It’s customary for the editor in chief of The Daily Princetonian to write a letter from the editor in the last issue of the year. Outgoing editors often reflect on changes to the student newspaper, the year’s biggest news events and their learning moments running a student newspaper.
As Marcelo Rochabrun, former editor in chief of The Daily Princetonian, sat down to write his own farewell, he tackled what he saw as the biggest issue during his time as editor.
“It’s hard being a student journalist at Princeton these days,” Rochabrun wrote.
In his letter, Rochabrun explained the criticism many Princetonian reporters had to face from their peers, saying some reporters were excluded from social groups or were asked to leave parties. A few were threatened with violence.
Rochabrun’s letter garnered national attention from other student journalists — a bit surprising since he thought the issue was unique to Princeton University, he said.
After Rochabrun’s letter, student editors around the country saw similar issues plaguing their campuses. Negativity from other students and the challenge of seeing sources in class were something many editors related to, Rochabrun said.
Kelley Callaway, the College Media Association’s president-elect, said student journalists often cover a smaller community than professional journalists.
“Depending on the size of the campus, you might have class with the people you’re writing about,” Callaway said. “Some of your sources could be your professors or people who live in your residential halls. I think it gets to a different level when you’re living on campus, you’re creating a community and you want to be a part of that community while still being a journalist.”
Flak from peers
Negativity from peers is “only a natural reaction” because people aren’t used to opening a paper and reading about their friends, Rochabrun said.
“That is exactly what happens with student newspapers,” Rochabrun said. “You may even know the author and the student that’s being talked about. It creates a weird tension when everything is so small and everyone knows each other.”
When Nicholas Stewart snapped a picture of first responders at the scene of a fatal car accident at Western Illinois University in October 2014, other students said he should have shown more respect for the student lives lost.
“Coming from that incident in particular was definitely a really rough time for me,” said Stewart, the editor in chief of the Western Courier. “I had a lot of people commenting on my Facebook page, sending me emails, calling the Western Courier office, basically berating me and calling me very inhumane things.”
Stewart was again thrust into the spotlight when university administrators suspended him from his position as editor because he sold a video of an altercation between students and campus police in January. The video showed campus police officers pepper-spraying people in a brawl outside the university’s student union building after a Black Student Association-sponsored dance in December 2014.
Because he sold the video and his subsequent suspension, Stewart said he couldn’t go anywhere without other students recognizing him and gossiping. Heather Mongilio, a former editor in chief of The Eagle at American University, ran into a similar experience.
Mongilio said she can walk from one end of campus to the next in 15 minutes and run into five people who recognized her and disliked her because she worked at the newspaper.
“I’ve actually lost a friend because I wrote a story about his fraternity hazing,” Mongilio said. “The fraternity got kicked off. He called me and started cursing me out, so it’s hard working and living in a community that’s so small.”
Alex Wilson, the daily news editor for Spinnaker Media at the University of North Florida, said the Spinnaker’s main critic is student government.
Wilson said Spinnaker reporters will not only have classes with student government members and interact with them in a peer capacity, but also work with them in a professional capacity. Spinnaker Media and student government work in the same building and members of each organization see each other everyday, which creates tension if student government is unhappy with a story.
“Working in such close quarters, it can be a struggle,” Wilson said. “It can be challenging, especially for learning journalists when they’re not 100 percent confident in what they’re doing or what they know. It can be a struggle to deal with that not just in your job, but outside your job too.”
‘A double standard’
Mongilio said peers like to criticize the student newspaper by saying it’s not credible or trustworthy, but when breaking news happens on campus, students turn to The Eagle for information.
“While people may say the student newspaper is not as credible, when it comes to a story like a Title IX investigation or a professor being arrested or a bunch of emails being leaked from a fraternity, they do come to the newspaper because we have the angle that no one else has,” Mongilio said.
Stewart said student journalists could cover something the same way as a professional news outlet but not be taken as seriously.
“I think the biggest thing is that students have to understand that a student-run newspaper is no different than The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, or different major news organizations,” Stewart said. “We’re doing the same job, which is reporting the news, and there really can’t be a double standard.”
Callaway, the CMA president-elect, said student journalists might take criticism from their peers to heart and be more susceptible to self-censorship.
“I think student journalists have always had a tendency to maybe self-censor,” Callaway said, “and that’s why they need to talk to each other and get outside of what they’re thinking and get other input so that they don’t censor themselves just because they’re afraid somebody walking on campus is going to recognize them and criticize them for something that they’ve written.”
All in a day’s work
“If you’re making people mad, you must be doing something right.”
Mongilio said that’s the motto for reporters at The Eagle. Unless a reporter made an error of fact, she said she tells her reporters that if their article got students talking, then they’ve done their job because they’ve pushed their classmates to talk about something that would have otherwise been ignored. Self-censoring only hurts the students.
“It’s so important to tell a good story,” Mongilio said. “If something is happening, it is your job as a journalist to tell that story. You’re the voice of the students. You are absolutely the only outlet on campus that can provide the same angle. You’re the only one with the connection with the university and with the students. All those outside newspapers aren’t going to have that kind of connection.”
Callaway said student journalists should, in most cases, ignore other students’ criticisms unless it was a major story or issue. She said as soon as student journalists start defending themselves, “you weaken the position you already had.”
“I advise students to take a step back and ask themselves if it’s really as bad as they think or is it just one person who is a stakeholder in a story who’s upset for the wrong reasons,” Callaway said.
Callaway said journalists “need to have a backbone” because they’re the ones who are supposed to tell the truth no matter what, adding “that they need to keep that in mind even when telling the truth is upsetting to their peers.”
Rochabrun said criticism is just a part of the job. Reporters and editors should go into the job knowing that they’re going to write stories that people aren’t necessarily going to agree with, “but in the end, you have to do what’s in the best interest of the reporting you’re doing,” he said.
Stewart said he censored himself once after covering the fatal accident in October. He said he didn’t get pictures at the scene of another accident in fear of facing the same criticisms, and he regrets letting his experience with flak from peers affect how he reported another accident.
“You’re doing your job, so don’t let whoever tell you what not to do,” Stewart said. “Don’t feel you have to bow down to anyone to report the news they want to hear or report it the way they want to hear it.”