On the Dilemma of Student Journalism

Jonathan Peters and Frank Lomonte in The Atlantic’s College Journalists Need Free Speech More Than Ever:

This is not your father’s journalism industry.

NBC News has a Storify page, the New York Times has a Tumblr, and PBS has a Pinterest board. The Associated Press has built a partnership with dozens of news companies to collect royalties from aggregators. The Wall Street Journal has produced original videos for YouTube, and the people formerly known as the audience can submit photos to CNN through its iPhone app.

The Problem

In short, the two argue that today’s college journalists are being asked to fulfill community needs for professional news, but are not provided with the legal assurances of safety that professionals are afforded.

For years, they explain (and applaud), there has been a growing consensus that journalism programs ought to become something like teaching hospitals for news production:

* In a 2010 report on sustaining democracy in the digital age, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy concluded that colleges and universities needed to enhance their roles as “hubs of journalistic activity.”

* In a 2011 report on twenty-first century journalism, the New America Foundation challenged journalism programs to become “anchor institutions involved in the production of community-relevant news.”

* In a 2011 report on the changing media landscape, the FCC Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities recommended that foundations fund “journalism-school residencies” for recent grads to manage “efforts to produce significant journalism for the community, using journalism school students.”

* In a 2012 letter to university presidents, leaders of six of the nation’s largest foundations argued that journalism programs must “recreate themselves if they are to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators” and that “universities must become forceful partners in revitalizing an industry at the very core of democracy.”

But they worry about the impacts of such legislation as Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 25-year-old Supreme Court decision that has been extended to college settings by four federal courts of appeals covering 16 states. It states, in short, that educators may regulate school-sponsored speech “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” An open invitation to limit free speech.

The Alternative

Peters and Lomonte make two suggestions:

  1. At the college level, courts should adopt the standard established by the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which holds that student speech cannot be punished or restrained unless “students’ activities would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
  2. States can create extra speech protections (following the lead of California, Illinois, and Oregon) by enacting statutes to protect college journalists and their advisors.

Read the full piece here.

FJP: This is a discussion I’ve had both in college, when I was editor of our campus news magazine, and in J-school. I’ve seen undergraduate students repeatedly hesitate to produce hard-hitting pieces that criticize their university because they can’t rely on their work for the school publication to remain uncensored by the school administration. In J-school—and I’m lucky enough to attend the big C, which has the resources to protect its students in certain cases—legal protection is certainly not available in the same way it is at many news organizations. Yet in both places, I’ve witnessed students repeatedly called upon to produce professional work and serve well-reported, fact-checked news to their local communities.

What worries me the most, however, is a potential cultural byproduct of these limitations: I worry about the impact these constraints have on the development of a student’s ethical framework and confidence as a reporter during his or her most formative years as a young journalist. How many potentially brilliant investigative journalists are we discouraging by limiting their opportunity to freely practice at the university level? Happy to see The Alantic cover this, and happy to see California, Illinois and Oregon’s statutes.—Jihii

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    "In addition, students learn the most when they make their own editorial decisions, away from the school’s long shadow....
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