The role of student newspapers changes as campus activism grows

After my first semester of college in December 2013, I remember sharing confusion with a friend: Weren't college students supposed to be political? It had been four months, and even though we read our student newspaper every week, we hadn't encountered a single student-led march, sit-in, or protest of any kind. Initially, we blamed this on the culture of our isolated state school, but began to notice that, aside from the occasional divestment rally at a liberal arts college, there was very little going on at universities nationwide.

I began writing for the student newspaper the following semester, and while I covered several protests led by community members, students were noticeably absent.

That all changed during the summer of 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown and the explosion of publicity surrounding campus sexual assault. When I returned to campus that fall as a newly-appointed student newspaper editor, I realized something fundamental had shifted.

We scrambled to cover rallies, marches, Black Lives Matter die-ins, and survivor speak-outs as they cropped up, both on our campus and across the country. The upcoming election and this year as a whole were rising to a boiling point and the wave of activism was consuming students and their Twitter feeds. These issues have dominated the front pages of student newspapers across the country, especially in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.

Some of these publications approach their work with a social justice mission in mind. Rather than maintaining objectivity (which is arguably impossible, especially for student reporters who are often active members of the campus community they're writing about), many alternative newspapers (such as City Paper) and magazines sometimes act as a facet of their activist community.

When I spoke to student editors at various Baltimore student publications, however, I found they saw the responsibility of student newspapers not to engage directly in activism but to report on it as fairly as possible and represent all sides.

This means that the role of a student reporter is often that of a translator, says Cody Boteler, editor-in-chief of The Towson Towerlight (and a former City Paper intern). There can be a disconnect between the two worlds of campus life—the world of students and the world of the administration, and student newspapers can bridge that gap.

"The administration needs to know what students are thinking, feeling, and experiencing and the students need to know what the administration is honestly and earnestly trying to accomplish," Boteler says. "It can be tough, because students want things immediately and [Towson University] is a large, state-funded institution, which means change is gradual."

In other pockets of the country, this quest for translation or neutrality created rifts between student activists and student media—most notably at Wesleyan University, Brown University, and the University of Missouri. Some campus activists at these universities would not speak to student reporters due to their unwillingness to take a public stance on issues, or barred them from events so the activists could cover them on social media directly.

Asha Glover, a former editor of the Morgan State University Spokesman, says these kinds of clashes sometimes occur because most college students don't understand the role of journalists.

"With a lot of college activists, we found that they generally don't know what it is we do," Glover says. "They don't know the difference between [an interview] on- or off-the-record. They don't necessarily know how journalists cover things—that it's not necessarily free publicity—but we have to show both sides; we have to be objective."

Student reporters, despite their hunger for stories about hot-button issues, also need to respect people's boundaries while still trying to get all the facts, she says.

"As a campus newspaper, our role is to give everyone a voice who may have a role in campus activism," says Spokesman managing editor Tramon Lucas. "That's where balance comes in for us. We don't make ourselves the story, we report the story."

John Hughes, the president of the Johns Hopkins chapter of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy organization, says that there are groups at the university, such as Hopkins Feminists, that choose not to speak to The JHU News-Letter. This is not due to ideological differences, or an expectation that the publication take a stance on the issues it covers, but to past concerns about the paper's journalistic ethics.

In the fall of 2014, there were a few instances where Hughes and several other students did not feel The News-Letter approached its coverage of sensitive topics in an appropriate manner—a reporter recorded a private meeting of Hopkins Feminists without announcing their presence, and an editor wrote a story about a student's suicide that centered on his personal blog entries and the police report.

Samhita Ilango, who served as co-editor of The News-Letter during the 2015-16 school year, says most issues occurred before her time as editor, so she does not know much about them. However, The News-Letter has cultivated positive relationships with several major activist groups over the past year, most notably the Black Student Union. And the newspaper has won acclaim for its coverage of race and the Baltimore uprising following the death of Freddie Gray.

"There were groups that didn't respond to us, and I think that's just part of the process," Ilango says. "We don't want to force anyone to talk to us...speaking about sensitive topics to a public paper is a decision that can be made by that club and I totally get if someone doesn't want to share with us."

Hughes says he thinks it's wise for activist groups to avoid cutting ties with their student newspapers. Editorial boards have changed and are going to change, he says, and it's important for groups to remember that and try to maintain at least a basic relationship.

At most universities, student newspaper coverage represents the first step in getting a story off-campus—a crucial step in spreading their activism to a wider audience. Generally, student activists don't do very well with the national media, Hughes says. National media is skewed against activism, and especially student activism, but student newspapers can bridge that gap.

"If something truly significant happens on campus, where, for example, a couple of students occupied the president's office, nobody's going to know that unless The Towerlight is there, putting that information out there right away," Boteler says, referring to a major protest at Towson where students staged a lengthy sit-in in the president's office that ultimately received coverage in City Paper, The Baltimore Sun, and other publications. The Towerlight staff served as the first journalists on the ground covering the story.

From there, stories often jump to local and national outlets, which brings wider attention to campus activists' goals. While student newspapers like The UMBC Retriever report neutrally on campus activism, by doing so they lend activists a platform through which they can express their views, says Mark Satter, The Retriever's editor-in-chief.

"I think the role of a good student journalist is not to explain that [activists] need you—because they don't need you—but to explain that you're trying to inform people," Glover says. "And if that's their mission, then you guys are on the same page."

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