"Check your biases at the door."
That was one of the first things Michele Papakie, a professor in the journalism department at IUP, asked of the writers attending Friday's annual high school student reporters luncheon hosted by the Gazette.
Dressed in a black Adidas track suit, she challenged the writers to guess the three jobs she holds. Upfront the writers knew she was a professor and guessed she was a mother (making it actually four jobs), but they then took turns guessing about the other two.
"Bounty hunter," "trained assassin" and "sportswear model" were some of the suggestions offered.
Papakie is actually a lieutenant colonel in the 171st Air Refueling wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in Pittsburgh and a Brush Valley Township supervisor.
"I often hear 'she's probably not in the military,' or 'she looks a little too young to be lieutenant colonel,' or I get told that I don't look like a professor or like I belong in the military. No one really tells me what I look like."
Papakie is a 1993 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's journalism department with 20 years of journalism and public relations experience. Her 24 years of military service includes a six-month stint in Afghanistan last year in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as the sexual assault prevention and response program manager. She is also serving a six-year term as a Brush Valley Township supervisor.
Papakie stressed that it is important journalists come to a story with an open mind. They must put aside any prejudices they may hold and can't let their biases cloud their judgment.
She explained that, along with the explosion of social media, getting the story right and the facts straight has become more important than ever.
"It's an exciting time to be in public relations, newspapers and the media," she said.
When questioned, a number of student writers said they use some type of social media, mostly Facebook, with several using Myspace, twitter and blogs. And that's mainly where they get their news.
Papakie said that when she questioned her college students, some of them said they are addicted to social media.
"They can't be far from their phones because they are so connected and so wired. They know right now what's happening in the world. It used to be reporters would go out into the field, cover a beat, etc., but now they are going to blogs to see what the community is discussing and that's becoming what's newsworthy."
This boom in "citizen journalism" is allowing everyone to write and tell to their own stories, she said.
"You don't need a degree to write about what's happening in your community, but it is important to have credibility," she said. "We base whether we believe what's happening in the world on the credibility we have in the media. Newspapers have credibility; TV has credibility; you have to be careful about social media. It's that rush. .. The deadlines are tight and everyone wants to be first, so accuracy is often in jeopardy."
Papakie also stressed to the writers that whether they go into a career in journalism or the media is not important; what is important is that they realize they have a civic responsibility to stay informed about what is happing in their community, and share that information with others.
"You have a voice. You can really truly make a difference. You can make a change and you have social media at your fingertips. You can make things happen. It's very empowering," Papakie said.
This year, the school news writers came from 12 area schools -- Blairsville, Calvary Baptist Academy, Elderton, Homer-Center, Indiana, Marion Center, Penns Manor, Punxsutawney, Purchase Line, Saltsburg, United and West Shamokin -- and the Indiana County Technology Center. The Gazette invites juniors and seniors to write about events happening in their schools throughout the school year, with the final columns published in the newspaper in early May.