From Cassidy Grom: My university censored our stories. Here are a few.

cassidy grom

Name: Cassidy Grom

College newspaper: The Echo (Upland, Indiana)

Where I am now: Director of the Student Press Coalition

While I learned so much from working on Taylor University’s student newspaper, The Echo, I had some frustrating experiences with censorship. Those experiences led me to form the Student Press Coalition and promote the free student press at private, Christian universities like mine (check out the SPC website in a few days; it launches May 1).

During my time on The Echo, some articles were censored in accordance with the student newspaper online policy, which states:
“The University can not afford for questionable or negative Echo reporting to reach a worldwide audience. Consequently, the Echo online would be viewed differently from the print publication. Whereas the print publication is designed to be a journalistic effort, the online Echo would display the more positive and constructive campus stories.”
The policy continued, saying stories that could “taint the public image of the university” would be barred from publishing online.
It outlined the process for avoiding bad university press: “after the printed Echo is complete and before the online version of the Echo goes live, all proposed content would be reviewed prior to publication by a marketing or admissions personnel member.”
Every night when we went to press, an Echo student staff member emailed the full text of the newspaper to a marketing personnel. The next morning, we would get an email back telling us what we could and could not post online. Over the course of one year as news editor and a second as co-editor-in-chief (I’m not employed there this year), a handful of stories were censored from the web.

Here are a few examples:

1. The post-election article

In the days following the 2016 national election, one reporter reported on the impact of President Trump’s win. One situation involved an international student who received a Snapchat video from another student. In the video, the student yelled Trump’s name “along with a series of expletives and slurs, advising viewers to give up and side with the President-elect,” according to the reporter’s article. This article also reported that during a faculty meeting, faculty were informed that “some students ran down the hallways of residence halls waving Confederate flags.”

We accidentally published the article online without permission from the director of media relations. When he directed us to take it down, we did. However, a community member had already posted the article on his Facebook page, and the broken link confused interested readers. The university allowed us to put the article back up, but only after topping off the article with a lengthy disclaimer that stated the university had not yet verified the incidences reported in The Echo.

2. Students disqualified from student body presidential race
Right before we went to print for the February 16, 2016, edition, one of our reporters learned that a pair of candidates were disqualified from the student body president and vice president race because they had incomplete paperwork. We published that the unsigned document, which should have been signed by a teaching faculty and a residence hall director, listed qualifications for the role. Those qualifications including “(a clear) probation status, demonstrating an active faith, maturity and good standing in the classroom and residence hall.”

We scrambled to reorganize our front page layout to squeeze in a brief article, and our reporter provided more in-depth coverage on the web version. Soon after the print publication was distributed across campus, we were called into a meeting with the ex-candidates and then-current student body president and vice president (both university employees) to discuss our coverage. The ex-candidates were upset that we mentioned the qualifications that were listed on the unsigned form, claiming it implied they had bad character. They convinced us to omit those details about the form on the online version, arguing it could make them look bad for future job prospects.

While these cases may feel minor, the censorship policies and practices of my university made me feel hesitant to pursue any stories that might make the university look bad. I’m thankful for my later internships in newsrooms which taught me to seek the truth courageously.

From Mitchell Koch: ‘We as a paper are here to stay’

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Name: Mitchell Koch

Where I am now: Editor-in-chief of The Daily Helmsman (Memphis, Tennessee)

The role of an independent student newspaper at a university is somewhat complicated and often misunderstood, and it starts with the very definition of being an independent paper.

Student journalists across the country are speaking out April 25, a day deemed Support Student Journalism Day by the editorial staff of The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida, to offer insight into the duty of the student press.

Student newspapers that are independent, like The Daily Helmsman, do not exist to be public relations branches for a university. The institutions and administrations have no editorial control over what is printed, and that leaves much responsibility for the paper’s staff to do its job well and ethically, and we take that seriously.

By being independent, we are not funded fully by the university. Our capital is only there to perform basic daily functions, a la make a newspaper, and is mainly from advertising revenue. Many other student newspapers survive on donations as well. This makes the job tough because, as could probably be guessed, interest in print advertising is declining, so we have to change how we operate sometimes to fit that.

The Daily Campus newspaper at Southern Methodist University recently announced it must re-affiliate with its institution due to lack of funding, meaning the paper no longer has editorial independence. Other publications have come close to doing the same or just shutting down operations. University funding often means university censorship, thus no longer properly representing students.

Without a student newspaper’s independence, it cannot properly inform its campus community because everything written would have a pro-university bias. It is our job to serve and inform the students of the University of Memphis and to make positive changes on campus.

During my time here, we have seen those changes occur on this campus and have covered many of them. I have angered some students. I have angered some faculty. I have probably angered some administrators.

During my time here, we have covered new laws about guns. We have covered (and maybe caused) protests on campus. We have written stories about weed. We have covered some of the best years in Tiger football. We have covered some of the most troubling years in Tiger basketball. We have covered Student Government Association meetings and elections. We have written more stories about weed (but my editing staff is proud of none published this semester). We have covered more versions of the recreation center redesign than I thought possible. We have covered Greek organizations doing good, and we have covered some of them being suspended from campus.

During my time here, we have seen this campus change for the better from what we publish. We wrote about the TIGUrS garden being paved over for a parking lot last year, but that idea was changed after outrage from the campus community. Our university has taken a much stronger stance on sexual assault since our coverage in October 2017, and they have enacted new initiatives and hired new staff to help with that issue. We even wrote a story this semester about the lack of receptacles in women’s restrooms on campus, then SGA passed a bill to fix that. We understand the powerful platform we have been given.

During my time here, we have made mistakes. We irresponsibly published a headline after the 2016 Presidential Election that came off as mocking sexual assault when it was intended to bring light to the words spoken by Donald Trump, and we apologize. We were not as careful as we could have been with the coverage of the “Let’s Talk” forum this semester, and we apologize. We were not careful where we placed a controversial headline after this semester’s SGA election, and we apologize. We have come off as one-sided on some issues, and we apologize and are trying to address that.

One thing that is not going to change is the role of this newspaper. Even though the staff changes very often, and no one is here who was on staff even three years ago, our role will not change. We as a paper are here to stay (but I will be here for one more semester after this one). We are for all students, even if it may not seem so sometimes, because we are students.

 

From Katelyn Newberg: ‘Student journalism is hard but we do it because we’re passionate.’

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Name: Katelyn Newberg

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Incoming intern at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada)

When you tell others about your experiences at a student publication, you don’t normally talk about the bad stuff.
You say that it was the best four semesters of your life. You gush over the life-long friends you met and the important stories you were honored to write down. You laugh when remembering the late-night coffee runs and scrambling to make deadlines.
But in all honesty? Student journalism is incredibly hard. It’s not fun to try and balance homework, studying, exams, keeping up relationships and just maintaining your life when you spend all your time working for a student paper. You probably don’t get paid well. You’re lucky if you get paid at all.
So why do we do it? For me, I spent four years at the Independent Florida Alligator because it ignited a passion for journalism that no class assignment could. I barely knew anything about journalism when I stumbled upon the paper in a dilapidated fraternity house in Gainesville, Florida. But over the next three years I would go on to serve as a staff writer, university editor and, finally, editor-in-chief.
Student journalism gave me the chance to tell stories I never dreamed I would be able to. I’ve talked to survivors of sexual assault, a U.S. senator, an Olympic ice skater and protesters in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen everything from student government scandals to a white supremacist on our campus, and I’m incredibly thankful for the chance to cover all of it.
More on that white supremacists: I have never seen a group of college students working so hard on a common goal than when Richard Spencer came to UF. We were there with the national newspapers and the professional journalists from across Florida. We chased after groups of protesters, never knowing if the situation was going to get dangerous. We made a paper that I was incredibly proud of and covered the story from the perspective of our audience, the students at UF. That’s what student journalism can do.
So student journalism is hard but we do it because we’re passionate. Unfortunately, passion doesn’t always cut it. As editor in chief in Fall 2017, I oversaw the paper from printing five days a week to three days a week for the first time. My staff had pay cuts to their already bleak paychecks. I was afraid that if I really screwed up, the paper would suffer even more. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to print at all.
Student journalists need help, and sometimes we have to admit we can’t save ourselves. So next time you see an article online that looks interesting, give it a read. Pick up a copy of the paper on your way to class. Get a subscription if one is available. Donate to your local student publication if you’re able to. We’re the future of journalism and while we’re not going anywhere, we really could use your help.
Looking back on my time at the Alligator, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. I probably wouldn’t have an internship when I graduate in less than two weeks without it. All I can hope is that when the next nervous sophomore walks into the paper’s office, they will have the chance to learn and grow as much as I did.

From Jacqui Neber: ‘We need student newspapers because they are real newspapers.’

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Name: Jacqui Neber

Where I am now: Opinions Editor at The Johns Hopkins News-Letter (Baltimore, Maryland)

My experience at the News-Letter has been transformative. I started working for the paper the first week of my freshman year as a News & Features writer, then became a News & Features Editor, Managing Editor and now Opinions Editor. The paper has given me a home and a family, and it has reaffirmed that I want to go into a career in journalism. Covering important campus and city events as a Neatures Editor provided me with the fundamentals of the craft, taught me how to work in a team, and introduced me to the moral and ethical questions that we run into even as student journalists. Being a Managing and Opinions Editor introduced me to the magic that is working on our Editorial Board, which has been my favorite part of the whole four years. Discussing what’s important to our community each week with such a talented team of fellow editors is always invigorating, and it feels good knowing we’re so thoroughly deciding how to present the paper’s view on an event or cultural trend. We hold Hopkins accountable for what the administration does, which is I think the most important role of a student paper.

I wouldn’t be the student journalist or person I am today without my experience at the News-Letter. Student newsrooms are vital to both the people who work in them and the students and community members reading them. When papers are independent and driven to hold their administrations and peers accountable, it creates a healthier climate and discussion across campus. Shock waves can even ripple into the community, something that is rewarding and exciting. We need student newspapers because they are real newspapers.

From Ron Thompson: ‘This independence must be preserved going forward.’

Name: Ron Thompson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator

Where I am now:  Senior Photo Editor, Tampa Bay Times (retired)

I came to the Alligator as it was moving from the old freezers behind the Purple Porpoise to the location on University Avenue that was recently sold. The newsroom was filled with eager young journalists who took pride in their work, and were not afraid to step on toes at the University when necessary. Many of those students went on to become leading journalists working throughout the world. There are numerous Pulitzer and World Press Association award winners in those alumni. Most, if not all, can point back to their days as student journalists working in a newsroom independent of strict university dictates as the invaluable first step in their careers. This independence must be preserved going forward.

From Emily Cochrane: ‘Independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority’

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Name: Emily Cochrane

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: News assistant at The New York Times

It was the first day of class, and I already felt behind.

The professor took an informal poll to determine everyone’s journalism experience. Hands shot up: newspaper editors-in-chief, yearbook editors-in-chief, freelancers for the local paper.

Me? I had two weeks of journalism camp and a gut feeling that journalism was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have much more than that.

The Independent Florida Alligator was the first place where none of that mattered, where engineering majors could become masters of AP Style and age was only a problem when the election watch parties were in a bar. It only mattered that you worked hard and wrote the truth.

I lost track of the sunrises I watched from the back parking lot, the ones I caught because I was there so early, or stumbling out so late. I knocked on doors, figured out how to read police reports and attended funerals for strangers so their names were more than a line in a press release. I found my best friends in a blur of late night transcripts, deadline coffee runs and election night pizza.

Independence means you get to experiment. Cover the women’s golf team for a semester? Go for it (and realize you never want to do it again). Experience college football games from the photography sidelines (and have your family watch on TV when a linebacker runs into you by mistake). Keeping the paper from going to print until the moment when you can slip the final election results? Do everything in your power so the newsstands carry the full story.

But most importantly, its independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority. Questioning professors and the administration doesn’t jeopardize your education. The student government leaders become politicians and lawyers, and they do so knowing what it’s like to have a press holding them accountable.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, the Alligator was the place where I fell in love with journalism and with its people. Independence, outside of a classroom, is what made that possible.

From Jordan McPherson: ‘It was the best decision of my life.’

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Name: Jordan McPherson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Sports reporter at The Miami Herald

When I think back to my time at the University of Florida, the memories almost always flash back to the Independent Florida Alligator. It makes sense, considering I spent more time there than I did my dorm room, in classes or sleeping.
But walking into that fraternity house-turned-newsroom at 1105 W. University Ave. two weeks into my freshman year was utterly terrifying.
On one side of the conversation were the editors, upperclassmen who seemed so confident, so ready to take on whatever challenges might come their way. On the other side was me, an 18-year-old wide-eyed newbie who knew he wanted to be a sports writer … Yeah. That’s about it.
I wholeheartedly expected a “Thanks for stopping by. Come back next year.” Instead, the staff took me in with open arms. Even when I doubted myself. Even when I made amateur mistakes early on. Even as I experimented with my writing.
So I continued making that walk a couple blocks off campus. Each time I walked into the newsroom, I felt accepted. I didn’t want to leave.
For three-and-a-half years, I didn’t.
It was the best decision of my life.
I grew as a writer and an editor. I learned how to craft features, write breaking news stories and deal with stubborn sources.
But just as important, I became part of a family that extended far beyond whoever was on staff any given semester.
We bonded over ledes and nut grafs, sleepless nights and endless caffeine, Election Night pizza and fried chicken potlucks. We pushed each other to get better every day. The high-quality journalism followed suit – just like the staffs before us and the staffs that will come long after us.
Even when the paper moved from that former fraternity house two summers ago due to financial setbacks, we weren’t fazed.
The physical home changed. Our purpose didn’t.
We laughed. We cried. We succeeded. We failed. We made a newspaper. We made a difference.
The Alligator and student newspapers everywhere are still making a difference. They need to keep making a difference.
Student journalism is not just the future of journalism. It is journalism. And most of the time, it’s damn good journalism. It needs to be supported.