HYPE Conference at the University of New Hampshire

Lily Pelkey-Jacobson, a junior at Kearsarge Regional High School, raises her hand when the audience was asked if they had read a printed newspaper during the HYPE Conference at the University of New Hampshire Thursday.

DURHAM — About 1,000 high school students gathered at the University of New Hampshire Thursday to tackle a touchy topic: the role of the media in society.

The students came from 28 high schools from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to participate in the HYPE (Hosting Young Philosophy Enthusiasts) Conference.

HYPE was created by students from Souhegan High School in Amherst in 2009 as a way to bring high school students together to talk about issues important to them.

The program grew out of an ethics seminar class taught by Souhegan social studies teacher Christopher Brooks, who is also affiliated with UNH.

“The idea is to get kids out from all over New England on a one-day student-led conference,” he said.

Souhegan leads the conference with help from five other schools.

This year’s topic was prompted by the “fake news” conversation, Brooks said.

“They know there are a lot of things about social media that of course aren’t true, but they’re also very concerned about the fact that they feel free speech is under attack and they also feel like journalists and the ability to bring real news and real information that can be relied upon, that that process is being questioned in ways that aren’t OK,” Brooks said.

Trent Spiner, executive editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, served as keynote speaker and addressed the students before they broke into discussion groups to talk about various related topics, including how the media affects their lives and media biases.

“In today’s society there’s so much news and words being spread around and a lot of it is fake and there are always biases in everything you read. We wanted to talk about how you distinguish between what’s real and fake,” said Brendan Boyer, 18, a Souhegan senior.

HYPE Conference at the University of New Hampshire

Sloan Facques, a senior at Souhegan High School, addresses a crowd of students who attended Thursday's student-run HYPE Conference at the University of New Hampshire. 

Sloan Facques, 18, also a senior at Souhegan, said she wanted students to leave the conference with more of an open mind and better understanding of the media.

“Kids need to learn how to have civil discussions, which I think it’s really important especially given today’s society where there’s a lot of back and forth,” said Facques, who helped lead the conference.

Souhegan senior Zoe Garvey, 17, said she feels it’s important to have a diverse group of people from across the state come together.

“Maybe someone will hear a new opinion that they didn’t necessarily think about,” she said.

Spiner kicked off the discussion when he spoke about how technology is rapidly changing the way people get their news and the growth of social media options like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat over the past decade.

“There is, and always will be, a deep human desire for us to understand our lives in the context of a larger world. At the end of the day, we want to understand what’s happening in our world and we want to understand what that means for us, for our lives, our jobs, and our community. But that has become more difficult. For journalists, the difficult piece has been how to make that work sustainable. For consumers like you, the difficult piece has been how to determine the actual mechanics of getting your news delivered, how to trust it and how, or I should say whether, to pay for it,” he told the students.

The growth of smartphones and the ability for someone to broadcast live from that phone has helped journalists, voters, taxpayers and others by adding more voices to the conversation, Spiner said.

“And with this world of more voices comes a challenge: A challenge for journalists to become more responsive to their customers, as in making sure we are delivering trusted news and information and more responsible for their product,” he said.

Spiner, who stressed the importance of keeping biases out of reporting, said journalists still have a duty to speak for those without a voice, to question decisions and to create productive discussions in the community.

“But now we have a bunch of help, whether we like it or not,” he said.