The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Necessity of Student Journalism

graphic art of an origami 3D cut-out of a journalist in a room with a camera and papers

This past July, The New York Times published an article highlighting the valuable and in-depth reporting from two university student publications — The Stanford Daily and The Daily Northwestern — that led to high-profile leaders at both schools leaving their roles. The stories demonstrate not only the importance of student journalists, but also the paradoxical lack of trust that administrators have in them.

The Stanford Daily exposed President Marc Tessier-Lavigne in Nov. 2022 for conducting research fraud in his past scientific papers, causing him to leave his presidential position by Sept. 2023. The Daily Northwestern got head football coach Pat Fitzgerald fired for revealing in early July 2023 that he has been part of an “abrasive” hazing ritual for freshman football players.

Noticeably missing from both articles is any direct comment from the administration. The Daily Northwestern does include quotes from their president, Michael Schill, but only in the form of a statement that he released to “NU community members.”

In the dozen-plus articles published by Theo Baker in The Stanford Daily detailing Tessier-Lavigne’s research misconduct, Tessier-Lavigne refused to speak to The Daily. In one follow-up article, Baker wrote that “Tessier-Lavigne has not responded to numerous inquiries about his research over the past several months. When he has responded, some of his statements have been significantly contrasted by the accounts of fellow researchers, Genentech and the scientific record.”

Baker explained in an interview with ABC7 News Bay Area that the president’s refusal to speak with The Daily was a constant frustration.

“Obviously, my primary concern for all of this has been trying to put together the most complete portrait that I can and when that side of the story is one that he chooses not to tell us, or he chooses not to answer questions about, it makes it even harder to understand or report his perspective,” Baker said. “Tessier-Lavigne has dodged a number of questions and it is fair to say that his narrative throughout the last series of months has changed dramatically.” 

Northwestern’s president, Schill, was far less secretive than Tessier-Lavigne following the publication of the first article. He spoke with The Daily Northwestern about his decision to ultimately fire Fitzgerald in a Q&A published about two weeks after the original article. But many students are still wary of the administration’s choices.

“Fitzgerald wasn’t the main problem here, and it seems that by firing him and keeping the rest of the staff who were likely to know about the hazing, the school is trying to deflect blame, when it was also part of the problem,” Northwestern student Tyler Callahan ’26 said. “If they fire one man, at first glance it appears he was the only problem. If they fire five or six then the blame falls more on the school for hiring them in the first place. This is even more profound as they haven’t fired Derrick Grag, [the Vice President for Athletics and Recreation Derrick], who also hired the baseball coach, who by all means was abusive. If Fitz was fired for this then Gragg absolutely needs to go.”

Callahan is not alone in his apprehension of administration, though others have appreciated the steps they have taken in this event. 

“I don’t feel confident saying I fully trust the university but at least in this case it seems like they are taking legitimate, comprehensive action to address an extremely valid and important concern,” another Northwestern student Amy Wyatt ’26 said. 

These stories, though certainly not easy to write or source, were only able to be published because Stanford and Northwestern have strong student publications independent from their universities. An “overwhelming majority” of student publications are not independent, according to The Atlantic, meaning they are under threat of their funding being pulled for writing negatively about their own administration. Additionally, it takes an impressive legal team and years of built-up credibility to tackle issues like their president or top athletic coach. 

Student journalism, much like professional journalism, is essential not only to inform the community but also to hold those in power accountable for their actions. This does not always mean calling out administrators or government officials for some treacherous or horrifying action — it can include reminding them of promises they have yet to uphold or giving voice to community members and organizations who otherwise might not get needed attention.

Student journalism can also give voice to said administrators to explain their actions when they make changes to university policy, need to comment on an event or simply want to welcome a new class of students. Their own student publication should be the first place they go to reach their population.

Instead, a common form of communication from most university presidents and other prominent administrators — provosts, deans, vice and associate roles — is not through student publications, but through mass emails sent to the university “community,” meaning every student, professor, parent and faculty member. These generalized, blanket responses that are usually drafted by a highly-paid public relations team act as a way to avoid targeted questions that journalists and other members of the community are asking.

This fosters an incredibly untransparent relationship between students and administrators. Students are already prone to distrust authority and these highly polished yet vague statements that don’t actually answer their questions. Students are more likely to trust each other; that means hearing from their president or a top administrator in an article written by one of their peers.

In a perfect world, administrators would not only take student journalism seriously and speak with the press freely, but would also support student journalism with the proper resources. This is a difficult line to tow when independence from the university is an important part of being able to write about administration without fear of consequences. Administrative support in the form of speaking with student journalists when they have important questions for the community seems like a simple place to start.

Despite the fear of negative press from their own students, administrators should want to embolden their own publications. In fact, the lack of trust from university administrators of student journalists is almost paradoxical considering the aim of journalism and higher education are practically parallel. As Erin A. Hennessy and Kristine Maloney wrote in an article for Poynter, both “seek similar ends and make similar promises — to provide information that helps people participate fully in democratic societies, to pursue truth, and in doing so, to make lives better.”. 

Education and journalism go hand in hand in aiding democracy in the form of free speech. Free speech applies to both the student and the administrator as both are able to tell their stories and listen to the other’s story with respect. Stanford and Northwestern’s stories show the impact that student journalism can have even as their administration is working against them — imagine their possible impact when the university works with them.

Greta Reich is studying communications and political science at Stanford University and is an editor for The Stanford Daily.

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