Interview by Alexis Mason, Outreach and Operations Manager at the Student Press Law Center
Student journalists are vital and keep their schools and communities connected and informed. SPLC recognizes the importance of student journalism and we want to use these Q&As to amplify their accomplishments, highlight the challenges they face, and broaden the understanding of their impact.
Ashleigh Fields is the Editor-in-Chief of Howard University’s The Hilltop. She is studying Journalism at Howard University and expects to graduate in 2023.
AM: Why is student journalism important?
AF: I think student journalism is specifically important because—it’s not just about journalism, but it’s about people who find it important to ask questions and get answers not just for themselves, but for the community that they’re serving and the community that they’re writing for. And so when you’re in a space where student journalism is respected, and you’re truly able to go after a story and find evidence, or to report on situations, or occurrences that are affecting people in the student population, you’re really able to create change, or give people the ability to have the information to create the change that they want to see in their, you know, school institution, environment or community. Student journalism gives young people a voice and a platform to build upon for leadership and learning how they want to tackle a career.
AM: How can others support student journalists?
AF: I will first say, be open and willing to speak about your experiences with students who are asking you questions. And I will also say, reading our work. And not just reading it, but digesting it and dissecting it, and truly beginning to understand the backstory behind why we’re trying to uncover or unveil what’s going on, in proximity to us as students. I think we face a lot of unique issues, and also have a lot of unique opportunities because we’re budding in our most pressing and prominent parts of life. We’re really in our formative years. To support student journalists, people only have to be willing to talk and to listen to us and really engage us. We need to be supported for trying. When student journalists start out, it’s hard because they’re not used to AP style and writing in that format. There is so much emphasis on the mistakes that they make, that we don’t celebrate the effort that it takes to pull something of this magnitude together. I’ll just say, speaking from my own perspective, putting out a sixteen or twelve page newspaper, and having maybe ten stories be perfect and have one story that might have a word misspelled, and you know, you’re crucified for it. It is really hard. We don’t get words of affirmation enough.
AM: An important part of being a student journalist is telling the stories of your community and telling your stories. What stories are you telling, or want to tell?
AF: A few of the stories I want to tell are just about the Shaw-Howard community, which used to be predominantly black. But as gentrification is increasing, the demographic of the area is changing exponentially. I want to reach out to people who have lived in that community for 20, 30, or 40 years and ask them why they think this is happening, where they’re going, how they’re handling this, and just really remembering the culture and the legacy that was left here by by the people who built this community. I would also like to talk about the culture at our HBCU and how it’s changing and growing from a student and national standpoint. I know that after Vice President Kamala Harris was elected, the type of student that came to our university was different, and the reason why people came to our university began to differ. And lastly, this year we’ve been covering a lot of stories surrounding the White House. We have been researching equity and what that looks like, for us as a federally funded institution. And also just seeing how President Joe Biden is looking to support us further, with different bills, or different initiatives throughout his service in office.
AM: Have you experienced censorship or other challenges that are related to the First Amendment or media law?
AF: Yes, I have experienced censorship. After the protests on campus gained national attention tensions rose between students and administration. The coverage in our campus paper, The Hilltop, was challenged by our advisor, professors and administration who pushed for stories to be more “balanced.” We were told that before all articles were published they had to be approved by our advisor who is a close friend and classmate of the President. Several stories were deleted without my knowledge due to minor grammatical edits and claims of inaccuracies which were never cited.
Personally I really had to grapple with what was more important to me? Do I want to have and display integrity? Do I want to be honest? Do I want to be truthful? Even if that means that fifteen years from now, or ten years from now, I’m not getting the job, or the internship that I really want, because people have blacklisted me. There were a lot of discussions where people were telling me that what I was writing was career ending, and it was just really hard for me. And I feel like my leadership was undermined, especially with my staff, when I tried to explain that what we’re going through is not normal.
AM: For those that are not familiar with the protest that you’re talking about, can you give more information about it?
AF: So in about November, that’s really when it caught national attention. But students took over the Blackburn University Center on campus here at Howard University, and they were fighting for their residential rights as students who were living in the dorms on campus, or students who were no longer housed on campus due to rules that were created prior to us being here. At first, the protest was about a day and you know, students didn’t expect it to go longer than a week. It quickly turned into the longest protests in Howard history. On top of that, tensions were building with faculty and staff who were being underpaid or who did not have the opportunity to obtain tenure at the university. So a lot of them began to protest with the students on campus. Some of them put tents up on the Yard. Others were speaking out very strongly via social media. That was a really rough time for all of us, because as a community, we were no longer connected.
AM: What is something that you’ve learned as a student journalist that could be helpful to other students?
AF: Your voice matters, no matter your age. I have also learned that not every story will be straightforward. Words can be deceiving, especially when they’re coming from people with a motive. It is important to look beyond what you are being told. Look at the facts. Look at the information that you have in front of you. It is important to read and understand what you are reading. It is critical that you understand legislation, and really be willing to search and dig for the answers that you need.
AM: Every generation leaves their mark on journalism. What do you think will be your generation’s impact/contribution?
AF: I really think our impactful contribution is how quickly news and information moves, especially with social media. That’s something that I know a lot of my fellow peers are capitalizing on, and using to educate the community around them. We are also using technology to combat fake news and false narratives.
Please check out more from Ashleigh and The Hilltop staff here.