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Don’t tread on my editorial independence 

What can student newspapers do when funding is threatened by the whims of administrators?
Whitworth University campus

Caleb Flegel / The Whitworthian

Whitworth University is a private, Christian university located in Spokane, Washington.

Emma Maple is a rising senior at Whitworth University and a FIRE summer intern.

Editorial independence for student news outlets is a necessity, not a wish. Without it, universities can pressure student journalists to ignore thorny issues and report only on what’s non-controversial.

Unfortunately, many universities refuse to recognize this necessity, leveraging financial pressure to control student newspapers. According to a FIRE survey conducted during the 2020-21 academic year, 14% of surveyed public universities threatened to cut a student publication’s funding due to the content it published. 

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This percentage encompasses both explicit and implicit threats — university officials’ subtle hints that a newsroom’s decisions could have larger consequences. Both implicit and explicit threats function like a devil on a student journalist’s shoulders, constantly reminding them to think twice before making a controversial decision.

As editor in chief of The Whitworthian, Whitworth University’s student newspaper, I’m faced with the conflict of striving toward editorial independence while acknowledging that my university provides the majority of our funding. This conflict became obvious in the spring of 2023 when Planned Parenthood asked to place an advertisement in our monthly print edition. 

I wasn’t sure what to do: In April 2017, then-president of Whitworth, Beck Taylor, announced that Whitworth would no longer partner with Planned Parenthood. 

“Being connected to an organization like Planned Parenthood sends the unintended message to many that Whitworth has taken a side in this social and political debate,” stated Taylor. 

This announcement did not specify what a “partnership” entailed or indicate whether the newspaper was obligated to follow his directive. What I did know was that administrators would have an opinion about our decision on whether to run the advertisement. 

My advisor and I met with the current president of Whitworth, Scott McQuilkin, several times to discuss the advertisement proposal. Each time he repeated the refrain: The Whitworthian is only partially independent. Per university policy, and despite our claim that the Whitworthian represents a public forum, Whitworth did have a say in our decisions. 

McQuilkin’s final recommendation was to not print the advertisement given the controversy it could draw. I weighed my options. We could print the advertisement, potentially chilling the relationship between our newspaper and the university and, even worse, potentially risking our funding. Or I could maintain the paper’s cordial relationship with administrators and defer to McQuilkin’s recommendation. I chose the latter. 

Thankfully, McQuilkin also emphasized that the university would continue its historically hands-off approach regarding the written content of our publication. Other student publications aren’t as lucky. 

Student journalists can be mouthpieces of democracy, but they need editorial independence to do so.

One of the most important functions of journalism is to be a “watchdog.” Every journalist knows that their job is to poke holes, ask the “why” questions, and bring light to things that are brushed under the rug. The Daily Northwestern’s reporting of football hazing and The Stanford Daily’s examination of its president’s plagiarized research, both of which became national news stories, are great examples of this. But if universities teach students to submit to authority, they are training them to pull their punches and gloss over the hard-hitting facts. What happens when these poorly trained student journalists become “real” journalists and continue to worry about the negative repercussions of their reporting? Our democracy will suffer if universities train student journalists to bow to administrative pressure.

The university will suffer as well. Too often, universities expect student newspapers to “protect the brand” of the institution, but institutions gain trust by promoting transparency, not censorship. A university that allows its student newspaper to publish criticism, and perhaps takes that criticism into account, will likely earn more respect than one that constantly censors the student press. Even if a student paper threatens to shed light on a few skeletons in the university’s closet, universities should recognize that respecting freedom of the press is still better in the long run than the alternative. After all, what student wants to go to a university that’s intent on sweeping its problems under the rug?

If your student news outlet is facing economic pressure, here are some practical steps you can take to negate the threats:

  1. Reach out to FIRE’s SPFI hotline. If your publication is facing loss of funding, or if funding has already been removed, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative hotline for help on how to address the situation. Whitworth alum and FIRE Student Press Counsel Lindsie Rank, who started the hotline, recognizes the many pressures student journalists face.
  2. Look into alternative sources of funding. If your university uses funding as a back-pocket threat, look for alternatives that allow you to be truly editorially independent, such as grants designed for student news outlets. For example, The Claremont Independent, a student newspaper at Claremont McKenna College, remains editorially independent because it is funded through the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Collegiate Network and private donors. Just make sure these grants don’t allow donors to interfere with your editorial independence, or you’ll be exchanging one evil for another.

The financial pressures that student publications face are not isolated to a few colleges. Universities across the country attempt to mold student press into a positive representation of the university. 

Student journalists can be mouthpieces of democracy, but they need editorial independence to do so. If your publication is implicitly or explicitly threatened financially, don’t cave into the pressures. Stand up and fight. 

FIRE and SPFI have your back.

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