing stories that never have been done before and allowed them to be able to spread the variety of stories being published to The Echo.
“I knew if she stuck to our program, she was going to be a big contributor to our program over the next couples of years,” said Morgan. “The Echo has always kind of been focused on stuff happening in our school but she was immediately drawn to local kind of journalism.”
Chen’s reporting on CHALT changed how Morgan viewed high school journalists and how much of an impact they can make.
“This was a story that really, in a lot of ways changed how I saw what a high school newspaper could do,” said Morgan. “I’ve been teaching journalism for fifteen years now and I believe in very much of what we’re doing as high school journalists and I believe in its value.”
Morgan has impacted Chen in many ways, making her become an empowering journalist, Chen said.
“He really pushed me to see how I can make an impact in the community,” said Chen. “Not just getting good grades in high school, my high school career can be more than that, it can change peoples lives in journalism.”
Morgan has inspired her to take more action politically, volunteering in all different communities that she is with. She has become empowered to take initiative to do things in her own way, rather than doing what is right, Morgan said.
“He helped me realize that sometimes it’s important to take risks in order to achieve more,” Chen said. “He has pushed me to become much more than I think I would have been.”
Chen is an example of the impact high school journalists can have on their community, Morgan said.
“Don’t be afraid of backlash because our voices matter so much,” Chen said. “There’s not that many student journalists, so anyone who can write, that’s really important.”