Journalism ≠ public relations

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 at 4:53 PM

A weird combination exists today: people are both as skeptical as they’ve ever been and less informed than they’ve ever been. 

The amount of information fed to us everyday borders on gluttony, and the sheer lack of comprehension many display in deciphering what information is credible — and what is not, is astounding. 

This became shockingly apparent through the entirety of the 2016 presidential race, as unfounded claims and accusations where lobbed left and right. No longer, it seemed, did traditional news distributors act as key sources of information—instead, individuals were relying on podcasts, Twitter accounts and extremist news boards. 

These new-age sources of news are united under one key fact: they all lean extremely to the political right or left. They express opinions and often only report on the facts that support those opinions. 

The internet, and more specifically, social media algorithms, allows for users to: 1) tune in to the viewpoints they most agree with, and 2) have access to it all day, everyday, with just the swipe of a finger. 

As news becomes more digitized and varied in its distributors, there seems to be a relaxation of age-old governing principals of journalism. Journalists aim to be omniscient creatures. We observe situations, get quotes to define that situation, and put it out for the general public to consume and debate. If the situations we observe happen to be illogical, shameful, or reflect horribly on an organization — too bad. It will get reported on as it happens. We are not public relations officials. We tell it as we see it. 

And sometimes people don’t like that.

Recently, student journalists at Liberty University have been bearing the brunt of an administration that does not understand that the function of journalists is to report, not advertise. 

Liberty University, which is located in Virginia, is a private Christian university whose president happens to be a Trump supporter. According to World Magazine, the Christian-based publication that broke the story, over the course of the 2016 presidential election, the president of the university put several policies in place governing the types of articles that the student newspaper was allowed to publish. Among these were policies that demanded articles mentioning Trump be reviewed by the university president. Furthermore, the president demanded that the articles be accompanied by information as to which candidate the reporter was planning on voting for. In addition, several editorial pieces critical of Trump, including one about Trump’s “locker-room talk” incident, were scrapped altogether. 

To make matters worse, the recruitment of reporters for the paper—previously open to anyone who wanted to write, began to be regulated by the college of communications dean at Liberty. The editor-in-chief of the student paper, Jack Panyard, said that the questions asked during recruitment made him uncomfortable and spurred his decision to secretly record all further meetings of the paper. Panyard would be fired from the paper. Four more staffers resigned with him in solidarity, and upon hiring staff to replace them, the dean reportedly said: 

“Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. …Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be [the] First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?” 

Out of all the ridiculousness going on at Liberty, it is that quote that sticks out to me the most. People now think that the profession of speaking truth is to be vilified if it does not align with the mission of an organization. 

This instance, in particular, illustrates another reality: no matter how rough professional journalists have it; student journalists face their own, unique challenges. When a journalist writes a story, it is affiliated with their paper, however, when a student journalist writes a story, it is affiliated with a paper that (usually) bears the name of and is associated with a university campus. This creates an awkward situation when, especially in cases where the paper is funded by the university, students feel obligated to report only on those things that reflect positively on the university. And writing only about the good aspects of a situation is not exactly journalism. 

In Cellular Biology, there is this mechanism called a “FACS Machine.” It takes cells that have been tagged with fluorescent IDs and sorts them from cells that have not been tagged; essentially collecting the most important cellular information and making it accessible to the researcher. In the same way, journalists act as sorters of fact and fiction. 

Pressuring students to alter their reporting skills (and thus stop the development of journalistic instincts) in order to only make your organization look good is in all honesty, a jerk move. And it’s not real world preparation. 

What Liberty is enforcing is not only unethical, but a disservice to a journalistic education. If the core pursuit of a profession is discouraged in practice, then what kind of training is one actually receiving?

Journalists are by no means perfect; we are after all, humans. We will get some facts wrong, we will sometimes misquote someone, and occasionally we might misspell names. However, when pointed out, we will, to the best of our ability, also correct those mistakes, acknowledge our wrongdoing and try to never repeat them again. 

The Spectator is lucky to exist in an understanding climate and campus community that is, to some extent, removed from the general mistrust surrounding journalism. We are a paper that exists based on a bond of mutual respect between ourselves and the community we serve; it is unspoken, yet agreed upon that the paper will do its utmost to publish thoroughly researched and fact-checked articles without the required intervention of administration, and then, in turn, the campus will allow for our inquiry and reporting of its highs and lows. This relationship of respect, which must exist between all news distributors and their bases, was damaged at Liberty University. 

When those relationships between journalists and their sources are severed, it is our responsibility, as the lucky ones, to bring light to them.

Shayma Musa can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com

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