Student Journalists Fight for Access as Universities Toe the Line

Student editors allege schools are more focused on public relations and protecting a brand than fostering legitimate student journalism.

5 minutes
By: Chris Kudialis
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Abbey Cutrer was a freshman reporter at the University of Kentucky when the student newspaper broke a story about the school letting a former associate professor quietly resign in the wake of sexual assault allegations from multiple students.

The independently funded, student-run Kentucky Kernel labored for years to obtain the school’s official disciplinary report of tenured entomology Professor James Harwood. During the six years following Harwood’s resignation, the university sued the paper in an attempt to block access to the files.

The legal battle went all the way to the state’s supreme court. A unanimous decision followed, and 484 pages of official documents on Harwood landed in the Kernel’s mailbox on May 28, 2021.

Cutrer — still a fresh face in the newsroom — wasn’t involved in covering the Harwood saga. But she watched from the inside as the paper reported the story and earned praise from around the country.

Fast forward two years and Cutrer, now a junior, oversees the Kernel’s newsroom of more than 100 students as its managing editor. She worked her way up from a sports photographer in her freshman year to news editor as a sophomore.

Lasting Impacts

Harwood is long gone, and the paper’s standing with UK has gradually improved. But even now, handling interviews with certain parts of the school can still feel like walking on thin ice.

“The university isn’t the biggest fan of us, just from stuff in the past,” Cutrer said in an interview with Volt. “Our relationship has gotten better, but it honestly depends on what the story is.”

Her problem is one that countless student journalists across the country face: universities in recent years have siphoned off campus papers from school leaders in hopes of controlling — even micromanaging — their institutions’ reputations. Coverage by students at the Daily Pennsylvanian of school president Liz Magill’s ouster is a perfect example — without proper access to university leadership, the paper conducted its impressive coverage and analysis that earned it international attention.

Interviewed students and administrators agreed that the association between student media outlets and the colleges they cover is perhaps more nuanced than ever.

In a day and age when social media can breed widespread political and emotional wildfires out of even the simplest controversies or misunderstandings, many universities are understandably exercising caution before opening leaders’ doors to reporters. 

Today’s uber-connected and hypersensitive digital landscape means one misstep or wrongly interpreted quote could be the difference between a thriving college atmosphere and full-blown chaos. Just ask former University of Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and president Tim Wolfe, who lost their jobs after a social media firestorm amplified the impact of what appeared to be a pair of isolated incidents involving hate crimes.

One of the greatest perks of being a student journalist has always been access to university leaders. If student media can’t give honest, no-holds-barred interviews to administrators, who will hold the people at the top accountable?

Challenges for Young Journalists

The problem is just as complicated as it appears. Interviewed administrators who spoke with Volt said their schools wanted to be careful when considering access for student reporters.

Hub Brown spent 25 years at the University of Syracuse before moving to the University of Florida in July 2021. He now oversees one of the nation’s top journalism programs as dean of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.

Brown watched first-hand as student media struggled for the better part of nine months to access new UF president Ben Sasse, who assumed office back in February. The school’s student newspaper, television channel and radio station all tried but failed to secure an interview with Sasse, a former U.S. Senator, before his inauguration ceremony in November. The student-run Daily Alligator went as far as leaving hand-written notes at the president’s office after their emails and calls to Sasse and his staff all went unanswered.

The Alligator accurately described Sasse’s treatment of the media as “ghosting” in a piece last April. However, Brown contended the school president was merely being cautious.

“There was some student pushback, but I think (Sasse) was being close to the vest early on,” Brown explained. “He could have come out and spoken right away but wanted to avoid saying things that could go the opposite of the way he intended. He wanted to take his time and absorb information before he spoke out.”

Students from the Alligator did not respond to Volt’s requests for comment. But Hannah Stanley, Cutrer’s colleague and editor-in-chief at the Kernel, has seen a similar scenario play out during her nearly four years at UK. Although the school still gives the paper a sit-down with president Eli Capilouto before the fall semester each year, Stanley said Capilouto’s office now asks for Kernel reporters to submit their questions in advance — a tactic the student editors believe aims to take advantage of their lack of experience.

“It’s usually something like ‘will you just send them over’ or ‘what are you trying to get at,’” Stanley said. “But we say ‘no,’ and we remind the school of our contract with them: we don’t allow for any prior review.”

Student Outlets Play Larger Role 

Northeastern University student-journalist Pratika Katiyar first entered the national spotlight as a high-schooler in Virginia covering the COVID-19 pandemic. She now sits on the board of directors at the Student Press Law Center, a DC-based non-profit that provides legal aid to student journalists caught in lawsuits related to the First Amendment.

Katiyar argued that student media has a unique role in filling the coverage gap as more than 2,000 local news outlets nationwide have shut down or merged in recent years. Many college newspapers now represent the only daily news outlets for entire cities. Such cities include Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Evanston, Illinois, where the student-run Michigan Daily and Daily Northwestern serve as the papers of record.

“Student journalism is just as important in holding authority accountable and bringing issues to light as professional outlets,” Katiyar said.

At Florida, Brown said he sees value in his students’ reporting and — except for Sasse during his first several months in office — most administrators are “very accessible.” 

Brown, who began his journalism career as a TV reporter in Nebraska, said news media’s major transition during his time in academia has consistently inspired him in his role as a professor. Beyond taking an increased role in the national media landscape, students have shown “tremendous leadership” in their ability to incorporate video, social media, podcasting and other forms of media in their coverage, he said. 

“They’ve done a phenomenal job to keep up with modern consumers’ growing demand for content,” he said. “The obligation to be accurate never goes away, yet I’ve seen people as young as first-year students getting involved and making an impact. It’s a unique and challenging time in journalism, and we always encourage students to get involved sooner rather than later.”

Censorship vs. Guidance

Adding to the tall task of community reporting is the simple fact that teenage and young adult university students lack the training and experience of their professional counterparts. Access to administrators has traditionally allowed the next generation of journalists to learn the tricks and trades of the profession: gathering sources, conducting interviews, reporting on deadlines and handling crises, among other basic skills. 

Instead, student media is mostly facing the same access barriers as traditional outlets, if not more. This begs the question, if students aren’t given access to their administrators, how are they going to learn the industry?

Katiyar noted that a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision gives schools means to censor student media, a “First Amendment violation” that SPLC has worked to restore through various state legislatures. Through September 2023, 17 states had passed the legislation, nicknamed New Voices laws. Until other states follow suit, many student journalists are learning on the fly, outside of school.

At the Kentucky Kernel, Cutrer and Stanley pointed to a piece from last year, covering a shooting at an off-campus party that injured 11 students. The student paper was the first outlet to report on the event, in Stanley’s words, to “make sure everyone was alive and well for the many parents who were worried sick.” The Kernel’s reporting followed the two shooting suspects through court and inevitably involved reaching out to the university for comment.

“It goes back to our mission to protect current and future students,” she said. “Anytime we deal with administration or seek comment, we try to be as honest and as straightforward as we can. I think they’ve learned after these troubling last few years to respect us in the way we’re trying to respect them.”

Editor’s Note: Kudialis contacted 15 different student-run papers, but only one (The Kentucky Kernel) was willing to go on record to speak about the relationships between the student media organizations and the institutions that fund them. These student journalists indicated that they would prefer to wait until after graduation to speak openly about their institutions’ policies for student media.

Chris Kudialis

Chris Kudialis

Reporter

Chris Kudialis is a veteran reporter and editor with experience covering some of the world’s most significant political and sporting events for several of the country’s largest news outlets. His regular beats include education, cannabis legalization and NBA basketball.


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