Why Student Journalism Matters
College newspapers provides an essential platform for students to engage with their own community and hold power accountable. A free, safe press is necessary to sustain that.
Since second or third year, I’ve been thinking about how I would start this column: my farewell column to my time at not only this university but also this newspaper, without which the former would not be complete. While I could write about how it all started—the conversation I had with a former editor that made it into my speech running for managing editor—or what I learned from the nonstop breaking news cycle or countless production nights, I constantly think back to where it all ended. The day I logged out of The Maroon’s Slack, I also abruptly ended my time in student journalism, a journey so long that I barely knew where to start the recounting.
For four years, I have called myself a student journalist—that’s student first, then a journalist. I stop by Harper in between my classes every other day, stay on campus for RSO events, and occasionally take a Lyft home when it’s too cold. I cram for exams and essays in the Reg during finals week and sometimes spend an indeterminate amount of time at Grounds of Being. But between some variations of this routine, I also cover all of those things as a journalist. While navigating UChicago’s infamous grind culture and a novel, adventurous social life, I also learned to sometimes distance myself from them to report and write about the College experience critically.
In this way, being a student journalist seems like a violation of the first principle of journalistic ethics: Avoid conflicts of interest. This is not the type of obvious conflicts that The Maroon has outlined in its bylaws, such as interviewing a friend or covering an RSO you are in, but the kind that—if you go way, way macro—makes you question a journalist’s relationship with a community that they are so deeply immersed in, where their everyday life is affected by the people and policy they write about in the same way that those quoted in the story are affected too. What does that mean for the job that student journalists do?
For the most part, it is a blessing to cover what we truly love and care about simply by being part of it. Holding the power accountable is a form of that love. We take a pause before writing about a University policy to ask: What does this really mean for the student body? In the same way, we question the administration, local officials, corporations, student leaders in RSOs, and the student government. Regardless of how large these figures are, we know that what they say and what they do will affect the public in some way, hence the readers’ right to know.
During the pandemic, for example, The Maroon broke the news of the University’s decision to switch to remote teaching in March 2020 and continued to cover the University’s COVID-19 policies and track the case updates painstakingly even after the University stopped sending those emails. The Editorial Board kept pushing for transparent and fair policies from the administration during a crisis. Similarly in colleges across the country, student newspapers are often the only source of information for faculty, students, parents, and even community members from the surrounding neighborhood when they are unable to get an answer from the administration. But we don’t do these to expose or criticize: We cover them because we love our community and want to see it become better. And if we don’t cover them or talk to the affected individuals—students who couldn’t get testing, tenants who were forced to leave their homes, residents who were worried about their families—who else will?
But we also do more than simply making information accessible. In The Maroon’s revised constitution, former editor-in-chief Gage Gramlick and I wrote that “truth is easy to assert but hard to capture.” Being transplanted into a place like UChicago, an undeniably huge presence in Hyde Park and the South Side, we all carry a multitude of perspectives and hear the ones that challenge ours. As journalists, we don’t choose to cover the “safe” topics—the ones that our readers like or that drive traffic to our site. We cover uncomfortable debates. We cover controversial topics. We cover, above all, marginalized communities who have traditionally not been given access to the press. That to me is one of the most beautiful assets of student journalism, precisely because student journalists are from the community. And in a college newsroom, we have the freedom to experiment, disagree, and honestly reflect on our past injustices in order to guide future work.
Yet the difficult truth is that student journalists often face inadequate recognition, which means a lack of protection. Journalists, particularly female and BIPOC journalists, have faced increased risks associated with their work, from hate speech to cyberbullying to death threats, industry groups reported. To student journalists, the safety risks are more complicated. As of 2022, only 17 states, including Illinois, have laws protecting student journalists’ First Amendment rights. The law prohibits censorship or self-censorship in the student press. But it does not prevent harassment and threats from reaching the journalists’ inboxes. Unlike professional newsrooms where the institution would step in when its staffers face threats, student newsrooms do not have the capacity to intervene in every single case through means such as blocking hate emails. Seldom do the universities release a statement in cases of an online harassment campaign either.
As student journalists, we have all been told at times that the online mobs will go away when given time. Narratives like these are dangerous because the Internet’s short memory does not undo the harm it has done. When free speech becomes a trade-off with safety, fewer student journalists will be willing to write stories that they deem would lead to repercussions or backlashes, from protests to public safety and even to profiles of online celebrities. Eventually, college newspapers would be forced to choose between writing about the news and protecting their staffers. The result would be detrimental to an equitable community.
Over the past year, I have had many at The Maroon to thank for navigating a hard news cycle amidst the pressure of being a student and a journalist at the same time, in particular the entire executive slate, editorial crew, and the business and production teams. I am especially thankful to the current slate for assuming leadership of the paper from us and achieving remarkable achievements thus far. Now, from one reader to another, I encourage you to continue your support for student journalism, as it remains a vital component in the success of those journalists, despite the challenging circumstances they may face.
Yiwen Lu is a fourth-year in the College and former managing editor of The Chicago Maroon.