Columns / Discourse / October 14, 2015

Editor’s Notebook: The importance of objectivity in student media

In the world of student journalism, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

In the most recent cases of infringement on student media rights, Butler Collegian adviser Loni McKown was dismissed from her position on Sept. 4. In her place, the college appointed a member of its own public relations team.

Immediately, the world of student journalism (yes, there is a pretty robust and cohesive one) caught word of this. The story was on Romenesko, and the College Media Association published an investigation of the incident only a week later.

“When university administrators bully advisers for the journalistic work their students do they are also trampling on those students’ First Amendment rights,” CMA president Rachele Kanigel said in the statement.

She’s right.

If a university doesn’t know what’s wrong with replacing an adviser with a member of its PR team, its administration is clueless and needs a lesson in the importance of journalistic integrity. If the university does understand the problem, it’s simply manipulative.

Neither is too flattering a description.

The prospect of replacing an adviser with a campus employee is not only abhorrent — it’s nai•ve. It’s as though the college doesn’t understand the importance of avoiding conflict of interest by employing a faculty member to advise an independent, student-run publication.

Replacing an adviser undermines the work that student journalists put into their newspaper on top of their actual classes. It implies that the college doesn’t trust its student newspaper and needs someone nearby to hold students’ hands.

Most worrisome, the change suggests the college is afraid of what its students are capable of printing and wants to censor the student press in every way it can.

It’s unprofessional.

This isn’t the first time a university has dismissed a newspaper adviser and brought in its own employee — similar incidents occurred at Northern Michigan University, Delta State University and Muscatine Community College in Iowa this past year, reports The Atlantic.

So who’s to say it can’t happen at Knox?

Four years ago, I didn’t set out to attend a college with a good newspaper and an administration that, for the most part, respects it.

It’s by mere luck that I chose Knox, a school whose newspaper is far superior to those of its peer institutions (and I’m not just saying that — some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation have terrible newspapers).

While many of my friends at larger institutions have to interview a school spokesperson, Teresa Amott always makes time for face-to-face interviews and says hi to me on the street. Boston University started a Go Fund Me page to run its newspaper last year, the University of Notre Dame works in an office underneath the cafeteria and Harvard students aren’t compensated for their work. And those are all daily papers.

While I’m hearing horror stories of school spokespeople-turned-advisers and scrolling through angry pro-student media tweets, I’m reminded that TKS has a great adviser who isn’t affiliated with the college and that we’re lucky enough to receive funding and a work space from Knox.

Still, that’s not to say I don’t feel frustrated working for The Knox Student at times. It’s natural that a college wants to promote itself, but it’s not the job of the student newspaper — particularly one that prides itself on a history of investigative journalism and muckraking — to help with its publicity campaign.

It’s the job of a good newspaper to ask difficult questions and to shed light on flaws in the institution, and to do so responsibly. It’s also the job of a newspaper to act as a professional organization and to provide even and balanced coverage. It’s not the job of the college to intervene in this in any way, either by withholding information or by outing a media adviser.

The Knox Student is bound by strong ethics the editorial staff reviewed earlier this year (it’s also available online). We adhere to a list of policies, including refusing to allow sources to review stories prior to printing and only granting anonymity in extenuating circumstances. We tape-record our interviews. We don’t allow interviews that were conducted via email, which is why it’s surprising and frustrating when faculty sources demand a list of questions via email prior to the interview.

We have these policies in place to continue a tradition of journalism that’s honest, unbiased and fair. To compromise any of those values would be compromising the integrity of the newspaper. As long as I’m around, I’ll hold this newspaper to the standards of any professional newspaper. Though we have a different readership and circulation than a professional newspaper, we share the values of any newspaper: We aim to get the facts straight and to shed light on the flaws, trends and stories of the college.

The Butler Collegian incident is a good reminder to TKS and the administration of the blatant disrespect that occurs at other institutions. It’s a reminder to me of how lucky I am to attend a school with a history and respect for student media.

TKS and the administration, of course, have different goals and job descriptions, but it’s in the best interest of both groups to treat the other with fairness and respect.

But I will put it this way: I’ll step down from my position as editor-in-chief before Knox asks one of its own to step up.


Kate Mishkin
Kate Mishkin is a senior majoring in English literature and minoring in journalism. She started working for TKS as a freshman and subsequently served as managing editor, co-news editor and co-mosaic editor. Kate is the recipient of four awards from the Illinois College Press Association for news and feature stories and one award from the Associated Collegiate Press. She won the Theodore Hazen Kimble Prize in 2015 and 2014 and the Ida M. Tarbell Prize in Investigate Journalism in 2014. She has interned at FILTER Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WGIL radio and the Virginian-Pilot.

Twitter: @KateMishkin

Tags:  censorship college media editor-in-chief kate mishkin student media

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