Brace Yourself For The End Of College Journalism As We Know It
Originally published on Slant.
College students often admit they live in bubbles. But with alarming consistency, those bubbles are popping and painful realities are infiltrating campus life.
Over the past few months, a renewed sense of social responsibility, a greater emphasis on open dialogues, and a pervasive culture of empowerment has descended upon colleges across America. Pundits are quick to condescendingly place blame: on a coddled generation; on the speed and efficiency of social media; on slacktivism.
For those who haven't been paying attention, protests on campuses like Missouri or Yale or Ithaca seem sudden and random. Allegations of sexual assault at campuses like Columbia or Michigan are reported breathlessly, as if the public is somehow surprised by yet another young person falling prey to an attack.
Students are realizing that they have tremendous power. They can fire presidents, kick fraternities off campus, and expel students. In a larger sense, students are realizing that they can disrupt the typical college experience and demand increased ownership of their education and the spaces they inhabit.
With that power comes an increasingly complicated question: how do we want to tell our story? Or, more importantly, who do we want to tell our story?
As events on college campuses continue to produce national headlines at an accelerating pace, it also means that it's a complicated time to be a student journalist.
Sarah Gardner hasn't taken a journalism class at Indiana University yet, but she's already making a name around campus as an enterprising reporter. Gardner writes for the Indiana Daily Student, where she covers Greek Life on campus.
In October, a particularly sensitive story came to Gardner's attention. A video on campus was circulating of an initiated ATO member performing sex acts on women in front of nearly half of the fraternity's 140 members. The women in the video were exotic dancers hired by the fraternity.
"I’m a 5-foot-3 blonde girl and I’m the Greek Life beat reporter, so I’m talking to these frat guys who are like 6 feet tall. It’s just an intimidating situation," said Gardner.
The national office of ATO revoked the fraternity's charter and the school kicked the chapter off campus. While national outlets like CNN and NBC came to Bloomington, Gardner and the IDS had a few distinct advantages in terms of coverage.
"Since we’re still here [after national reporters move on], we can afford to have a longer attention span on things and really follow up in a way that not everybody can," said Gardner.
This led to a longer narrative focusing on ATO, such as getting locked out of their fraternity house and new policies governing greek organizations on campus in response to issues with sexual assault.
"I think that storytelling in general with journalism is such a good way to make the world a little more empathetic," said Gardner. "When some big event happens, people are like, 'Oh my God. I don’t understand how this could have happened.' Well, the person it happened to can. They can understand it and they can help everyone else understand it if they have a medium to go through."
But what happens when newspapers stop covering the news and start making the news?
Gabe Rosenberg was the Executive Editor at Wesleyan's student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, when the paper ran an opinion piece criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. The piece, which was written by contributor Bryan Stascavage and not the Editorial Board, immediately ignited controversy on campus.
"The Argus has a very open policy, in that we pretty much accept every letter to the editor that we’re given and we pretty much never say no to writers," said Rosenberg.
Not long after the newspaper featuring the opinion piece was distributed on campus, a group of students petitioned student government to take action against The Argus, which they claimed perpetuated systemic racism and made campus unsafe. The petition demanded that the newspaper lose its funding unless it created work study positions and maintained a dedicated space for marginalized voices, among other demands.
Since the paper is funded by the school, its existence depends upon the support of the student government. When the student government began to turn on The Argus, and recommended slashing the paper's print budget in half, with plans to reallocate those funds to other publications. If the newspaper lost such a significant chunk of funding, it would threaten the baseline existence of the country's oldest twice-weekly printed college newspaper.
"Whether or not it’s an actual freedom of speech issue, it looks like one," said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg was emphatic in noting that he is a Black Lives Matter supporter, as well as an American Studies major who has spent much of his college career learning about oppressed peoples, colonialism, and systemic injustice that plagues many American institutions. He can empathize with those who don't agree with the opinion piece in question.
"If you’re a student of color, especially if you’re a woman of color, you are living in a world that tells you that you are not equal, you are not worthy of attention, but you are also less than," said Rosenberg. "And being in a university setting as well, universities were made for white, straight men. So it is very easy to understand why someone speaking this way on a college campus, in a public setting like this, could feel like it invalidates your opinions, your presence, your thoughts on this campus, especially coming from a cis, straight white man."
However, he disagrees with how the issue played out at Wesleyan.
"I guess it’s a misunderstanding of the newspaper or a misreading of the purpose of the newspaper to just not see that as an opportunity to come up with your own rebuttal. To go forward, to write your own response. This is the public space for criticism," said Rosenberg.
Rosenberg believes that the actions taken against The Argus are problematic not solely in terms of the paper continuing to exist, but also in the larger scope of campus journalism and the precedent such a decision sets. But he also feels that journalists present and future must grapple with how they represent and tell the stories of marginalized populations.
"Sure, there is an extent to which a newspaper is going to be a newspaper. And it has this role it needs to fill," said Rosenberg. "But it can be a newspaper while getting things right. And historically it has not gotten race correct. It has not gotten student activism correct. It has not gotten university campuses correct."
No longer are students talking about issues like sexual assault and race in hushed tones. We're in the midst of a sea change.
As conversations on campus become more open and activists become more vocal in terms of demands, can student journalism keep up? Or will it be replaced by more reactionary media, like Twitter and Facebook? Regardless of how unclear the future may be, it's undeniably an exhilarating, confusing time to be a student journalist.
Cover photo: Creative Commons