College newsrooms challenge an industry’s status quo

In early June, as Black Lives Matter activists protested police brutality and killings, the editors of The Maneater, the University of Missouri’s student newspaper, gathered on a Zoom call to discuss their own part in the nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. Like many other student groups, The Maneater had recently published an Instagram post expressing solidarity with protesters. However, the post struck some staffers as lukewarm. “I couldn’t believe how bland it was,” photo editor Kirubel Mesfian, who is also the paper’s only Black editor, says. During the call, he urged The Maneater to examine its own complicity in upholding systemic racism, both in its coverage and within its newsroom.

Following the hours-long conversation, the brief Instagram post was replaced by an editorial that outlined a series of new initiatives intended to fight for racial justice. In the editorial, The Maneater pledged to mandate social justice training for reporters, to create a diversity committee to oversee race-related coverage, and to include links to Black Lives Matter fundraisers at the end of every article throughout the summer. Such steps may run counter to journalism’s status quo ante; as Izzy Colón, then the paper’s editor in chief, says, her staff “wanted to prioritize what is right in terms of social justice.”

The Maneater is not alone. In recent months, as professional newsrooms have wrestled with their own historical failures, many college papers have explored ways to better support staffers of color and improve their coverage of the underprivileged—at times by transgressing the doctrines of old-school journalism. Some have apologized to readers for historically misrepresenting communities of color, and pledged solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many have challenged the industry’s misguided belief in objectivity, arguing that it exalts the perspectives of white leaders and experts. A recent statement signed by fifteen college editors urged professional journalists to reflect on their long-standing bias against marginalized voices.

“The Stanford Daily was morally obligated to [stand] against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, and I think professional newsrooms should do the same,” says Holden Foreman. “The purpose of journalism is not to reflect public discourse in a perfectly objective way, but to inform the community by reporting on the truth.” Newsrooms often use objectivity as a tool to dismiss “non-male, nonwhite, and non-wealthy perspectives,” Marissa Martinez, editor in chief of the Daily Northwestern and the first Black woman to lead that paper, says. Natalie Oganesyan, editor in chief for the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan, argues that “objective” journalism has helped enforce narratives from powerful institutions such as police departments, and adds that ideas of “objectivity” and “neutrality,” when applied in journalism, often amount to racist coverage. 

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Statements from many student-led newsrooms have gone so far as to urge readers to protest, sign petitions, and donate to organizations that support the Black community—forms of advocacy frequently shunned by professional news outlets. The Stanford Daily shared ways for readers to learn about and support the Black Lives Matter movement. The Emory Wheel pledged to match up to $500 in donations to the National Association of Black Journalists. The Wesleyan Argus provided readers with a list of petitions “to support Black lives” and encouraged them to contribute to bail funds. Such a stance does not indicate bias, Foreman, the Stanford Daily editor in chief, says, because combating racism is a matter of human rights, not politics.

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Many college newsrooms have relaxed policies forbidding reporters from participating in protests or signing petitions. Requiring reporters to remain neutral puts an additional burden on staffers of color, says Sarah Harris, who serves as the editor in chief of the University of California, Berkeley’s Daily Californian, whose staffers were previously banned from “publicly participating in actions.” Harris amended the policy this summer, with help from the paper’s diversity committee. Although news reporters are still barred from advocating for school-specific issues, such as UC Berkeley’s financial aid policy, the updated guidelines otherwise permit staffers to join protests.

“How do I tell my staff that you can’t go and protest in support of Black lives?” Harris asks. “The policy disproportionately affects students who are protesting for their identity and their lives.”

Last year, the Daily Texan established a Diversity & Inclusion board to vet sensitive stories about marginalized communities on campus at the University of Texas at Austin. According to its chair Angelica Arinze, the board adds perspectives from students of color to the editing process, because the majority of the Daily Texan’s editors and reporters are white. This summer, her board pushed the staff to avoid specifying whether a victim of police brutality was armed and to focus on Black students’ efforts in a story about Black Lives Matter fundraisers. With similar goals in mind, the diversity committee at the Daily Californian is compiling a language handbook on how to report on communities of color. Multiple newsrooms, including the Daily Californian, The Villanovan, and the Huntington News, are instituting anti-racist journalism workshops.

Such approaches have, at times, brought intense criticism from professional journalists who argue that student reporters pander too much to their audience’s demands. Last month, the Daily Orange, of Syracuse University, fired a columnist who, in an op-ed for another publication, argued that institutional racism is a myth. In response, conservative outlets covered the incident as an example of censorship on liberal campuses. Casey Darnell, the Daily Orange’s editor in chief, says he decided to fire the columnist because the op-ed could have “dangerous consequences for Black people.” Darnell adds that the paper received hundreds of hateful messages, though not from members of the Syracuse University community.

The Daily Northwestern faced harsh criticism from professional journalists last fall, when it apologized for its coverage of student demonstrators at a campus event featuring Jeff Sessions. The statement expressed staffers’ regrets about publishing photographs of protesters, invading their privacy, and covering their story in an insensitive and hurtful manner. At the time, many professional reporters excoriated the student paper and called the apology “the end of journalism,” Martinez remembers. She thinks that the apology might be viewed more charitably today, as a display of student journalists’ efforts to understand the consequences of their coverage and to minimize the harm inflicted on marginalized communities.

“There is no precedent set by legacy papers on how to do this stuff, so we have to come up with innovative ways to make journalism more diverse and inclusive,” Martinez says. “Professional journalists have more resources and time than us, so I’m excited for our industry to change and improve using these initiatives pioneered by college newspapers.”

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This story has been updated to clarify a reference to the Huntington News.

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Serena Cho is a senior at Yale, where she studies Humanities and Political Theory. She serves as the managing editor of the Yale Daily News and student representative of AAJA NY. Follow her on Twitter at @serenaymcho.