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Student Journalists Commit to Rigorous Reporting

By February 4, 2015

Torch readers know that FIRE has been less than impressed with reckless or one-sided reporting, particularly on the issue of campus sexual assault. As I wrote yesterday, biased media coverage often serves as a catalyst for policy changes and legislation that threaten to deprive accused students of a fair hearing. It’s refreshing, therefore, to see student journalists acknowledge that media outlets too often fail to remain objective in their reporting, and strive to do better. Two recent articles by journalists at Columbia University and Princeton University do just that.

Last night, Daniel Garisto penned a column for Columbia’s student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, urging his peers to report impartially even when under pressure to promote a certain narrative. He concludes that the Spectator failed in not thoroughly investigating Emma Sulkowicz’s allegations against fellow Columbia student Paul Nungesser, and he argues that students’ laudable goal of helping survivors hindered the Spectator’s main purpose: providing reliable information. Garisto writes:

[C]ampus media’s goal to promote discussion about sexual assault and to support survivors became conflated with a fear of rigorous reporting. Personally, I felt that if I covered the existence of a different perspective—say, that due process should be respected—not only would I have been excoriated, but many would have said that I was harming survivors and the fight against sexual assault.

Sadly, this concern is valid. For example, it took no time for victims’ advocates to criticize Cathy Young for reporting more information about the Sulkowicz–Nungesser case yesterday.

Garisto continues:

It was our responsibility to be impartial about Sulkowicz’s story, and being impartial means more than prefacing rapist with “alleged,” which is just a technicality. We should have been critical and brought Sulkowicz’s problems with the University procedure and Nungesser’s Facebook conversations to light sooner. This failure matters, because the media—even undergraduate media—can help in the fight against sexual assault with strong, impartial journalism, as evidenced by reports on rape statistics, sexual assault policy, or commentary on rape culture.

… Thorough and impartial reporting can only serve to validate a survivor’s claims, while biased or incomplete reporting can only serve to fuel doubt and mistrust. The media helps no one by remaining lax in its coverage.

Indeed, student journalists are often uniquely qualified or positioned to gather certain information or reach a certain demographic, and they have provided groundbreaking reporting on critically important issues in the past. Garisto’s peers should take his words to heart and aim to be leaders with respect to this and the innumerable other complex and far-reaching issues the newspaper covers.

In January, The Daily Princetonian’s outgoing editor-in-chief Marcelo Rochabrun similarly chastised fellow students for discouraging reporting that “negatively portrayed certain aspects of student life on campus.” Rochabrun defends the student newspaper staff’s decision not to simply “play nice” when it comes to reporting on student issues:

Here at the ‘Prince,’ our reporters try to be journalists first, students second. Our stories are not attacks against our peers or attempts to disgrace them, but an attempt to provide prompt, relevant information to the University community even when the content of our stories may afflict some of our readers, such as those who are personally close to the story, those who feel we ought not to tarnish Princeton’s reputation or those who will not be portrayed in a positive light. In addition, we treat all of our sources like who they are: adults. We have no deference to our peers and we have no deference to administrators.

This is exactly as journalists should be, and student journalists are no exception.

Unfortunately, students aren’t the only ones pushing back against hard-hitting reporting. FIRE frequently sees administrators and professors attempt to punish student journalists for what they publish. Students who find themselves threatened with discipline for the content or viewpoint of a piece for the student newspaper can submit a case to FIRE.

Schools: Columbia University Princeton University