In the run-up to Wednesday evening’s controversial speech by political podcaster Ben Shapiro, Haley Lerner, the editor of Boston University’s student-run newspaper, thought hard about how to cover the planned student protest.
Lerner, 20, and her staff have covered their fair share of campus controversies. But she and the other journalists at the Daily Free Press are also keenly aware that student journalists have landed in the middle of firestorms in recent weeks about what it means to be an independent newspaper. Student journalists have been challenged by their peers on the fundamental ways in which campus reporters do their jobs, and whether they should be taking sides on some of the most polarizing issues of the day.
“There is sometimes a misunderstanding about what a newspaper is there to do,” said Lerner, a junior. “When there’s such rough political things going on, I can understand why they want the paper to take a stand. But we want to show the emotions of everyone involved. . . . We are not going to waver.”
That has become increasingly hard on college campuses.
At Harvard University, activists and some students have boycotted the Crimson, the campus’s independent newspaper, over its decision to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a comment after a September rally by students calling on the federal government to abolish the agency. More than 900 people have signed a petition condemning the Crimson’s news-gathering practices and called on the reporters to stop calling the immigration agency. This week, Harvard’s undergraduate government group backed the activists in raising concerns about the paper’s policies.
At Northwestern University, the student newspaper’s coverage of protests during former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ campus visit earlier this month so upset students that the editorial staff published a message Sunday apologizing for their reporting practices.
That paper’s editors said they are reconsidering their policies after posting photos of the protest on social media and using the university directory to reach participants for comment — standard reporting practices at most news organizations.
That apology spurred its own backlash from professional reporters and Northwestern alumni who graduated from the university’s famed journalism school, Medill. Many took to Twitter to blast the school and its reporters for the apology.
From the anti-Vietnam War protests at Kent State University to the sit-ins at St. Louis University over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police, political activism has been as much a part of campus life as late-night study sessions and weekend parties.
What’s new, experts said, is that in recent months the reporting of these protests has become as much of the story as the events themselves. Campus reporters are facing backlash for following fairly routine journalistic practices, whether it’s trying to get a comment from the relevant parties to texting student participants to see whether they want to talk, said Bill Grueskin, a journalism professor at Columbia University.
“What we do and the way we do it is not understood and valued by a lot of people, and not by just older people,” Grueskin said. “But this young generation of leaders who are going to elite schools — there’s clearly a distrust of our motives and practices.”
That’s not surprising, when the country’s top leaders, including President Trump, routinely slam the press as “fake news” and pull government subscriptions to national news outlets, said Shirley Carswell, a Howard University journalism lecturer who also serves as an adviser to that school’s student newspaper.
That message of distrust has trickled down and is exacerbated by the changing news habits of young people. Students now have many other sources of information, including blogs and social media, so they are less patient or forgiving about what they may perceive as bias in the campus newspaper, she said.
“They expect the newspaper is, above all, for the students. Anything they see not being in line with the students” is viewed with suspicion, Carswell said. “It’s tough.”
At Harvard, campus groups including Act on A Dream, which represents undocumented students, said the Crimson violated the community’s trust.
“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition signed by 17 student groups reads. “The Crimson, as a student-run publication, has a responsibility to prioritize the safety of the student body they are reporting on.”
Crimson president Kristine E. Guillaume has defended the newspaper’s coverage of the protest and in a subsequent note to its readers explained that reporters contacted ICE after the protest was over and have met with activists to understand their concerns.
“A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world,” Guillaume and Angela Fu, the managing editor, wrote in a note to their readers.
At Northwestern, the day after issuing the apology, the newspaper’s editor, Troy Closson, acknowledged in a Twitter thread that the paper may have “overcorrected” in its efforts to address concerns with its reporting.
But Closson said historically the campus paper has failed in its coverage of students of color, and he wanted to ensure that reporters show empathy when writing about marginalized groups.
The apology was “well-intentioned” but sends a chilling message that journalism will bow to the loudest and most influential voices, Charles Whitaker, the Medill School dean, explained in a community message Tuesday.
“To be sure, journalism has often bowed to the whim and will of the rich and powerful, so some might argue that it is only fair that those who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised have their turn at calling the journalistic shots,” Whitaker wrote. “But that is not the solution.”
Whitaker defended the initial reporting of the Sessions event as fair and responsible, but he wrote that the college reporters faced “relentless public shaming” and “vitriol” on campus in the days that followed “for the ‘sin’ of doing journalism.”
Professional journalists often face criticism for their stories, and it is an expected part of the job, Carswell of Howard University said.
But it can feel more personal on a college campus, when young reporters are still learning and finding their place in the community, and they encounter anger in class, in their dorm rooms, and even from their suite-mates, Carswell said.
The attacks on journalism on college campuses may also reflect a changing view of students on the role of the news media. Students aren’t entirely convinced that the purpose of the press should be to provide an unbiased source of information, she said.
Some increasingly feel that journalism should be used to advocate for positions, or be a tool in their activism, Carswell said.
“They do see things differently,” she said. “We have to be open to discussing the role of the press. We have to be open to the role changing and the students changing it.”