Rutgers j-school reverses decision to push student reporters off campus

NEW JERSEY — Following days of media attention and objections from faculty, Rutgers University will once again allow students enrolled in an investigative reporting course to write about on-campus issues.

Journalism and media studies department chair John Pavlik announced the policy change on March 8–a reversal of the decision he made at the end of the Fall 2004 semester to only allow students to cover off-campus topics for the course.

Pavlik said the initial reason for limiting students from covering topics on campus was “to push them off campus and get them out into the real world.” After discussions with the local news media, faculty and the general public, he said, he decided that allowing on-campus reporting was going to work best for the students and the class.

Pavlik said the investigative reporting course was offered for the first time in the fall semester, subject to re-evaluation and possible changes. One of the problems found in the class was that students were primarily conducting their interviews over e-mail, in what Pavlik called an element of the “university culture.” Requiring students to conduct phone interviews and pushing them off-campus would breed better journalism, he said.

The March 8 decision to allow students to again cover issues on campus follows recent media attention of a dispute between journalism student Fraidy Reiss and the student newspaper, the Daily Targum.

In the fall, Reiss wrote a story about alleged preferential treatment of athletes at Rutgers for her investigative reporting course. She submitted it to the Targum, and after more than two months of revising the story with editors to make it “fair and well-balanced,” it was not published because she “was unwilling to make any of the serious changes requested,” said Editor in Chief Nick Sevilis.

Reiss believes her story was censored by the independent student newspaper because they were “being pressured not to run stories that are anti-athletics” by the university administration. But Sevilis said the Targum‘s decision to not run Reiss’ story “was in no way affected by the beliefs of the university,” and was made solely by student editors based on the content of her story.

According to Sevilis, Reiss’ story left out several facts that the athletics department repeatedly told her, which “made the story misrepresent the full truth of the matter of perks for athletes.”

After the story was not published, Reiss paid a graphic designer about $100 to lay out her story as a full-page advertisement, but the Targum rejected the ad. Sevilis wrote that the Targum rejected her ad because it “attacks” the staff members, and because it “blurs the line between what is [the Targum‘s] own editorial content and what is paid for by a sponsor.”

Journalism instructor Guy Baehr, who taught Reiss in the investigative reporting class said Reiss’ story was “a very good piece of investigative reporting by a student” and earned an A+ in the class. The Targum staff made their decision independent of his evaluation, he said.

Baehr said he was disappointed with Pavlik’s initial decision, but he felt he “had to go along with it in order to continue the course.” Baehr said he is pleased that the course will go back to its original format.

The Society of Professional Journalists Executive Director Terry Harper said its vice president for campus chapter affairs, Jim Highland, will speak with Rutgers University President Richard McCormick. The organization plans to investigate the journalism department’s decision to prohibit students from covering issues on campus as a possible censorship issue.

“Whatever we learn from that conversation will determine whether the Society of Professional Journalists will appoint a task force to investigate further or to let [the issue] drop,” Harper said.

–By Diane Krauthamer