Wall Street Journal Article About Student Journalists Makes Me Mad

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal argues that student journalists who report negative news about university sports teams at times have it tough.

The piece’s co-authors write in the nut graf, “[I]f history is any guide, this sort of reporting takes more nerve than you might think.  Student reporters who paint a school’s sports teams in a negative light have faced ridicule and social isolation. Some have been fired from their posts.”

Fine.  A fair thesis.  The maddening part: It is built on scant evidence and superficial reporting.  After reading the article, I am unconvinced on any level that what the paper is presenting as a trend is true.

The piece offers six examples to supposedly flesh out its firing, ridicule, and social isolation points.  Only one mentions a firing, and it is justified.  Meanwhile, allusions to “ridicule and social isolation” are, frankly, lame.

The WSJ reporters cherry-picked a few high-profile incidents involving coaches and fans getting mad at student journos in recent years for their critical reporting.  There is no mention that these are EXTRAORDINARY incidents– outliers, not the norm. There is no mention of the many professional journos that coaches and fans have gotten similarly mad at over the years (meaning this is not just a student journalist problem).

There is only a tiny bit of explanation offered as to how the coaches’ and fans’ behavior toward the student journos differs at all from their behavior toward professional journos (AKA why are you writing about just student journos here?). Basically, there is a half-hearted quote from a former Duke University Chronicle editor saying it can be tough to publish something critical and then see readers the next day in class.  But even the quote is non-committal– it talks in generalities about that sort of thing happening but doesn’t offer an actual example of it happening to the Chronicle ed. or anyone else.

On top of all these shortcomings, the article also does not adequately explain how the angry coaches and fans leave student journalists feeling ridiculed and socially isolated.  The Chronicle editor said it could be “tense” but that’s it.  The Lantern editor currently being threatened at Ohio State is taking it in stride and laughing it off, at least publicly.  And all other student journos alluded to in the examples are not sought out for quotes– at times even when the coaches and athletic officials at the schools were asked to comment (which struck me as odd).

There is one example highlighted in the piece that seems to play to the reporters’ main points– the Notre Dame football student videographer death– but it’s a fallacy because it’s not really about sports.  It’s about the ethical tightrope of reporting on a student’s death and determining what’s proper to reveal and in what way.  It’s fairly powerful on its own but it does not deserve a place in a piece about negative sports reporting.

And as it stands, this piece as a whole does not deserve to be published.

A quick check of the archives reveals: The last time I was this mad with a professional piece on the student press was December 2008.

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