Student journalists need laws to match new role

In November, the Washington Post’s investigative team published the kind of labor-intensive blockbusterthat – in today’s economy – has become almost prohibitively costly:Deconstructing an extravagantly mismanaged $32 billion federal housing programthat has littered America’s landscape with never-to-be-completed apartments.

In the latestinstallment in its series, “Million Dollar Wasteland,” the Postmeticulously documented how some $40 million in grants from the Department ofHousing and Urban Development got squandered on unfinished housing units due tolax, or nonexistent, oversight.

How did the Postmanage to inspect 75 locations from Santa Clara, Calif., to Irvington, N.J., toWest Palm Beach, Fla.?

It didn’t. Collegejournalists did. More than four dozen students fanned out across the country toeyeball what were supposed to be newly built affordable housing units – andoften were, instead, vacant lots.

This is journalism’snew reality – the reality that students are not the future of journalism, butthe present. Even more than they realize, readers are dependent on students asfront-line newsgatherers, telling essential stories that have nothing to dowith keggers and sorority rush.

A good-governmentthink-tank, the New America Foundation, focused on the growing need forjournalism schools to feed their communities’ appetite for news in an October2011 report, “Shaping 21st Century Journalism.”

The report analogizesthe role that j-schools can play to that of teaching hospitals, wheredoctors-in-training serve the community by providing direct patient care.

The authors challengejournalism schools to step up and assume responsibility for being primary newssources for audiences beyond the campus. But if we are to place big-timeprofessional responsibilities on the shoulders of student journalists, thenthey need big-time professional legal rights to match. That means enacting lawsin every state that protect college journalists against censorship – and theiradvisers against retaliation – for what they say and write. And it means endingcollege journalists’ “second class citizen” status under the reporter shieldlaws of Florida, Texas and a handful of other states, where only salariedprofessionals are assured the right to protect confidential sources andinformation against compelled disclosure.

Frank LoMonte, executive director