June 17, 2006

COMMENTARY: Becoming the Story

No journalist wants this.

We investigate and report news -- We don't become it. Yet student journalists find staying out of the headlines difficult as colleges seek the business model.

Before picking up reporter's notebook we must know and abide by three different sets of policies.

Student Policies - In order to report for our publications we must be students. We must abide by student codes of conduct. However some of these hinder our ability to report.
Ever had to ask aggressive questions of a student government leader? This qualifies as harassment.

Ever wait outside the president's office because he keeps cancelling meetings? You've disrupted the normal operations of the college and possibly violated assembly provisions.

I certainly hope you never used a voice recorder or camera while interviewing players in or near their locker room.
Just the presence of those items in a private space may call for your expulsion.
Employee Policies - For those of us who get paid, we are employees of our colleges.
Has a student leader lost a scholarship or stepped down because of his or her GPA? You can't report it. That violates FERPA.

Did and ambulance come to campus because a staff member had chest pains and you discovered he or she had heart problems in the past?
You can't report it. That violates HIPAA.
Newsroom Policies - Sometimes the professional newsroom ethics and policies we follow in our campus newsrooms contradict our student and employee policies.

Our editorial boards must examine all three sets of policies and strategize on how to counter provisions hindering our ability to report. Yet, we must also remember these student and employee policies protect student journalists.
Use the student code of conduct to manage angry and possibly violent readers.

Use the tools like harassment and grievance procedures described in the employee policies to document the administration's attempts to silence you.
Student journalists don't enjoy the luxuries afforded our professional colleagues. We don't have lawyers on call. Our main supporters are subject to retaliation including termination at the whim of the college.

We depend on funding from the institution we're charged to investigate. It's imperative we understand these three sets of policies that influence our ability to report because one day, we just might become the story.