by Dr. Michael Longinow

Real journalism, good journalism, is hard; fake journalism, badly done journalism, is easy. And there are few places where journalism gets more scrutiny than on the campus of a college or university whose mission draws on biblical principles.

The expectation at many of these schools is that official news about the institution should be released only by the institution, at its discretion. And some news never gets released. Students who seek out that news on their own face risks that vary by institution.

The Liberty Champion, a well-produced newspaper I have judged in on-site reviews at national conventions of the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Advisers, has faced pressures that got national attention when a former Champion editor went to the Washington Post with an opinion piece critical of how Jerry Falwell, Jr. has responded to the newspaper’s pursuit of certain stories. Falwell’s leadership team, says this writer, stifles the campus press on a regular basis.

But it must be noted that there is no free press on any campus — if by freedom we mean that a journalist can post or publish anything she wants with no prior review, scrutiny, criticism, threat or repercussion. The Student Press Law Center was founded to give legal advice to students and advisers who are struggling with threats (perceived or real) from academic administration, outside pressure groups or attorneys of aggrieved people. But those who answer the phone at SPLC are pro-bono attorneys who remind those who call that they are not their lawyers. And in the United States judicial system, journalists who prevail in the courts are those who have the money to pay attorneys through a long and painful process of defense. And some journalists do not prevail.

The courts, with a few exceptions, have said interests of a college or university take precedent over those of student journalists. That’s on any campus, public or private. Students who enroll at a college or university are signing into a culture, an ethos. Former University of Kentucky president Frank McVey called it a spirit. And that spirit —theories of progressive thinking aside — is about furthering the best interests of the college or university. There’s money tied to that. Student journalism that finds fault in how a college or university operates — whether in how it spends its money, how it treats its students, how it runs its instruction — will face pressure not to be so critical. And when journalism about a university is wrong, the repercussions can hurt. It’s not always about rape, but two of the most high-profile cases were.

The trickiest journalism of any kind, whether on a campus or in a city, revolves around stories that have the potential to make a person, a business, a church, or a school look bad.
That’s where advisers come in. Students who serve on college or university newspapers are not professionals. They’re young people on a journey of life. They’re figuring out who they are; they’re figuring out what journalism is, how it fits into the bigger picture on their campus — or in the context of journalism about their campus or in their wider campus community (the city, the state, the nation). The best campus journalism has changed lives. Most of us know the photo of a kneeling Mary Vecchio, drifter on the Kent State campus, pleading with her face and body posture over a gunshot victim during student protest. It’s become iconic. That image came from John Filo, a student journalist. Student journalists at Virginia Tech were among the first to tell the world about the Virginia Tech student who had systematically shot fellow students on that campus.

My experience is that student journalists, even those well-trained, need guidance. They need instruction in the best practices of reporting. They need nudges to find context, to seek out institutional memory. They need to know how to ask questions that get to the heart of what’s happening — posed in ways that administrators the age of their parents or grandparents will answer. They need critical thinking, emotional intelligence, perseverance of mind. And they need guidance in learning patience. Some stories require weeks, months, even years of research. The Spotlight investigation did not happen in a few weeks — and it was done by a team of seasoned reporters and editors at the Boston Globe. Those reporters got told “no,” and “wait,” a few times by those in authority over the investigation (inside and outside the publication).

Advisers, when they’re part of a team of faculty who are training student journalists well, can be a voice of reason, a guide to students who — if they’re humble enough to admit it — need help. Some campuses across the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities have newspapers run by students who have little opportunity to learn best practices of journalism. They are advised, in some cases, by faculty or staff with little journalistic training or experience. And at some of these schools — I know because I’ve counseled student journalists there — faculty turn down the adviser job; risk to their career isn’t worth the trouble.

Can persevering student journalists who use best practices earn freedom (or a degree of it) on a Christian college or university campus? Yes. I’ve seen it. But freedom comes from a relationship of trust. Advisers, working alongside student journalists, can build that trust over time. But as one wise colleague told me once, re-establishing that trust relationship must be done over and over. Because freedom of the press on a faith-based campus is not a concept most of those in administration are familiar with. Fewer will agree to cooperate with it apart from some dialogue and persuasion.

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