So much for journalism, education, or academic freedom

So much for journalism, education, or academic freedom

: Rutgers University did something shameful last week: It ordered an investigative reporting class not to report on the university itself.

Here’s the NJ.com background; here’s more background from Inside Higher Ed; here’s a Star-Ledger editorial; and here’s NJ.com blogger David Liss’ exclusive: The article that got the student and teacher in hot water and that the student paper killed.

It’s an article about all the perks that athletes get but other students don’t: tutoring, special gut courses just for them, scheduling privileges, added health insurance, special meals, even a squad of students paid to make sure the jocks show up for class. I think it’s a good story.

The university says that some were complaining about the students’ interviews. Well, that’s not surprising for reporters practicing investigative journalism. Most people aren’t happy to see Mike Wallace knocking at the door, either.

Why shouldn’t the university be the subject of reporting as well? If someone doesn’t like the way an interview is going, they have the same right anyone has to end the interview. If the story is bad, it not only will get a bad grade but won’t get printed (the student paper didn’t print all the stories out of the class).

Is this a good lesson and a good example for a journalism department and a university to set?

The other complaint from the student paper is that the reporter who wrote this story has a bias against student athletes. Well, that’s another issue — one that is being debated in the halls of professional journalism as well, one that could certainly stand to be debated in the hall of journalism education. In fact, I was part of an argument about this very subject — passion, bias, perspective, call it what you will — at this week’s journalism symposium at Harvard’s Neiman.

In the old days, the way the reporter could have masked her passion/bias/perspective would have been to find people who agreed with her and quoted them.

These days, I’d say, the reporter should have revealed that viewpoint and then gone with it — it’s a lesson of transparency. And then she should have gotten response from those who disagree — it’s a lesson of conversation.

And there’s one last lesson in this: Universities and newspapers and authorities of any stripe can’t control content anymore. Even though the story was killed at the paper, it still appeared in public. Where? On a blog, of course. The powerful need to remember that everyone owns a printing press now. So whatever you kill can come back to life. And isn’t it better to teach the best way to report than to teach how not to report? [via Joe Territo]

  • Andrew

    Jeff,
    I agree that it’s not surprising that some at the university were complaining about the students’ interviews, but you ignore the substance of their complaints. I find it very easy to picture some unprepared and rude college students harassing administration officials because they have recently become “investigative journalists” with an axe to grind. I’m sure some of the students worked hard and conducted themselves accordingly in their interviews for the class, but the administratiors probably weren’t complaining about them.
    That said, I agree that Rutgers made the wrong choice in mandating a change in the class format. But I can certainly see where they were coming from. And you don’t mention the precedent for making students investigate off-campus stories (Columbia and Temple). I doubt that the Rutgers administration was attempting to evilly squelch the free speech that made them look bad, they just were presented with a problem from a new class and made the wrong choice in dealing with it. If they focused on improving the quality of instruction, their problems could have been solved.
    I’m glad that the Targum didn’t print that article, they showed real journalistic standards in conducting themselves that way. But I’m also glad that, whatever the article’s flaws, it can find an audience on the Internet these days.

  • richard mcenroe

    Schweinhundt! You are not a good journalism student! You are writing about the wrong things!

  • http://www.pennywit.com pennywit

    Jeff, I hate to burst your blogospheric bubble, but local media have been scholastic journalism boosters for some time now; heck, I remember a couple incidents from back in my own days as a high-school journalist.
    –|PW|–

  • http://www.havecoffeewillwrite.com Jeff Hess

    Shalom Jeff,
    School administrators never like student journalists. Can you imagine a reporter doing an expose on their publisher’s crack habit? Of course not. Same problem. You can’t cover someone who cuts your paycheck (or who assigns your GPA).
    It’s all about who controls the physical press. That the story ended up on a blog is a perfect example.
    B’shalom,
    Jeff Hess

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    If you are a professor, and you assert that blowing up American office workers and/or Israeli children is a good thing, then university administrators will fall all over themselves protecting your “free speech.” But if you are a student, and you criticize the university itself, other standards apparently apply.
    This is the golden age of hypocrisy. The Victorians were mere amateurs.