Student Bloggers Watch over College Media

Student journalists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison can breath a sigh of relief. Their biggest critic, a fellow Badger, is on break. At least for now.

“The site will remain up for historical record and in case I break out of retirement,” but that’s not likely, said Danny Spirn, also known as the Critical Badger.

Since 2006, the Critical Badger has been an almost-daily blog filled with memos to editors and reporters with the two UW-Madison student newspapers, critiques of student media coverage and breaking news reported by Spirn.

The Critical Badger also takes sides in local politics and higher education. But Spirn doesn’t focus on national politics or ideological perspectives as much as many blogs. Instead, his goal is to hold student journalists to professional standards.

Spirn, who graduated from UW with a degree in political science and communication arts, said student journalists want to have a role in the campus community similar to that of professional journalists — to set the news agenda and influence opinions.

They also want to be considered amateurs, Spirn said, but only when they get things wrong. “They clearly have an impact in the real world, so shouldn’t people be watching them?”

The Critical Badger is one of several blogs across the country that act as college media watchdogs. Spirn and others like him hope that watchdog blogs help prepare student journalists to meet the standards of the profession. And while they often criticize students’ work, they also occasionally praise news coverage and editorial positions.

Taking on student media

For the past three years, like it or not, student journalists at UW-Madison have had to deal with Spirn’s sometimes-snarky critiques of their work:

  • He criticized a student editor for endorsing a friend for public office.
“A sweet photo, but I love the ‘Daily Cardinal, courtesy University of Wisconsin’ citation followed by ‘UW researchers recently discovered a way to delete genetic baggage from stem cells.’ “I know the photo is being used to highlight the type of research, but it’s a slick way of appearing to have news team coverage of the actual event. Come on.”
  • He took The Badger Herald, a student newspaper, to task for what he regarded as its lack of local political coverage: “The Herald should make people give a shit. … The Herald isn’t some static entity that bends to the will of what its audience wants. It’s a damn newspaper. It should WANT to cover something as significant as the District 8 race. And as I outline above, I believe the Herald has done a sub par job at best, in its efforts to ‘persuad[e] you’ what to read.”

Spirn said he contributed to early breaking news coverage about a campus murder, a frat house fire and news about local political candidates — stories that student and professional newspapers in Madison picked up.

He did all of this, he said, to force student media to abide by higher standards of ethics and journalism.

“Do we take [student journalists] seriously, or are they just students practicing?” Spirn asked. “I think it’s dangerous if they are printing things and they say they are just practicing.”

Certainly student media can influence a campus community, and what student media does — and doesn’t do — leaves a mark.

“Being in charge of … the student press that, in many ways, sets the political and social tones of a lot of these students” is a big responsibility, said Eli Judge, a UW-Madison alum who represented the campus district on the Madison City Council from 2007 to 2009.

He said the student papers in Madison were more likely to correct errors and alter their news agendas when they realized “that someone was actively watching and actively commenting” on their work.

But Alex Morrell, former editor of The Daily Cardinal, one of the UW-Madison student papers, said having a student media watchdog could be helpful only if it has the right approach.

The Critical Badger has been “hyper-critical” and “not productive,” Morrell said. “It had some merited criticism, but we already knew what we could do better. [Spirn] expects highly professional journalism that is void of errors.” Morrell said he didn’t approve of Spirn taking specific editors or student reporters to task online.

How much flak is too much?

At Marquette University in Milwaukee, it’s not students who blog about the mainstream student media, but associate professor John McAdams. A political science professor, his blog criticizes The Marquette Tribune for what he considers its liberal political leanings in news coverage.

“Student media matter,” McAdams said. “What they publish is public, and I feel free to critique it. With the right perspective, they would be flattered that people take them seriously.”

  • McAdams railed against the paper for its refusal to run an anti-abortion advertisement, which the paper later ran.
  • He criticized the Tribune for not quoting anti-abortion Catholics in a story about the presidential election.
  • He underscored what he regarded as inconsistencies in hiring policies when he wrote about the Tribune‘s policy prohibiting the hiring of students who belonged to campus political organizations.

But his perspective — he considers the paper’s news coverage biased and sometimes inaccurate — isn’t always welcome. In 2006, McAdams earned the newspaper’s “Shut the hell up” award for his criticism of the Tribune.

In announcing the award, a student columnist wrote: “I’m all for criticism. It makes us better professionals. But I won’t sit around and take any more abuse from a person who knows nothing about journalism.”

Yet professional journalists are frequently criticized by readers who aren’t media experts, McAdams said. “Taking some flak is something that journalists don’t like,” he said, “but it is part of the job. So when they go out and get jobs with real newspapers they are going to run into some flak. The whole project is to socialize them into being journalists.”

Indeed, David Perlmutter, director of the journalism school at the University of Iowa and author of “Blog Wars,” a book about the role of blogs in American society and politics, said student media is a good training ground, but that critiques of student journalists, often by name, in watchdog blogs may be too harsh for college students.

Student journalists “are still learning, and I would hope people would give them a break if there is a mistake and they admit it and make changes,” he said.

Challenged by turnover

The student media blogosphere — and its oversight of student journalism — suffers from the same issues as other student media: constant transition.

Brad Vogel, now a law student at Tulane University in New Orleans, helped run a blog at UW-Madison in 2005 and 2006 to critique student media there. He also produced his own news, including live-blogging a suicide attempt.

But Vogel stopped blogging on news in 2007 when he entered law school. He said he and others pulled back because they worried that their blogs might hurt their chances with future employers.

According to Vogel, many students get their critiquing fixes by using comments at the end of student media stories online, or they join student media to build a resume and make changes from the inside.

Vogel warned that without more reader oversight of college media coverage, “errors go unchecked, and papers have a license to become too polarized and too ideologically driven.”

Back at UW-Madison this fall, Spirn, who stopped blogging this month when he entered law school, wondered if someone will take his place evaluating student journalism.

“There is a natural ebb and flow of people who may fill it,” Spirn said. “But will there be one as engaged as me? I don’t know.”

If you run a blog that discusses college or high school media, or know of one, email Robert at robertgutsche at gmail.com or add a comment to this article.

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