Chances are, if you’re reading this website, college media is important to you, but do you understand why college media matters beyond just your life or your campus?
Chris Evans joined us for a recent #EditorTherapy chat to discuss why college media matters, within and outside of the boundaries of your university. Chris is president of College Media Association, a media professor at the University of Vermont and adviser of the University of Vermont’s student media.
Here’s what Chris had to say about why college media matters.
Note: Remember that Chris was writing in Tweet form. I’ve compiled his tweets here to make it easier, but don’t go all grammar snob on us. Just take the lessons from the content. Fair? Ok.
Q1: Let’s start with what we may already know, why does college media matter to individual student journalists? How does it benefit them?
Chris: At the most basic level, it’s essential training for aspiring journalists—both for skills and for the resume. You learn the nuts and bolts and, if you work hard, you’ll get some amazing scoops along the way. Plus, you’ll figure out if the journalistic lifestyle is for you! It’s not for everyone…
If it is for you, you’ll need those clips to get an internship. That’s usually the way it works: college clips lead to the internship or internships, which can lead to actual jobs in the profession.
College journalism is perfect preparation for all of that.
Q2: Beyond the individual students, why is college media important to the college or university where student journalism exists?
Chris: College media, when it’s working well, provides a forum for the university conversation. When college journalists explore the issues that matter to students and the whole college community, it can lead to solutions for otherwise intractable problems.
My mantra is that journalists are superheroes out there saving the world—in as objective a way as possible, of course. College communities need saving as much as everywhere else. Their problems need exposing as much as in the “real” world.
Q3: What are some important issues that college students should be looking into on their campuses?
Chris: Great question! The issues are everywhere, and they differ by college, by location. But some through lines do exist… Some of the best stories I’ve seen have been those that draw attention to dangerous parts of campus or dangerous times of year, such as when sexual assault is most prevalent. These stories provide an important public service.
College journalists should be holding administrators to account, as well.
Students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. How is that money being used?
Are the admins being good stewards? Or are they wasting money? …
Even better—in terms of news value, I’m saying—are they embezzling money?
This stuff certainly happens at colleges. Who other than the college news org is going to cover it?
Q4: Why is it important for administrators and faculty to support college media, even when student journalists aren’t favorable toward them or their programs?
Chris: Another good question. You know, sometimes admins say that they want the college media groups to showcase only “good” news—the news that puts the college in a favorable light. But is PR really what they want their college paper to represent?
Educators all want students to be learning to do their jobs better. We want them learning journalistic skills. They don’t learn by parroting the university position. That’s not journalism. That’s misplaced PR.
As we’ve said, too: Colleges have problems, and college news organizations can shine a light on those problems. In the end, the college will be better off. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, they say.
Q5: Let’s go even further, why is collegiate media important outside of the walls of individual universities?
Chris: Collegiate media puts the college community into conversation with the outside world. Colleges can be so insular, but there are larger issues at play—and college media can explore those …
To use an earlier example: If we know that certain weeks of the school year are more dangerous in terms of sexual assault for students at college X, chances are that they might be at college Y, as well. Issues resonate beyond the individual college.
The audience for what college news orgs publish is online and worldwide. They SHOULD be thinking beyond their borders—even when writing about their own schools—to the larger issues of society as a whole.
Q6: Can you give some examples of journalism by students that has made a real difference beyond just their individual campus in the past year or so?
Chris: Among the biggest stories this past year would be from The State News at Michigan State, which did an amazing job covering the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and how it impacted their campus community.
What’s impressive about The State News coverage is not only that they got ahead of the pro papers out there, it’s that they continue to press the story, even as it’s faded from the headlines in the mainstream press. Just last week, The State News published the entire censored version of the university’s summer alumni magazine, about survivors of Nassar’s abuse, after the administration spiked it. That’s quality work.
We’re seeing college papers taking on issues of opioid addiction and colleges’ histories of institutional racism. Of #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter. Big stories are happening everywhere in college media.
Q7: These types of big, investigative stories can be frightening. Why should student journalists still report them?
Chris: They can be frightening, but they don’t need to be. There’s simple logic that can be comforting: Some stories simply must be told because the public deserves to know the truth about what’s happening.
Just because a school administrator or other high-powered person doesn’t want something published doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. Student journalists can push through the fear. And if the administration comes down hard on you—and violates your First Amendment rights—call @splc. That’s legal help available to any collegiate journalist.
Q8: We hear from friends in the industry that it’s difficult to be a journalist in at time of such great media criticism. How does this distrust and the era of “fake news” impact college media?
Chris: It depends on where you are. In many cases, the cries of “fake news” are more prominent on the national level because that debate is wrapped up in national politics. Not always, of course …
I don’t think that there’s a rational argument to be made against accusations that news is “fake” because often it’s an attack without merit. What college journalists can do is make sure that their reporting is above reproach.
To put it simply: The best defense against accusations of fake news is to make sure that your news isn’t fake. And then point that out on the opinion pages, if necessary.
Q9: What can student journalists do to encourage others to support college media?
Chris: Spread the word of the great work that they’re doing! Few college news outlets promote themselves successfully. Understanding how to get the word to social media is essential, among other things.
Regular communication with the public is important. Find inventive ways to engage the public. A First Amendment Day event isn’t a bad place to start.
Q10: How can student journalists work to make others see collegiate media as professional and credible?
Chris: At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I’d say that the way you help others see collegiate media as professional and credible is to BE professional and credible.
College students have a lot working against them when it comes to the way that the public at large looks at them. The public image, in some corners, is that college students only want to party, or that they’re stoners or care only about themselves. Work against that… Work against the image of college students as being irresponsible by learning as much as you can about your community and reporting on it fairly. Be the adults in the room.
Plus: avoid anything that makes you seem immature. Getting rid of that April Fools’ edition is worth considering. You don’t see respected professional papers putting satire in the news pages.
If you want to be respected, earn the respect with work that is above reproach.
Q11: What can people like student journalists, former student journalists, faculty, and pro journalists ensure that college media continues to matter?
Chris: They can SUBSCRIBE to their local paper! And their favorite national papers, too.
If you look at the national newspapers—I mention them because many of us have access to them—then you’re seeing some of the best journalism ever.
Perhaps the most important thing, though, is to keep the faith. Journalism is more under attack than ever. All journalists, of all ages, need to stand up for the profession and continue to challenge the powerful.
Part of our job is to hold our public officials to account and help the public better understand the world around them. If we do that, then we’re succeeding.
I absolutely love learning from #EditorTherapy guests, and I learned so much from Chris. Thank you again, Chris, for being our guest.
If you’d like to know more about the chat in general, check out #EditorTherapy. The chat is at 8 p.m. CST Wednesdays.
I hope to see you during the next #EditorTherapy!