Student Journalism at Religious Colleges

In Inside Higher Ed, Elizabeth Redden reports on the National College Media Convention:

In his opening remarks, Mattingly, a religion columnist for the Scripps Howard News service and director of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, described six possible models for student newspapers, ranging from a university public relations model (with an adviser charged by the administration to actively screen all content), to an educational model (with an adviser that helps guide content but with student editors making nearly all of the decisions), to complete independence. “Whatever the rules are, know what they are,” Mattingly advised the students in the audience, stressing the need to know how the rules apply when it comes down to the “moment it’s a really bad story — which at Christian colleges means sex, drugs or donors.”

The student paper at Seton Hill follows the educational model. If the paper got into the habit of publishing shoddily-written and poorly-researched attacks on the administration, my role would be to correct the shoddy journalism, rather than adjust the anti-administrative slant. I’d be just as critical of students who turned the paper into a cheerleading section, if they were too timid to go after the hard news stories that might make some groups on campus unhappy. 

Good journalism will sometimes make certain groups unhappy, and those groups can and will complain, which is why I tell my students their research has to hold up under scrutiny. Because Seton Hill is a private institution, articles the Setonian publishes are not protected by the First Amendment.  But as long as a contested story is fair — for instance, student gripes are presented alongside official responses, and the story does not include libel or a violation of privacy rights — then a request to remove or censor a story becomes an issue of academic freedom. I cannot teach journalism unless students have the freedom to make their own editorial judgments. On the few occasions when SHU employees have panicked and asked me to intervene and remove or prevent a story, the academic dean has been very supportive of my position.