Protections for student journalists in critical care

Journalism schools have been likened to “teaching hospitals,” fulfilling communities’ needs for information the way medical schools fulfill the need for health care. If that’s the case, then student-staffed state capitol bureaus are the emergency room’s critical-care unit. Because the professional media’s coverage of state government news is flatlining. 

An eye-popping July 2014 report from the Pew Research Journalism Project, “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” documents the near-extinction of the statehouse press corps across America: Since 2003 – and state governments were under-covered even then – the number of full-time reporters working in state Capitols is down 35 percent. 

Perhaps most notably, 14 percent of the reporters assigned to cover statehouses – one out of eight – is a student. In four states – Arizona, Kansas, Missouri and Nevada – student reporters actually outnumber full-time professional ones.  

State government is the level of government with the greatest impact on citizens’ lives, because it’s where the big decisions about education, criminal justice and the workings of the legal system are made. This is doubly so in today’s era of gridlocked political control in Washington. State legislatures move with the nimbleness of Olympic gymnasts next to the lumbering mastodon that is Congress. 

There is a real cost when statehouses are left unwatched. Lunatic-fringe proposals – like North Carolina’s statute saying kids who ridicule school employees online can go to jail for a year – that once would be derailed by public ridicule now pass into law unremarked. When combined with the erosion of state press associations, hollowed by the same economic realities afflicting their members, there has never been a time in modern history when the public was so defenseless against legislative boneheadery. 

It has never made sense to give student journalists second-class legal protection, since they are the journalists most vulnerable to government coercion. But now these rights are no longer a “niche” concern for those working in scholastic media; they are a concern for everyone who benefits from an independent journalistic voice keeping watch over more than $700 billion that state governments spend each year. A concern, in short, for everyone.

Unpaid students are statutorily disqualified from claiming the reporter’s privilege to protect their sources in at least seven states: Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, New York and Texas (although courts in New York have concluded that there is a privilege implicit in the First Amendment broad enough to cover students).  This distinction is nonsensical.

The work being done by staffers at the Daily Texan in Austin, the Indiana Daily Student in Bloomington, Ind., or the Daily Reveille in Baton Rouge exceeds in quality all but the largest metropolitan dailies in their states. Yet a reporter for a 3,000-circulation weekly in a Texas backwater might be entitled to protect confidences that a reporter for the 12,000-circulation Texan could be compelled to reveal. 

At least four of the nation’s 12 geographic federal appeals courts – the Seventh, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits – have ruled that the First Amendment rights of college students are circumscribed by the Supreme Court’s errant Hazelwood standard. This, too, must change. The consensus is now firmly established that Hazelwood is far too much censorship authority even in K-12 schools, where the 1988 case originated, let alone at colleges where almost every journalist and reader is a legal adult. 

While the journalism education field can’t change outdated laws alone, one concrete step toward reform would be including an “anti-Hazelwood” requirement for any college or school of journalism to receive accreditation from the field’s standard-setting body, the Association for Educators in Journalism & Mass Communication. In accordance with the AEJMC’s own denunciation of the bankrupt Hazelwood standard in a 2013 resolution, no journalism program should be accredited unless it certifies that it is “Hazelwood-free” (or is taking concrete steps to get its administration there). 

Many of the nation’s best colleges for journalism – including Ball State University and Indiana University – have designated their student media as “public forums” immune from the suffocating level of administrative involvement contemplated in Hazelwood. Students providing the foundational coverage on which a functioning democracy depends should never have to labor in fear of a government official’s finger on the “delete” key.