Student Government Coverage: “Vicious Fights, Low Stakes”

“University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

– Henry Kissinger

The Kissinger quote marks the start of an interesting new commentary by a UK j-student focused on the many challenges inherent in campus journalists’ coverage of student government issues and elections.  Two that are especially worth considering:

Challenge 1) The lack of competing perspectives.  As the writer Nick Eardley argues,

Most university campuses in Britain are served by no more than two student newspapers [and in the states most are served by only one], meaning that we are faced with a lack of plurality. There is very seldom the equivalent of the range of political sympathy we have across the national press. If a student paper decides to show bias towards a candidate in a student election, the effect on the electorate can be significant. Taking sides in this respect can stifle discussion and debate, giving one candidate an unfair advantage.

It is a fair point, one that should mainly determine HOW to frame candidate endorsements or overall campus politics coverage, not IF such content should be run.  What I read from Eardley’s argument: Lack of plurality puts an especially high burden on a student media outlet (SMO) to be responsible in its coverage- given that its words may be the only ones students read about a candidate, event or issue.

Yet, being the only news voice of record on a campus should never cause an SMO to shy away from reporting on tough issues or delivering an opinion on who or what the editorial board feels is better or worse for the school.  SMOs should always aim to deliver information or commentary on every university issue imaginable- student government does not get a pass.

Challenge 2) The student media outlet’s relationship with the student government. The principal difficulty is of course direct editorial or indirect budgetary control, a sad reality for many SMOs.  The result can be petty content stifling under the guise of pursuing pure impartiality.  As Eardley writes about a specific incident in Britain:

Edinburgh-wide student newspaper the Journal was almost removed from university buildings because of an article reporting on a motion of no-confidence in the NSA President, who was standing for re-election at the time. The decision was taken by the Association’s election committee, apparently to ensure that no bias towards one candidate was communicated to the electorate. This was an example of ‘impartiality’ becoming an obstacle– the offending article in this case did not take sides and was a standard news report. Students’ right to know the news and issues surrounding the election of their representatives was curtailed.

One Response to “Student Government Coverage: “Vicious Fights, Low Stakes””
  1. I’m really glad to see you writing about this issue. It’s something our newspaper, The University Daily Kansan, faced earlier this year. The student body president attempted to cut the student fees that constitute 10% of our budget, citing “conflict of interest” in paying the salaries of people who report on his body’s actions.

    The move was, in my opinion, based on the president’s desire to flex what little political clout he enjoyed and not, as he claimed, on solid logic. For one, none of the reporters on our staff are paid. To insinuate that the editors who are paid keep the source of their income in the forefront of their minds when working is laughable. None of the paper’s articles on Student Senate are anything but informative and the one exception, the endorsement we run during campaign season each spring, is clearly labeled as editorial. Anyway, the president should not have attempted to remove a “conflict of interest” but rather should have left it as a way for student journalists to practice ethical decision making and unbiased writing.

    I was especially disheartened when I spoke about the matter with some of my friends in Student Senate. Many of them see their institution as superior to mine and made remarks that maybe this issue would remind students that Senate exercises a lot of power on campus. Now, I’m not disputing that Senate has a lot of influence and does a lot of good, but putting one institution over another aggravated me. Both are important, albeit in different ways. Maybe the president wanted to make his institution more visible to the student body but there was no need to bring down an award-winning, widely read newspaper in the process.

    Luckily, the issue was resolved and our funding for next year will not be cut. I hope that the issue continues to be at the forefront of our staff’s minds this fall, serving as an impetus to prove our impartiality, especially when covering an institution that pettily tried to bring us down.