Is “Student Journalist” an Unfair, “Subhuman” Distinction?

A month ago, a prominent journalism educator lightly scolded me for using the phrase “student journalist” to describe an undergraduate reporter (since graduated) who produced a high-profile story as part of a capstone journalism course.

In his words: “I think it is important to press for equality between ‘student’ journalists and others.  Somehow ‘student’ denigrates the work as some species of subhuman work. ;0)”

The comment is intriguing- and continues to gnaw at me.  I have repeatedly argued on this blog and in other writings  that collegians should not run from their student status, but actually wear the ‘j-student’ label as a badge of honor and embrace its many advantages.  Among these advantages, in my opinion:

  • J-students’ access to, and intimate knowledge of, the many people, places, and trends impacting modern higher education.

  • The continual on-the-job training provided by classes and mentoring-on-demand provided by profs.

  • The time and impetus they have to produce feature-length, investigative reports (especially in advanced courses or via senior theses).

  • Their potentially fresh perspectives and idealism, not yet tainted by world-weariness or routine.

  • And of course the potential they now have to share their work with a massive audience ASAP- internship, degree, years of climbing the ladder not required.

It is this last point that makes the distinction between student and professional journalist more blurry than ever.

My take: The problem with "student journalist" isn't the term itself...

The problem is with the perception some people wrongly hold about student journalists being childlike or "subhuman."

After all, the online empowerment era has made youth or inexperience all but irrelevant if the reporting legwork is sound.  Acceptance by an established media outlet is also no longer the sole path to publication.

In schools worldwide, j-students’ “class assignments” are now frequently submitted to outside or campus media or posted on a class blog or students’ independent sites, enabling even Reporting 101 write-ups to be potential discussion starters or full-blown journalism blockbusters.  Students’ outside blogging and reporting efforts are also at times accepted and celebrated prior to conferral of a degree, as iconic individuals such as Alana Taylor and Brian Stelter have proven.

Simply put, student journalists are now able to compete on almost equal footing with almost all professional journalists.  Should a distinction between the two no longer exist???  And in a related sense, does calling someone a student journalist nowadays somehow lessen their work, make it sound “subhuman” or categorize it as inferior to a “true” journalist???

My take: I think it is a matter of perspective.  The belief that a student journalist is a second-class citizen (journalist) does not reveal a problem with the term “student journalist.”  It reveals a problem with that belief.

In many ways, I see this as a generational divide- not between old and young but between old and new media.  Conventions have long dictated that a certain amount of training and degrees are required before an individual is considered part of a specific profession.  The journalism profession has traditionally relied on the classes-then-internships-then-cub-reporter convention (although certainly with lots of exceptions).  Students have of course been encouraged to produce work along the way, but it was all seen as a means to an end, not an end to itself.

Now it can be its own end, and offer its own rewards.  And this end is the beginning … of a new set of conventions.  Student journalism is no longer just an embryonic stage in a journalist’s life.  It is not “subhuman.” It is fully formed.  It is making waves NOW.  I see no need to run from the term.  I say celebrate it.

I also say that it is a distinction that does not have to stop being used after one’s college commencement. I am a journalism student.  My friend at the Washington Post told me today she still considers herself a journalism student. In many ways, all of us involved in and passionate about journalism are students of the craft, for life.

One Response to “Is “Student Journalist” an Unfair, “Subhuman” Distinction?”
  1. Ghrishi says:

    Daniel, I’d have to agree with the overarching claim here. I just don’t see why being termed a “student journalist” is disrespectful or demeaning. Unless by that you mean the work produced by a person termed such is inferior. If you just mean that said person is a student, and a student who writes, no problem.

    I especially agree with the claim that ‘student journalists’ offer a fresh perspective and a healthy dose of idealism. To me, the degree of idealism is the major paradigmatic difference between “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) and student journalism. I guess we still retain some amount of idealistic hope as students, which then gets sapped out once you’re out into the world thats everything but ideal. A prime example of the idealistic paradigm reflected in student journalist was Keith Yost’s BCG-expose-piece in The Tech a few months back. He certainly wasn’t the only person who saw this happening; he was the only person who wrote about it for everyone else to see.

    The day the distinction between “student journalist” and “professional journalist” will have been erased is the day when you go to a student journalism outlet as a source of active news-pursuit. And an article that you read there is just as reliable as one you read in “The New York Times” and the like. Abolishing terminological differences is like calling an apple an orange and then expecting it to taste like one. We as a society operate on a fallacious “appeal to authority” basis and we need the tangible qualification as a basis of reliability – we use it to figure out who we can count on for accurate information. The day that changes, it’ll probably be acceptable to cite wikipedia in a research paper :)