I am a student journalist who is the editor-in-chief of a student digital media platform called the Western Carolina Journalist and a staff writer for the Western Carolinian. I have been in these positions for over a year now but since the beginning of my student journalist career, I have constantly encountered difficulty interviewing officials from Western Carolina University.
I have seen this through numerous departments like Dining Services, Dean of Students, Department of Campus Activities (DCA), campus police, Department of Fundraising, our SGA, and numerous other departments. Our newsrooms have been told we had to email our interview questions because they don’t accept in-person interviews, sources saying “they are out of town” last minute, some forward us to other departments to give us the run-around, changed misleading/incorrect documents last minute, giving false information about content, etc.
In the past when I was working on an article about a queer disabled student, I emailed back and forth with the College of Education and Allied Professions who told me that there were different resources on the WCU website for students on ableism like the Ableism Diversity Dialogue, educational resources, or representation in general. Although I was emailed a reference list, there is nothing on the WCU website as of now except the word “ableism.”
Pepper spray and student safety
One situation has occurred for an ongoing article on pepper spray. A fellow reporter and I had been trying to reach the campus police through weeks of emailing and calling. We had been forwarded to the Dean of Students even though we had got back interview questions from the assistant. After walking into the station and asking for an interview with the chief, an officer told us that we had to send in our interview questions to the assistant chief since the chief was out of town.
After giving him the interview questions and a deadline, we received an email back although our questions were redirected to a different department or weren’t answered. All questions were under their department and related to student safety since we talked to other departments already like Dean of Students.
We had the same issue with the Dean of Students where we had an interview canceled, were told he was “out of town” (told earlier that week he was free), and had to send in our interview questions that ended up being answered by his assistant instead.
Communication with universities
The student body tends to be communicative with student media more than the administration. This is very helpful as a student-based media, but we want to communicate and have a relationship with our university officials.
This isn’t just happening at WCU but within other universities with student media. Our editors at WCU had a chance to go to MediaFest22 this semester in Washington, D.C. from Oct. 27 to 30. During this Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference, I was able to meet with numerous editors from across the state. These student journalists are facing the same issues as our newsrooms.
Poynter has published an article as well about how universities are going out of their way to ignore their journalists. “College and university leaders gain nothing from disparaging their own student media. This disingenuous approach runs counter to higher education’s core values and leads to immediate negative effects on campus and in local communities,” wrote Erin Hennessy and Kristine Maloney.
Student journalists and the issue with communication
After talking with different editors, I have concluded that our universities are fighting against their student media. Journalism is constantly changing, and I am trying to learn as much as I can before I go into the real world. Our university and the different departments should be here for students while providing the experience to prepare them and give them the information that students are hunting for. The university doesn’t understand the importance of these experiences and we are overlooked since we are students. I acknowledge that cancelations do happen, and things do not go as planned, but as students, we shouldn’t be restricted from our chance to diversify our experiences.
I should be able to report the news in an unbiased way with complete truth. The issue isn’t with non-student journalists but with student journalists. Publications around the universities can interview and have professional encounters on the same topics/issues but we are unable to get the same treatment. Why are we being denied? Is there something that is hidden from us or is there something we may not know about?
An example of this is when I covered the student union back at the beginning of the semester, the DCA and Dining Services either didn’t get back to me or declined some interview questions because they were “too open-ended.” Meanwhile, Smoky Mountain News got the interviews and other key sources within a two-week span while mine took a month.
Our newsrooms have talked about coming together and writing a letter to the school addressing these issues. We are planning on having a forum where we invite all these departments and talk about what is happening. The student journalists are not out to attack but to just get the information out and the perspective of the people who represent our schools.
A final note to end on would be that these departments are missing out on an opportunity to get information out there in these students’ articles, and the fact that they aren’t cooperating to begin with is just making them look worse in the eyes of the students.