Report: Student Media Faces Increasing Pressure From University Administrators
A new report from the American Association of University Professors and three other groups states that student newspapers face an increasing number of threats to their leadership and funding. Journalism professionals are concerned.
As the number of political protests at colleges and universities around the country rises, the stories that student journalists are covering have become more sensitive than ever. And a recent report from a group of academic and media organizations is raising serious concerns about whether student media is being muzzled by university leadership.
The report—released by members of the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center—highlights a series of incidents on campuses around the country, including a situation in January in which a professor and a school newspaper adviser were fired after the paper reported that the then-president of the university encouraged troubled students to drop out.
The report cites seven incidents in which newspaper advisers were removed from their positions since the beginning of 2015. But schools have attempted to muzzle student press in other ways, the report claims, including by cutting funding to student newspapers—an action repeatedly threatened at Wesleyan University, for example, after a piece critical of Black Lives Matter was published—and limiting access to administration officials.
“Retaliation afflicts even some of the best-known journalism programs long associated with journalistic excellence, where it might be expected that administrators would be especially protective of a valued asset,” the report says.
The groups recommend structural checks in oversight “to prevent those outside the student editor’s office from overruling editorial judgments or retaliating for journalistic choices.”
Journalism Pros Respond
The report has been met with dismay by some commentators, such as Slate’s Rebecca Schuman, herself a former features editor at Vassar College’s Miscellany News. Schuman expressed concern with parts of the report that suggest universities are even going after innocuous pieces that don’t represent hard news but simply put the school in an unflattering light.
“The inside-joke-filled features, the small-time edginess of risque content, the irate-student-group-demands-a-retraction scandal that is a microcosm of the bigger world of reporting and opining on controversial issues: These are what breathe life into student publications and passion for a free press into budding professional journalists,” Schuman wrote.
Schuman blamed the issue partly on the increasing viral nature of news, which means that on-campus controversies can have an effect on online donations.
Working journalism professors, on the other hand, suggest that the current political climate may be to blame.
“In a contentious political time, and also one where universities’ dependence on outside donors is growing, student media can be seized on as a way of pushing a point of view rather than simply informing readers,” said University of California, Berkeley’s David Thigpen, in comments to Poynter. “This is a problem because student media is an important training ground for the next generation of journalists.”