With press freedom comes much responsibility - The Echo News
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With press freedom comes much responsibility

Guest View

By Alan Blanchard | Faculty Adviser

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment, U.S. Constitution

I was a student journalist long before the idea of becoming a professional one ever entered my frontal lobe.

My first exposure to student journalism, travel back with me to 1973, my senior year of high school in southeastern Indiana.

Broadcast and print news stories announced the impending end of the Vietnam War, the burglary of the Democratic offices in the Watergate and then President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election and subsequent resigning and leaving office in disgrace.

Against this backdrop, I was invited to join the student newspaper. The faculty adviser to the newspaper was friendly enough but didn’t do much advising, which was fine with me since I knew nothing about journalism, newspapers or news.

Don’t ask me why, but part way through the semester I wrote a fiction piece for the newspaper about the troubles and travails faced by President Nixon. For some reason, I felt sorry for the President and the heat he was facing, again not knowing what I didn’t know but would learn through the book and film by the same name, “All the President’s Men.”

With no constraints on genre or word length, I believe my fiction piece exceeded 1,000 words, maybe 1,500 words, but thankfully, a copy didn’t survive in my possession and my many moves since high school.

I got some momentary notoriety for having my byline appear above this thin piece of fiction whose goal was to show President Nixon as a fellow human being, deserving of compassion. But I got some constructive critique, not from my newspaper adviser, but from an astute fellow student questioning me, “What was I thinking writing such a thing?”

In hindsight, I think I would have been better served if my adviser had encouraged me to write a nonfiction news story, interviewing local political leaders of both persuasions on their thoughts about the President’s situation, thereby gently steering me away from creating weak fiction and hogging so much of the space in that tiny school newspaper (mimeographed on white typing paper if memory serves).

While some purists might have found or still find fault with a high school newspaper adviser doing any advising or steering of student journalists back then or today, I think advising can be a mutually beneficial experience for student and faculty adviser alike.

For the past 21 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a newspaper faculty adviser at two Christian universities, most recently here at Taylor University as adviser of The Echo. I’ve had the privilege of visiting top journalism programs at private and public colleges and universities in Indiana and Michigan.

Recent conversations among some journalism students on campus have focused on the question of whether student newspapers at private colleges and universities, such as Taylor, should enjoy the same press freedoms as their counterparts at public universities in Indiana and across the nation.

At public universities, most student newspaper-adviser relationships work in this way: students make all of the decisions and the adviser offers advice when students ask for it. But private universities do not operate under the same constraints as publics do.

Then you have the University of Missouri at Columbia, Missouri, where each of the editor positions at the student newspaper are filled by former professional editors who supervise and edit the students who fill the reporter roles. One could argue that this model is superior since students are learning from former metro daily newspaper editors. But some, no doubt, would fault such a model since students are not serving as the editors, too.

Some private colleges and universities provide full press freedom to students, some privates provide near-full freedoms along with experienced advisers who have the ability to guide and lead students in best practices journalism and some privates provide full-on prior review up to and including not allowing certain stories to be published in print.

The Echo’s staffers have great latitude in selecting, assigning and writing stories they believe are important to share with the Taylor community, within generally accepted journalistic best practices.

You know, as a high school or even as a university journalism student reporter, I failed to learn a key thing until much later. What I learned is reporters and even top editors of daily and weekly newspapers do not always enjoy full press freedom. When push comes to shove, the owner of the newspaper has the final say on what newspaper stories would or would not run.

The best publishers I worked for gave me great latitude, but even the best bosses reserved the right to say no to some stories being pursued, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not for good reasons.

It was not until I owned my own newspaper that I experienced full press freedom, but with freedom of the press comes great responsibility to report the news accurately, fairly and responsibly.

Best practices in student and professional journalism can mean walking the extra mile to talk to one more source, seeking attorney review of a story to ensure it contains no libel and delaying a story for either of these reasons. Delay is not a word I enjoyed hearing as a young reporter, but it was one I grew to appreciate and respect as I grew into a seasoned editor.

So regardless of how much press freedom student journalists have while in college, they may find the freedoms they enjoyed working on the Ball State, IWU or The Echo student newspapers exceeded even that of the press freedoms, with limitations, they experienced during their subsequent careers as journalists with professional newspapers.

But it may take five or even 10 years to realize this. It took me that long.

Alan D. Blanchard, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism in the Communication Department at Taylor University, advises The Echo and serves as a representative of the Pulliam Journalism Fellowship. He has more than 25 years’ experience as a newspaper editor and publisher – alan_blanchard@taylor.edu

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