Student Journalism at Religious Colleges

At a national convention on college media, panelists discuss the relationship between administrators and student reporters at church-related colleges.
October 26, 2007

Student journalists and college media advisers gathered in Washington Thursday for the first full day of the National College Media Convention, staking out sessions on all aspects of college media production and management and career opportunities. As just a sampling of the offerings, editors at Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times talked about covering the April 16 shootings; craft-oriented sessions focused on news design, visual storytelling and sports writing; and seasoned college media pros discussed strategies for boosting advertising revenue, recruiting and retaining newspaper staff, and navigating conflicts between student journalists and college administrators.

On the latter subject, a session titled “Up Against the Wall: Working With Administrators” -- which might as well have been called “How to Survive on a Christian College Campus and Still Write News,” as one panelist, Terry Mattingly, joked -- offered perspectives on how an effective student press can function within private religious colleges with closed administrative cultures. When confronted once, for instance, by an irate Christian college administrator scandalized by the word “slut” appearing in the student paper (appearing in that case, ironically, in a quote defending the institution’s dress code), Mattingly recalled asking, "Look, would you prefer that we never use the word slut in editorials and replace it with the biblical word -- whore?”

In his opening remarks, Mattingly, a religion columnist for the Scripps Howard News service and director of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, described six possible models for student newspapers, ranging from a university public relations model (with an adviser charged by the administration to actively screen all content), to an educational model (with an adviser that helps guide content but with student editors making nearly all of the decisions), to complete independence. “Whatever the rules are, know what they are,” Mattingly advised the students in the audience, stressing the need to know how the rules apply when it comes down to the “moment it’s a really bad story -- which at Christian colleges means sex, drugs or donors."

“You have less freedom if you don’t know where the lines are,” added David Dixon, an associate professor and newspaper adviser at Malone College, an Evangelical Quaker institution in Ohio. At Malone, the newspaper’s written 25-30-page policy manual outlines a chain of command -- which provides a buffer against college officials from outside that chain who might wish to control content -- and a publications board is in place to mediate any problems (they haven’t had to use it yet for that purpose, Dixon said, but it’s there).

Panelists also briefly discussed the lack of press freedoms for student journalists at private colleges (while the focus of the session was on religious institutions, panelists pointed out that some of the same issues are applicable to small, secular private colleges, too).

Yet, as Richard Kless, the adviser at Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, said, “I realize that students don’t have any legal First Amendment rights, but they expect them. And they certainly have freedom of expression and freedom of rebellion.”

“Your administrators do own the press. But you know what, they don’t own all of them,” said Mattingly, who recalled telling officials at a Christian college that was tightening its controls on the student newspaper several years ago that they were “begging for a blog” -- an off-campus, gossipy, unaccountable blog that covers campus happenings absent journalistic standards.

“You know what? Now they do” have a blog, Mattingly said. “And they’re mad at me, because I predicted it.”


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