Amid breastfeeding professor controversy, American University discusses role of student media

The role of student media came under fire after American University’s student newspaper, The Eagle, interviewed an associate professor about breastfeeding in class. The story generated national attention before the paper ever even wrote about it, and Thursday, media and school representatives gathered to talk about the role of student journalism and their rights, as well as what qualifies as news.

“Journalists serve the public interest, but that is not the same as what the public is interested in,” said John Watson, an American University associate professor who was one of the panelists on the forum held at the campus.

The panel consisted of Watson, Director of Media and Interactive Journalism Amy Eisman, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, Associated Press Reporter Brett Zongker and was lead by Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the School of Communication Rose Ann Robertson.

The Eagle was unfairly criticized as a third-rate, sexist, anti-woman publication targeting faculty, hounding sources and asking biased and sophomoric questions, Robertson said.

“They do make mistakes because they have the unfortunate liability of relying on human beings but it’s a very good paper,” Watson said.

One of the functions of a news media is to put controversial issues on the public agenda, Watson said. The media should also not be sympathetic to one side but balanced.

College journalists should report controversial issues because of the lack of coverage by professional news organizations, LoMonte said.

“Some of the very best investigative reporting in America right now is being done by students, bar none,” LoMonte said. “The college publications really become the public’s last line of defense because if they don’t tell us the story we often don’t find out.”

The panelists also weighed in on what qualifies as news:

Zongker: “For a journalist, you often know it when you see because it can be kind of hard to define. But news can be about a lot of different things. It can be about the first time something happens, it can be about challenges and changes that impact a community or society. It’s about issues people are talking about or discussing about and tapping into that. It can be about conflict and it can be about people’s rights and whether people are following the rules and it’s often about actions by people in prominent perspectives.”

LoMonte: “We used to have a saying in the newsroom that news is something that happened to or near your editor. I think the realm that differentiates news from gossip or differentiates news from just some static in the air is some level of independent verification.”

Eisman: “News is not all equal anymore. I think the values are the same but news is now a function of: who is finding it, who is sending it, who is distributing it, when it is.”

Watson: “To me it’s clear that all news isn’t equal. That’s why we have a front page and a back page. The more important news is up front at the top of the page with art and larger headlines. Every bit of information isn’t news. Every bit of information isn’t important enough that journalists should tell people about. Information in and of itself is not news.”