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Why Student Media Matters

As the mainstream media -- and even alternative media -- become more corporate and consolidated, hundreds of campus publications are reporting the truth about student life and training news leaders of the future.
If writing for the school newspaper is good experience for a career in journalism, then dealing with censorship, administrative pressure, funding trouble, and the host of issues that affect those in student media is indispensable experience for a life in today's media.

Student media issues are often dismissed as unimportant ("You have to understand I've never taken the student paper very seriously -- these are kids," says John Schulz, the dean of Boston University's communications college). They are often considered insular to the world of higher education, relegated to the trite analogy of the university "bubble." A serious examination, though, reveals that these so-called "student issues" are not only significant in their own right, but have profound implications for and parallels to the broader mainstream and independent media.

"College journalists are breaking stories, shaping news coverage and making law that all journalists (and all who care about the profession) should be interested in," says Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center. Sara Gruen, the coordinator of the Independent Press Association's Campus Journalism Project, takes the role of the student journalist even further, claiming that "campus papers can save journalism." "As mergers and budget cuts squeeze local papers ever tighter," writes Gruen, "indy campus reporting has an increasing role in documenting local news."

There are hundreds upon hundreds of campus publications -- Wikipedia lists 383, NewsLink.org lists 392 and eReleases.com tops them all with 470 -- and many of the most prestigious professionals in journalism today began their careers with college publications. As a student at Pomona College, executive editor of the New York Times Bill Keller founded an independent newspaper called the Collage. David Remnick, before becoming editor of the New Yorker, worked at Princeton University's Nassau Weekly. In the Vietnam era, student newspapers like the Michigan Daily (and its editor-in-chief Tom Hayden) were instrumental in fomenting and interpreting the mass social movements that centered on youth.

While student journalists, as Goodman points out, are breaking their own stories, they are also gaining experiences that will influence their careers in the mainstream and independent media, experiences that can potentially affect people all over the world. This is one reason that student media issues transcend the campus walls and can have far-reaching ramifications.

While the mainstream media is often criticized for succumbing to administration pressure and not vociferously questioning government policies and assertions -- most notably, perhaps, with Bush administration claims of WMD in Iraq and an Iraq-9/11 link -- the student press has often displayed the courage and principles to stand up to what it feels are unfair or repressive decisions made by the school administration.

At Essex County College's Observer, students raised $1,100 to publish their own graduation issue after Susan Mulligan, the dean of students, shut down printing. Dean Mulligan insists that the newspaper was shut down because it lacked an official advisor, and called censorship claims "absurd," the Observer's editor-in-chief, Melinda Hernandez, asserted that the real gripe arose because the paper began to criticize the school administration. The staff of the Observer turned the issue into a "bill of rights" edition.

Censorship and funding are two issues that most often affect student media. Dean Mulligan was able to cancel printing because the Observer is financially supported through the college's payroll system, allowing officials to cancel payment.

The manner in which a publication is funded was a central issue in the case Hosty v. Carter (7th Cir., 2005), in which three staff member of Governors State University's The Innovator sued the university after dean Patricia Carter impeded publication and demanded prior review because of articles that had been critical of the administration. The Court found that it was unclear whether the decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which held that high school publications could be regulated by school officials, applied to colleges, effectively absolving Carter.

Colleges have become the focus of several battles over free speech, particularly in relation to speech codes, controversial speakers/groups on campus and student media. This sort of turmoil can be threatening for a college official who is given the task of maintaining a positive public image for the school to attract both students and donations.

At Peru State, two faculty advisors to the Peru State Times have been fired by the president, Ben Johnson, allegedly because the paper had been critical of the administration. According to Mark Goodman, it is not uncommon for school officials to say, "'We don't like what they're publishing, so we're going to do something about it.' It turns a student newspaper into a PR sheet."

But clashes with the administration are not the only problem student journalists face. The student newspapers at California's Evergreen Valley College, Ventura College, and Oxnard College have all been discontinued due to funding problems. Other publications struggle to stay afloat by dedicating an increasing amount of space to advertising and forming corporate partnerships that may dilute student voices.

While Gruen heralds the student media as a catalyst in a media revolution, students are not immune to the same criticisms that are often flung at the corporate media. Steven Dick, an assistant professor of radio-TV at Southern Illinois University, says, "I have seen far too much irresponsible journalism come from college press. ... I have seen privacy invasions, misrepresentation, heavy handed opinion in news articles, and outright defamation."

This is the same indictment that is often leveled at blogosphere and other forums for citizen journalism -- that a lack of experience and oversight can result in a lack accountability and responsibility. This is especially dangerous when one manipulates the media with an underlying agenda.

Such a situation arose at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the spring of 2006. Wesleyan, which has for a long time been consistently described as a left-leaning and politically active school, was well-represented by students at the "March for Peace, Justice, and Democracy" in New York City on April 29. When the student newspaper, The Argus, covered the story, the right-wing sentiments of the then editor-in-chief, who had previously written an article proclaiming his conservatism, were clearly displayed: the picture chosen from the many options to accompany the story was one of a giant banner that said "The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11." By painting a massive demonstration of over 350,000 people as a forum for paranoid extremists, the editor of a student newspaper at a small liberal arts school used a trick dirtier than Fox News ever would.

It is a mistake to callously label the student media as either irresponsible amateurs or as trendsetting saviors. Students are seizing an opportunity to make their own media using every method available to them, whether it is a blog, a self-published 'zine, a podcast, etc. The do-it-yourself attitude and the democratized means of production have transformed how we think about media and have helped many more students become active producers, not passive consumers, of information.

The nuanced issues that affect the student media are the same issues that affect today's media, the future of journalism, the way we see the world, and our role in the world. It is not enough to call the student media the leaders and voices of tomorrow without recognizing the tremendous role that they are playing today.
Aaron Sussman is the co-founder of the soon-to-be launched publications "Incite Magazine" and MediaChannel U. You can see more of his work at his website, A Crowded Fire.
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