University journalism 101: report, but remember what’s “good for the school”

A student publisher’s take on campus press — and the pressures from above

This is part of an ongoing series looking at press-freedom issues worldwide. Find out more about the series below the story.

By Dani Saad

Student media exists in some form on nearly every university campus, but the degree of press freedom enjoyed by campus media organizations varies between institutions. Operating agreements, revenue and advertising agreements and a lack of editorial freedom often limit campus media from acting with autonomy.

How campus media gets their money dictates how free they are to report.

As president and publisher of Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications, I’ve experienced the good, bad and ugly of running a media organization in a campus setting.

At WLU in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, we have an umbrella nonprofit (Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications) that oversees publications as individual departments. We have a central budget, a board of directors, ad revenue and autonomy from the university, but we still face pushback.

Student journalists of Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications gather at a summer conference. Photo courtesy of Dani Saad.

Despite our freedom compared to media on many other campuses, we have been shut down in the past.

WLU’s independent newspaper, The Cord, was locked out of their offices twice in the ’90s, once by the students’ union and once by the university.

On both occasions, the lockout was caused by The Cord publishing content related to homosexuality, including a review of a local gay bar. Thankfully, for us this was a ’90s problem, so cheers to social progress!

Since then, much has changed for all parties. The university and students’ union have progressed, and WLU Student Publications pushed even harder for independence for our publications and for a campus that values a free media. Following the lockouts, WLUSP has grown and developed a comprehensive operating agreement with the university. The Cord has continued to cover important social issues.

Here, and on other campuses, censorship did not and will not deter coverage, but it will place administrators on the wrong side of history.
The campus of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Heather Davidson

All these years later, the issues over content have changed, but the debate over campus media is still alive. Mostly, administrators want to be consulted before we run stories that could hurt the institutional image. In the event of a death of a student or on-campus crimes, there is immediate concern over what the media will do, as though it’s a choice whether to report on the facts or to ignore them.

Often, we get lectured on what is “good for the school” and how this is campus media, not a real-world news source.

I’ve worked with some great administrators, and overall we are treated very well here — but there is always a clear difference in perspective. Campus media and campuses both believe in press freedom, but campuses are more concerned with keeping a positive image. Enrollment is worth far more money than campus media, and that will always be the case. When campus media pose a threat to image and enrollment, there is a real danger for campus media if they are financially tied to the university or a part of the students’ union.

A university is an ideal environment for student media organizations that are looking to build volunteer portfolios and develop skills. However, time and resources that should be spent on reporting are spent on relationship building and damage control.

As sad as it is, campus media are equally consumed with the news as they are with the debate over their right to exist.

Dani Saad is in his final semester at Wilfrid Laurier University and is the President and Publisher of WLU Student Publications.

This post is part of a week-long AJ+ series looking at firsthand accounts of press freedom worldwide — and we want to hear from you.

What’s the status of press freedom in your country? Do you think there’s room for improvement? Will there ever be a truly free press?

Join in on the conversation below, and tweet us at @ajplus and hashtag #PressFreedomMeans to let us know what you think.

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