Threats to Student Media: What it means for The College Voice

Student journalism is under attack. That is the tone coming out of the statement “Threats to the Independence of Student Media” crafted by the College Media Association with other higher education representatives. This statement has forced the relationship between college administrations and student newspapers to the forefront of nationwide debate. The article details the numerous times in which institutions throughout the United States have restricted the free dissemination of news, especially by revoking funds, punishing faculty advisors and denying journalists’ access to school records and documents. What can often result from this censorship, whether explicit or not, is essentially quasi-journalism, in which student newspapers become advertising campaigns for schools.

Is The College Voice vulnerable to this repression? The answer is complicated. We must first address what it really means to be an “independent” newspaper. To Aparna Gopalan, Editor-in-Chief, this can be answered by who has discretion over how the paper is run. Essentially, who sets the rules? Though they can always make mistakes due to inexperience, the students themselves, she believes, should have discretion. Often writers run into the “gatekeepers” of the field who set the rules and tell journalists what is the right way to go about their jobs. To be independent, “there shouldn’t be as much gatekeeping.” Some fresh blood is a good thing.

Nationwide, the issue is greatly affecting the ability of student journalists to actually be journalists. In a perfect world, the College Media Association sees campus news organizations as “a means of bringing student concerns to the attention of the faculty and institutional authorities.” Sarah Rose Gruszecki, Managing Editor for the Voice, nearly echoed that description, saying that these newspapers can “act as student voices that advocate for education which serves the needs of students and the broader community.” That is the ideal, but if students are writing with their hands tied, how is this possible?

At many universities and colleges there is a conflict of interest in the relationship between administration and newspaper, since many institutions fund the papers directly. The article tallies several instances in which universities have used this to their own advantage, particularly at the University of Redlands, where the school stopped funding the newspaper following an article that was critical of a major donor. In these cases, student journalists become forced to toe the line of what a college expects, out of fear that one misstep could jeopardize the paper’s existence.

Much of the Voice’s funding comes from the College, which can make for a murky relationship with the administration. Gopalan believes that certain parts of the budget should be untouchable, and it can be troubling if there are discretionary grants given at certain times, such as funds to attend conferences. At times, Gopalan says, it could be negotiated “how we would get that money and what would be involved.” In general, Gruszecki believes, it is a “pretty clear conflict of interest” to have newspaper funding come from any institution because of instances like that at the University of Redlands.

On the other hand, Professor Jim Downs, former faculty advisor of the Voice, sees direct funding as necessary. He actually wishes that colleges would endow more opportunities for editors to attend conferences, just as they fund athletic teams and other organizations. To add to that, as Gruszecki pointed out, if newspapers fund themselves completely, it can be difficult to receive backing from the institution if legal issues arise.

Colleges and universities have also censored newspapers through punishment of faculty advisors. The College Media Association recorded a disturbing number of instances in which advisors have been removed based on critical articles published by the newspapers. Last year at Fairmont University, the administration forced advisor Michael Kelley out of his role because an article about mold in a campus dorm went against the president’s wishes for a “less controversial” paper.

At Conn, Downs says that there are systems in place to avoid such things from happening. Both the handbook and the establishment of shared governance ensure that members of the newspaper are not subject to such punitive measures. The role of advisor to a student newspaper can be difficult, because, according to Downs, there should be a hands-off approach in mentoring. He wanted his advising role to be purely a “sounding board” for the staff, a support base to help the editors “think through their decisions. The administration, he believed, had no role in this, and so he “purposely did not have a relationship” with it.

On this campus, tension between newspaper and administration has reared its head in the past, but Gruszecki believes that, overall, the newspaper is quite independent. It is especially so when compared to other institutions, as Gruszecki is aware of university at which every issue must be approved by certain administration members. During her time with the Voice, she says, “We’ve received criticism for articles that are considered radical, but there have been very few instances in which we’ve been restricted in terms of what we can publish.”

Deborah MacDonnell, Director of the Connecticut College’s Public Relations Office, appears to have no trouble with radical articles. As a former student journalist herself, she believes that, “If a student newspaper is good, with strong reporting and quality writing, then that is a positive for the College.” Downs follows this line of thinking, with the idea that journalism should not be thought of as positive or negative. Instead, journalism in general is “about reporting, investigating or commenting.” Journalists should therefore not concern themselves with being positive or negative.

The Public Relations Office sees itself as a support system for the Voice as well as for any other news source. While Public Relations writes stories and helps to bring the media’s attention to events on campus, MacDonnell does not consider it a “news organization.”  To MacDonnell, the Voice is “the only news entity that covers Connecticut College in its entirety.” And she believes that her office does all it can to respect its independence.

While Editor-in-Chief Aparna Gopalan has experienced little “overt” censorship from the College during her three and a half years with the Voice, she believes that there is a form of “soft control” through the establishment of campus culture. The level of critical thinking on campus is limited, she says, especially when we are presented with the idea of family. Living on one campus, we often get the impression that we are part of one family, and that can be a problem because, “If you’re in a family, what can you really question?”

Within a family, we may question rules or rebel against traditions, but the idea of one familial unit, an inherent connection between members, rarely disappears or is even doubted. It can be easy, then, for things to lie uncovered, without any attempt to dig it up.

 As Editor-in-Chief, Gopalan wants to uncover “what isn’t being told” to outsiders and to college members. That, she believes, is the point of student journalism. To “disrupt the culture of advertising” and tell real stories that sometimes may be ugly.

The College Media Association’s statement makes it clear that many institutions work within the framework of positivity and negativity. The fear of bad press, and perhaps a hit to donations and admissions numbers, can often lead to censorship from administration. For the most part, the Voice has steered clear of this explicit control. But the “culture of advertising” that Gopalan has a keen awareness of can affect the drive for journalists to investigate fully or be critical.

The threats to student journalism are certainly real. There is tangible evidence of direct and unilateral control over news organizations that threaten the integrity of journalism and thereby threaten the ability for campus concerns to be heard. At Connecticut College these threats are not as severe. But we must be ever watchful of what news we receive and how it comes our way.