November 14, 2021

Few things really get my goat — among them are college administrators who stonewall student journalists and goat rustlers. (I am pretty sure I lifted that joke from a late ’80s Mad Magazine. Thanks for that subscription, Dad.)

This week, freelancers Erin A. Hennessy and Kristine Maloney wrote, “College officials should work with student journalists, not avoid them” for Poynter. You know you’ve got a good piece when you can feel your blood start to simmer as you edit. Administrators crapping on student reporters has to be one of the most maddening, frustrating and unfair things that happens to our baby journalists.

Sure, this kind of obfuscation prepares student journalists for a life of covering tight-lipped public officials, but as Hennessy and Maloney point out, there’s something especially foul about so-called professionals in higher ed abdicating their duties to participate in the educational process … no matter what excuse they use: “You misquoted me.” “Your paper makes too many mistakes.” “I’m too busy to talk to such a small outlet.”

Uh-oh, there’s my blood simmering again.

Occasionally, student journalists fight back successfully, but for the most part, I’d argue that the Student Journalists vs. Administrators scoreboard is about as lopsided as a grin.

Just this week I counseled a tenacious young journalist in Florida who’s repeatedly asked to interview members of her administration only to be met with delays, cancellations and silence.

I’m fairly certain I’m preaching to the choir here, so I’ll offer up some advice for you to share with your students.

  • Give officials absolutely as much time as possible to respond to requests for information and interviews.
  • Tell them when your deadline is.
  • Keep good notes on the circumstances by which you reached out to them — email, phone, text.
  • Keep trying, repeatedly. Note your attempts by date, time and format.
  • Be professional and courteous always, never threatening. Don’t plead or beg. Simply state your continued need to reach them.
  • Use phrases such as, “This story is not as complete and accurate without your comments” and “I know this is short notice, but I think you’ll agree this is important to students.”

If you’re still getting stonewalled …

  • Look at your notes and succinctly summarize your attempts to reach this source(s) with as much detail as possible. “Mr. College President did not respond to three emails and two calls to his office over the past week.”
  • Write out what you plan to run and send it to the reluctant source verbatim, stating, “This is what I am going to say about our attempts to reach you in today’s 5 p.m. broadcast.”
  • Then run with it. Repeat — repeatedly — if necessary.

In an era when journalists are increasingly demonized by politicians and the public, there’s still something compelling about hearing that a young journalist is earnestly attempting to do their due diligence, but is being ignored and mistreated by the establishment.

Be accurate, but let your public know what’s going on when administrators fail the very young people they are paid to educate. Do it early and often. Make it a habit.

OK, I’m getting off my soapbox. I gotta go find my goats.

News of note

Last week I wrote about the University of Georgia’s experiment with a small local paper in which the publication was essentially donated to the school for a capstone class to run. I heard from the University of Vermont’s Richard Watts, director of Center for Research on Vermont and co-director of Reporting & Documentary Storytelling.

He wrote: “We have a model we are piloting here – the Community News Service — where students write stories for local papers under the direction of professional editors and writers. The goal is to provide content for struggling local news outlets and to give students exceptional applied learning experiences. We are about 1,000 stories in and have 20-plus media partners that we write for, under their direction and to their standards … Because of the funding model, we think we may have something that can be scaled up and duplicated elsewhere.”

The Boston Globe wrote about it with “Vermont colleges unite to help community newspapers.”

A quick show of hands — if you are interested in learning more about what journalism higher ed is doing to innovate with projects like this, would you reply to this email? I’m pondering more reporting and possibly playbooks collecting this kind of information, if there’s interest.

I’m assuming you didn’t miss the news, via former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss’ Substack, that “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One.” (Find a bit more context with the Houston Chronicle’s “Conservative thinkers, ideologues announce creation of ‘fiercely independent’ University of Austin alternative college.”) It was a fun day for parody, but author John Warner suggests, “What the University of Austin Gets Right.”

Here’s your feel-good story of the week: reunions at airports. Show these to your visually minded students. What makes these shots work? How do the masks add or detract from the photos? I personally love the deeply personal and attentive cutlines.

Here’s an interesting localization opportunity: Does your campus feature housing owned by this company? What do students living in these locations report? (I know that in my time as an adviser, horror stories about off-campus luxury apartments cropped up periodically.) This might be a good time to see how your off-campus housing complexes are doing in light of the pandemic, and ask about the implications for students living there and the campus community.

If you work at a university that gets federal contract dollars, you know the deadline for a federal vaccine mandate is coming up Nov. 22 (though there is union pressure to push it back). My colleague Al Tompkins, in his excellent Covering COVID-19 newsletter, highlighted the work of The San Diego Union-Tribune to determine what actually qualifies as a religious exemption to vaccination. Tompkins wrote, “The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just issued new guidance for how the exemption will be considered. The guidance comes under Title VII, the federal employment discrimination law. Title VII ‘requires employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship.’

“The EEOC’s new guidelines try to separate religious beliefs from secular beliefs. EEOC says ‘objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.’”  Where does your university stand in percentage of employees claiming religious exemption?

Here’s the trailer for “Storm Lake,” a documentary about a small-town newspaper, the family dedicated to it, and journalism’s larger ties to democracy. It looks really inspiring. I’m thinking it might be great for in-class viewing, especially for students who are going to find that The New York Times and the NBC “Nightly News” don’t come calling right at graduation. It premieres at 10 p.m. Eastern on Monday night on PBS.

Here’s a great asset for sports reporting: Sportico has released a database of Division I athletic department information. Enjoy fishing around in there with your morning coffee, or in the case of your sports department, your late-night Red Bull.

Putting on my mis- and disinformation fighting cap for these last two items.

First, Illinois will be the first state to mandate media literacy in high school. Here’s what students will learn.

And second, the surgeon general has released an illustrated toolkit specifically geared toward talking to friends and family about vaccine misinformation. Just in time for Thanksgiving!

And hey, if that doesn’t work, you can always just play some Adele.

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

Diverse headlines

One valuable way that you can reinforce diversity, equity and inclusion in your classroom is by sharing journalism about, by and for diverse communities — not just stories that are predominantly by and about cisgender white people. Consider ways in which you could use these stories in your curriculum. Here are a few examples I saw this week. I also include headlines about DEI news and issues.

The Lead

This week, we featured Isabel Armiento from the University of Toronto, who wrote, “Student journalists ask: Is objectivity becoming obsolete?”

Subscribe to The Lead, Poynter’s weekly newsletter for student journalists, and encourage your students to do the same.

This week’s Professor’s Press Pass

In this week’s Professor’s Press Pass, we examine the case of The Verge and the phrase “on background.” What does it mean, and why did The Verge creating a policy around it make such a splash in the journalism world? (You can pair this lesson with our recent case study about what it means to go off the record.)

Resources for journalists

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
Barbara Allen

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