Over the last few decades, universities have become brand-focused; they now invest millions into their public relation teams. Student newspapers, meanwhile, have struggled. With the advent of the cut-throat digital economy, most student papers now depend on their school’s recognition and support.
The result of these two facts is scary.
In September of 2017, Stony Brook University declared a series of budget cuts which would result in over 20 professors losing their jobs. Rebecca Liebson broke the story for her student newspaper, The Statesman, sparking protests across the Stony Brook community. Soon after publication, Liebson was invited to meet her school’s media-relations officer. There, she was scolded for her unflattering coverage of their university president.
It was “a case study in intimidation tactics” she wrote in her Farewell column for the Statesman. In the piece, she goes on to condemn university officials for routinely suppressing student journalists.
She is not alone in her experience. The American Association of University Professors released a report in 2016. It highlights that “it has become disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus community.” The report was backed by the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center.
At every segment of higher education — public and private, religious and secular, two year or four year — student papers feel pressure to censor their content, the report says. Student journalists still write great pieces of investigative journalism; we do not want to discount that. But, especially outside elite universities, journalists have lost the means to hold their leaders accountable the way they could a decade ago.
University leaders fall prey to the same corruption that comes with any position of power. To hold them in check, student newspapers cannot resign to being a school club — or worse, a university PR outlet. Campuses need a strong free press that can act adversarial when it needs to.
The report goes on to urge administrators to support their student newspapers, even when their interests misalign. Please? Pretty please? Please with a cherry on top? That will not work.
Student journalists must organize with each other. The war against a free press exists at every university — if we want to win, we need to unify across campus lines. A college paper, if it acts alone, is at a disadvantage when bucking heads with its school. Schools can cut their funding or threaten legal action. And, of course, student journalists always risk disciplinary action. Only an intercollegiate effort — one that garners nationwide respect — can empower students and give them a fighting chance.
The world we create now will be the world we will inhabit when we are older. If we do not fight for a free press at our university, we should not expect one from our country.