Finding our journalistic voice: Respecting student press freedom

This column first appeared in the Fall 2016 AEJMC Media Ethics Division newsletter.

On any given day at our university, I cross the grassy, path-filled oval that is the heart of campus, and see the First Amendment in action.

The sidewalk is chalked with comments supporting or refuting issues and candidates. Preachers call out like carnival barkers, urging students to repent a variety of sins. We have proselytizing and random acts of food distribution. We have marches for the Black Lives Matter movement. We even have a resident bagpiper.

That First Amendment heart beats loud and strong, and feels like it will provide lifeblood forever.

Where that lifeblood gets thinner, however, is in our classrooms and even our student media.

In a recent sports media class, I asked my students why no one had reported the story of an athlete hurt in the course of competition.

The  injury was horrific. The women’s soccer goalie went out for save and collided with an opposing player. The result of that fairly routine play: the goalie suffered a lacerated kidney, broken rib and punctured lung. She was carried off the field on a stretcher. She spent two days in intensive care. She remained in a hospital 700 miles from home, five days after the game.

But there was no article.

I knew of her injuries, because the player discussed them prolifically on her own social media accounts. She was inundated with much-deserved get well wishes from across the soccer community, including tweets from a member of the women’s national team.

When I asked students why nothing had been written, they said the university asked them not to report it. The students were concerned publishing the story might compromise the relationship they have with our athletics department. They might not be happy.

Say what? 

In one interview, a coach told a journalism student to state simply the player had a collision that impacted her kidney.
The message was soon curtailed even more.

“I wouldn’t even say laceration,” the coach instructed. “I’d say she took a hit to her midsection, and she is expected to make a full recovery.”

Say what?

Keep in mind, this athlete has already revealed her own private medical facts. There is no HIPPA violation, no revelation of private facts, not even an ethical debate when it’s the patient who reveals the information.  The injury was severe enough that her collegiate career was, unfortunately and tragically, over. It was her story share, and share it she did.
But the free flow of information stopped at our student newspaper’s presses.

It was a conflict of interest they posited, since she was a journalism student herself.

It’s news, I told them.

The university officials might get upset, they said.

It’s news, I told them.

We don’t want to invade her privacy, they said.

She broadcast this on all her social media channels in detail, I told them.

And it’s news.

In media law we discuss community censorship, where we don’t need the government to curtail speech—the community does it by ostracizing the speaker. Think the Dixie Chicks and their comment about George W. Bush. How long before they toured again without  conflict?

But this is even more chilling, for there is neither promise nor threat of censorship or retaliation. We are, for all intents and purposes, an extremely open campus where free speech is encouraged and cultivated.

But like a lot of student media, our message is moderated by the aura of those we cover, and the fear we may make people upset. They may not like us. We may be seen as confronting or challenging.

We are none of the above. We are simply reporting news.

Students often feel they walk a sensitive line. They are, in reality, part of the entity they cover. They want to be liked and respected in their community. When the community feels some coverage, no matter how newsworthy or objective, comes across as criticism, those same students can feel disloyal.

In reality, not covering  a story, no matter how sensitive, is sacrificing all that we stand for as journalists—truth, justice and the transmission of information the people need to know.

Nine days after the injury, two days after the player returned home, our student media ran a story that outlined all of the details of her injury. It was uplifting and inspiring, and likely made those who knew her—and those who didn’t—feel immense respect and appreciation for her sacrifice.

May student press freedom be equally respected.

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