Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial originally appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
For student journalists, it’s a sacred trust to faithfully tell the stories of their generation and to fearlessly shine a light in the dark corners of their colleges and high schools.
When school administrators set obstacles in the way, whether through blatant censorship or more subtle tactics, young reporters should fight for their First Amendment rights.
But what about when student journalists stumble over obstacles of their own making — say, by caving in to outside pressure and censoring themselves? Then they should look in the mirror and reflect on their First Amendment responsibilities.
Consider two contrasting incidents that made headlines this month — one at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, the other at Northwestern University in Chicago. The first is inspiring, the second alarming.
At CWU, more than 100 students protested against administrators for suppressing student media; at issue are policies that require reporters to submit questions in advance.
Is this censorship? CWU officials say no; they claim they simply want to connect reporters with the best informed sources.
Whatever you call it, the practice is restrictive and potentially abusive. CWU’s student newspaper, the Observer, published screenshots of official emails saying questions must be approved before an interview would be granted. In one case, the paper said the athletic department denied interviews with current and former athletes because a reporter wouldn’t provide questions in advance.
Outright censorship of student media is now largely banned in Washington, thanks to a hard-fought state law approved by legislators last year. Under Senate Bill 5064, school administrators can no longer conduct pre-publication review and stop articles from being published, except in rare cases.
But CWU is still clearly attempting to protect its image, control the flow of information and put inquisitive students in their place.
Kudos to campus media representatives for defending the prerogatives of a free press. Could a resolution be near? They’re scheduled to meet with administrators and student government leaders this week.
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“We are just trying to get out there to say, whether or not we’re student journalists, we are still journalists,” the Observer’s online editor, Mariah Valles, told the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Wise words from an Auburn High School graduate who fought for Washington’s new law.
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles east, journalists at Northwestern University offer a cautionary lesson in self-censorship.
Reporters for the student paper, the Daily, covered a campus speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They also covered rowdy campus protests, published photos and contacted students for reaction — the kind of complete, balanced report expected at one of America’s top-ranked journalism schools.
And then, strangely, they apologized for it a few days later.
Apparently some protesters felt victimized by the Daily’s coverage. Overly accommodating editors agreed some photos were “retraumatizing and invasive” and removed them from the internet. Editors also said they were wrong to collect phone numbers from a Northwestern campus directory and to text interview requests to students. It was “an invasion of privacy,” they said, for which they were sorry.
“While our goal is to document history and spread information,” the Daily’s editors wrote, “nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefiting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it.”
Well, at least they got the first part right. The rest of it? Yikes.
To be clear: A journalist’s mission is to accurately record the first draft of history, and to do it without fear or favor — or kid-glove treatment — that consciously benefits anyone involved.
Washington state law now has stronger student free-press protections, but it can’t teach this fundamental lesson, so critical for a healthy democracy.
May it be the goal of every journalism program in the Puget Sound region to teach it faithfully and fearlessly.