Before becoming The Pink Sheet’s in-house handicapper, I was a multimedia sports journalist for a year and a half with The Saratogian, the main paper that produces it. It was actually my first full-time job following two years interning at Siena College’s athletic communications office, and it provided me with one heck of an entry point to the real world of journalism (and media production as a whole).
I got to do a lot of cool things, and not just at Saratoga Race Course (though using the press box as an office for seven weeks during the summer definitely topped the list of perks the job offered). I interviewed professional athletes like Jimmer Fredette and Kyle Busch, but primarily, I got knee-deep in high school and college sports, where I built relationships with coaches, student-athletes, parents, and administrators. Those are the moments I remember the most, from improvising a press box in my car when lacrosse was played in sub-freezing temperatures to having to get said car towed out of a makeshift parking lot when it sunk into mud during a baseball doubleheader.
Most of the time, my interactions with members of the community were cordial, even pleasant. However, there were times where it was necessary to take hard looks at certain situations. The men’s soccer program at the local Division III college had a hazing scandal that led to 24 players being disciplined and its spring season being cancelled. The main local high school in town had an incident with its boys basketball coach, and loudly took exception when one of our writers covered a baseball game where a player made four errors (you can read about that story here; it’s as absurd as it sounds). Additionally, racing fans may appreciate that I once fielded a few angry calls from a steeplechase trainer and his top assistant when I mistakenly reported a horse had been vanned off due to an error in the official chart that was corrected after my article went to press (if Richard Valentine and Laird George happen to be reading this, sorry again).
My point is simple: Journalism isn’t public relations. It’s about fulfilling responsibilities to communities that depend on your outlet for information as to what’s going on, good or bad. It’s not a responsibility to take lightly, nor one that should be burdened by people who are easily bent to the wills of the people or organizations they’re tasked to write about.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this in what’s supposed to be a racing column. That’s a very fair question. I was fully prepared to write about Justify, Accelerate, and the race for this year’s Eclipse Awards. However, when I looked at Twitter after spending my day off in San Francisco eating a strawberry crepe and garlic fries (possibly the first time in the history of humanity that this combination has been ordered), I was horrified to see news out of Liberty University, an institution that, per Teddy Amenabar of The Washington Post, has taken drastic steps to shape their student-run newspaper.
Liberty University restructured the student newspaper there and fired the EIC. Here’s the dean of the school of communication talking to the new staff after the changes: https://t.co/vpNPHXSxLO pic.twitter.com/aWD4ubj0mn
— Teddy Amenabar (@TeddyAmen) August 20, 2018
First, the obvious disclaimers: Liberty University is a private institution that is well within its rights to do this. There are no constitutional or legal issues in play here, so do not fall into the trap of saying such measures violate the First Amendment.
Having said that, discouraging aspiring journalists from undertaking actual journalism is entirely the wrong course of action to take. What the school’s dean of communications is saying is that the school intends to use its newspaper as a public relations device. PR is not journalism, and it will never be journalism.
Journalism covers the things people deserve to know about, not what those in power necessarily want us to see or hear. In a perfect world, serious journalists hold everyone accountable. It’s not a profession undertaken by the meek. Journalists work long hours, wear many hats, and are often ridiculously underpaid for the work they do. They don’t do the job because they’re beholden to people or groups they cover. They do it because serious journalism is worth saving, even in an age when newspapers and other outlets are struggling mightily.
The young men and women that want to be journalists have already shown toughness by choosing that career path. They don’t want to create puff pieces that are easily digestible. They want to go the extra mile, do the dirty work, and tell the stories that need to be told. That these stories don’t line up with the ones Liberty University wants publicized is unfortunate for those in power, and any attempts to get students to conform to the desires of higher-ups are scary, at best.
Perhaps what’s weirdest about this is that the dean of communications doesn’t realize that quality student journalism is, in fact, the best form of public relations his institution could ever receive. I went to Ithaca College, whose student-run newspaper (The Ithacan) was often very critical of the school’s administration. It wins awards on an annual basis, and it’s trumpeted as an example of the Park School of Communications’ devotion to training young professionals who exit ready to make an impact in their chosen professions. Those in power don’t try to suppress the voices of its student journalists. They give those students platforms to find their voices, and that stance is a large part of why I’m proud to be an Ithaca College alumnus.
If you’ve read this far, chances are this story has hit you in a similar way it hit me. This is where I need your help. If you’re a communications professional, share what’s happening. If you’re a faculty or staff member at an institution of higher learning, and your administration is holding students back from doing what they want to do, say or do something about it. Your students want to be better journalists. Do everything you can to give them that opportunity.
Liberty isn’t the first school to do this, and chances are they won’t be the last. There are students out there whose voices are being suppressed for no good reason, and I want to do something about it. I’ll always be a journalist regardless of anything else I’m fortunate enough to do, and I feel a responsibility to make sure the field is as strong as it can be in the years to come.
If what’s happening at Liberty is common, I want to fight it. I want to give the suppressed students a chance to work around restrictions that should not exist. I don’t know what this would take, how this would work, or even what this would look like. All I know is that this is the right thing to do, one that I’d hope someone would do for me if I had wound up in a place not as receptive to the idea of a free press.
If you’re out there, and this speaks to you in some way, tell me. Click this link to use the contact feature available at this website to reach me. I read every single piece of correspondence that comes in, and I want to know how I can best help out some people that need it.