by Terry Mattingly

The toughest student journalism takes courage, for students, advisers and administrators

Journalism professors at private colleges — especially on Christian campuses — know the drill all too well.

Semi-official reports spread that something terrible has happened. It may be an accident that was said to have involved alcohol and a student driver. It may be rumors about a sexual assault. It may be a suicide or attempted suicide.

At the student newspaper, students are sure they know what happened. Editors want to run the story. When they contact administrators — as they should — they are told no one can comment because (a) this is a private school, (b) student-discipline issues are involved and (c) administrators cannot comment because of privacy laws.

What next? After decades in Christian higher education, here is the question that I teach students to ask: Did this event lead to a police report? Are there public records to access?

Truth is, journalism educators must grasp that concerns about privacy laws are very real for leaders at private schools and universities. And if administrators cannot comment about discipline issues on campus (including those involving faculty), then it’s hard for students to provide accurate, balanced, fair reports about these stories. It’s hard to get past the “everyone knows what happened” stage. Rumors are not enough. It’s hard to get past the “everyone knows what happened” stage. But rumors are not enough. Gossip is not more Christian than journalism.

That’s why I locked in on a specific passage in that recent Washington Post essay by Will Young, former editor of the Liberty University student newspaper.

“In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion … our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. … Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.”

It’s safe to assume there are other tensions at Liberty. In my experience, about 90 percent of problems in Christian college newspapers are caused by editorials written by students who were either too lazy or who lacked the patience and skills to report and write fair, accurate stories about VALID NEWS TOPICS at their schools. It’s much easier to spout opinion.

Is that what happened at Liberty? It would appear that these conflicts centered, at least in part, on real news. Think about that clash over attempts to locate public reports on campus safety and crime.

Let me state this once again: I understand that privacy law issues are crucial on private school campuses and I have always stressed that with students. But that doesn’t mean student journalists cannot be taught to produce as much fair, accurate and balanced news as possible under these difficult circumstances.

Professors may have to spike some features because they do not prove what they claim to prove or they are actually opinion pieces with little hard-news content. I am assuming that journalism professors play a leadership role in maintaining high standards for reporting and editing, not that professors screen news copy while following public-relations standards set by administrators.

The bottom line: It’s in the interest of Christian colleges to offer real journalism programs that produce as much news as possible, while taking into account privacy issues that affect life on private, faith-based campuses. Thus, I tell students: “There are individual stories we cannot cover, but there are no subjects we cannot find a way to cover.”

Think of this as an academic challenge.

If religious schools will let qualified journalism professors do their jobs, it’s possible for students to learn how to do balanced, factual stories about tough subjects. Students can get the job done — if administrators are candid enough to work with them in good faith.

Prof. Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) is in his 31st year writing his weekly “On Religion” column, which is syndicated by Universal Uclick to more than 300 North American newsrooms. This text is used by permission of the author. Mattingly serves as senior fellow for religion and media at The King’s College in New York City and is the founder and editor of GetReligion.org, which critiques mainstream media coverage of religion news. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.


Introduction to Series: When Freedom is not Free: Viewpoints on Student Media Controls on Christian CampusesMichael Longinow
With press freedom comes much responsibilityAlan Blanchard
Courageous Advising: A Free Press is Challenging but Do-ableCassidy Grom
Nationally Accredited Journalism Programs and Faith-Based Mission: Not Antithetical, Much Needed in Today’s Media WorldDoug Mendenhall
True liberty means press liberty: Let the students reportPaul Glader
Christian Journalism & Privacy LawsTerry Mattingly
Liberty & JournalismMichael Longinow
Mr. Falwell’s FollyTimothy C. Morgan
Liberty CensorshipDonna J. Downs
Inside Liberty’s Culture of Learning: An Opportunity to ExcelAmanda Sullivan Sokolik