Student journalism: necessary investment or waste of paper?

(By Nabeela Jivraj, Queen’s University)

For twenty-first century readers, the news media has taken on a uniquely vague and unprecedented role.  The advent of social media is akin to that of the printing press—over five hundred years later—by drastically overhauling the way media is viewed and consumed, and increasing the amount of media available for consumption. Media freedom is regarded as one of the pillars of democracy (alongside the executive, legislative, and judiciary freedoms), serving as a proper informative hub for civil society’s use. However, when the sheer amount of information is so vast, the utility of such a hub is called into question. While the importance of media in the modern age remains unchanged, the plurality of sources weakens the policing power of classical journalistic sources— the designated fact police. The journalism sources we see today still carry a powerful social force, but are generally lacking in substance and in concrete factualism. Amidst the rise of new platforms, poor readership, and dwindling funds for formal sources, separation of fact and fiction is increasingly difficult. As our society moves towards a more pluralistic and morally subjectivist status quo, editorials come a dime a dozen. The accessibility of modern Internet means that anyone can be a journalist—any personal opinion becomes a possible truth, and objective truths are effectively erased.

The technological shift is not inherently bad, as it has allowed for quick forms of communication to emerge, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. People want information, and they want it fast. Consumers are more concerned with convenience over the quality of the information they receive. As a result, modern-day “journalists” are forced to condense narratives into headlines or 150-character “stories”, a practice that often eliminates nuance, sensationalizes facts, and removes context.

Amidst this shift, students of journalism are faced with a myriad of options for gaining written experience with news media. For a campus writer, this can mean writing online publications and personally directed written initiatives, as well as writing for traditional print publications on campus. Similar to established journals, campus publications are vulnerable to funding cuts and poor readership. The cost of printing publications that lose readers each year makes justifying funding for these publications increasingly difficult. Given the plethora of writing mediums, what is the case for sustained investment in campus publications?

A primary task for a journalist is to use a lens when writing about relevant issues, and magnifying them for the interest of readers. Secondarily, journalism requires flipping the lens: continual self-reflection and consideration of the contextual role of journalism in terms of the intended audience allows for effective delivery of the message.  To write about racism on campus, students need to reflect on their own ideas and actions, on their campus, and on the social context of the atmosphere in which they are writing. Student-led journalism on campus forces students to practice the art of using both critical and reflective lenses.

While student journalism can be simply summarized as a crash course for becoming a real-world journalist, and seen as an easy resume additive for future career prospects, it is also many other things. Student journalism provides a chance to actively contribute to the community, and also to engage in campus affairs in an appropriate way. It provides a forum for student voices to be heard, and for student democracy to take place outside the arena of student politics. When students are able to choose and explore relevant topics, meaningful discussion can be amplified. Though not every student thought piece is well received, each article has the potential to inspire debate and discussion. This encourages healthy engagement in debate on campus and provides a forum for diverse opinions to be formally voiced.

Additionally, student-run journalism allows for the publication of thought that might not be published in print elsewhere. This inevitably encourages intellectual curiosity in at least some of the student population, regardless of whether the publication has high readership levels. The mutual enforcement of academic and non-academic skills is a benefit that has no tangible economic value. Investment in student journalism is an investment in intellectual enquiry and personal growth for young writers.

However, the rise of mass media proliferation serves as an amplified analogy for the pitfalls that student journalism faces. Much like public Internet forums, student publications can suffer from a severe lack of oversight. One need not have extensive writing experience to gain seniority in a student-run publication committee. There are no experts, and there is no objectively right response. This primarily calls into question the journalistic ethics of a student body. With a lack of formalized journalistic training, the relationship between journalism and public response can be forgotten or overlooked entirely. What on-campus publishing bodies release can have lasting impacts on the reputations of students and faculty members, and can incite attitudes that influence campus elections, policy decisions, and hiring decisions. In reality, the stakes are often much lower on campus, and accountability for the repercussions of a printed story can be low or non-existent. Furthermore, a single-minded editorial board can result in failure of the publication to represent diverse campus perspectives. This directly mirrors journalistic realities outside of campus publications, and thus, this speaks to how journalistic bias and journalistic irresponsibility can go unchecked quite early on.

Despite the potential drawbacks to working for an established publication, there are certain newsroom skills that are only garnered through experience. In addition to professional skills, such as marketing and business management, that are inevitably essential roles for management of a school paper, other skills are developed. Practicing editorial skills and having to make publication decisions facilitates the development of journalistic intuition early on. Compared to the seconds it takes to publish a Buzzfeed article, there is considerable thought and effort that must be put into publishing campus newspapers. The work involves careful considerations of which stories are most important to cover, to publish, and to follow up on. Shouldering this type of responsibility at a young age cultivates qualities such as instinct, emotional maturity, grit, and perspective.

Simply put, the case for investing in student journalism lies is the unseen return on investment. Writing for campus publications mandates being open to criticism and being willing to improve. Although other forums for practicing written skills may offer the general benefit of “freedom of expression”, the range of soft skills available to students through campus journalism are of significantly greater importance. While the pitfalls of student publishing call into question the merits of investing, most of them are small-scale reflections of imperfections in the press system at large. Though student publications are similar to online media in that they run the risks of bias, lack of editorial insight, and low expertise, they seek to train young journalists to avoid these errors. Student print media could benefit from more formal training for all students involved, and sustained investment can allow for such improvements to take place over time. Campus journalism has the potential to breed thoughtful members of society who are capable of discernment in a world of ever-changing communication. Investment in student writing is a unique opportunity to keep new ideas on the table for generations to come.