A university newspaper recently broke a major story regarding U.S.-Ukraine relations, scooping national newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times. Andrew Howard, a 20-year-old student at Arizona State University, was the first to report Sept. 27 that Kurt Volker was resigning as the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine. His resignation came after it was disclosed that President Donald Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Volker is the executive director of Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership.
This is not going to be an editorial about the impeachment inquiry into President Trump and his handling of that now-infamous July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president.
We write today to praise a student journalist, at a student-run newspaper, The State Press, who had the smarts to identify a local angle to the Volker story and wound up with the scoop of a lifetime.
We also write to praise student newspapers, and the vital role they play in holding school officials accountable.
They serve as the watchdogs for their institutions — and in some instances, for their wider communities.
LNP is fortunate to be in a community that prizes local journalism. But community newspapers are vanishing across the United States. And, as a 2018 Poynter Institute article pointed out, “thriving student publications are filling in gaps in local coverage.” (Poynter is a journalism education nonprofit.)
Which is not to say that student newspapers aren’t under pressure.
In 2016, a report from the American Association of University Professors and other organizations found that many “college and university authorities have exhibited an intimidating level of hostility toward student media, inhibiting the free exchange of ideas on campus.”
The report noted that decisions to “eliminate journalism training and publishing opportunities often align with conflict over editorial content.”
And this: “Many institutions increasingly filter access to information and to campus decision makers through public-relations offices,” keeping student journalists from reporting directly on critical information and documents.
We criticized HACC in November 2015 for requiring that journalists for Live Wire, the student newspaper, go through the college’s public relations office to obtain interviews with HACC employees. We shared the students’ concern that the college was seeking to control the news by controlling access to college employees.
It appears HACC is far from alone in employing this strategy.
As an August article in The Atlantic noted: “The need for aggressive student news organizations is as acute as ever. But image-obsessed administrators are hastening the demise of these once-formidable campus watchdogs.”
That article was part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation and other organizations. It maintained that the real danger to free speech on campus is not the exclusion of controversial speakers — it lies “in the erosion of student newspapers.”
College newspapers aren’t the only student publications that clash with administrators.
In early 2018, student journalists for the Elizabethtown Area High School newspaper, the Elizabethtown Expression, were putting together a story on controversial quotes from one school board member and — appropriately — asked another board member to comment. Their principal directed the students to remove the second board member’s response, and chided the students for supposedly inciting conflict among board members. She also reportedly told the students she could simply eliminate the student newspaper club and their publication if she chose. We were appalled and praised the students for taking a stand for journalistic independence.
In this age when partisans and interest groups flood social media with biased information, and hostile intelligence services fill it with hoaxes and lies dressed up like “news,” we need dogged, independent and fact-checking journalists more than ever.
We applaud the students who are training for this work. The Fourth Estate needs principled young people who believe in truth, fairness and the First Amendment.
The State Press’ scoop was the product of hard work, Howard, the paper’s managing editor, told The Associated Press, noting, “We wanted to make sure our facts are right.”
This is how he described the newsgathering process to the Student Press Law Center: “We just pursued it the same way as we would do any other story, and I think that’s why we were successful, because we didn’t try to take a different approach because it was a big story ... we did it because we were trying to serve the community.”
As the best journalists do.
Howard told The Arizona Republic — the newspaper where he was putting in a shift as an intern when his State Press scoop went online — that he’s been thrilled by the reaction his Volker story has drawn. “No one’s said a single bad thing about us breaking the story and some other newsroom didn’t. ... As a student newsroom, it’s great to feel like you’re supported by the media and not an outlier just because we’re students.”
The truth is that not everyone was gracious about his scoop. As sharp-eyed readers on Twitter pointed out, The New York Times buried mention of Howard’s scoop in its own story about Volker. The Times made amends by writing a follow-up story on Howard and The State Press. It was the least the paper could do.
At LNP, we’re celebrating the work of students by featuring their opinion writing on a new page in the Sunday Perspective section — Generation Z(eal). We urge you to read their thoughtful and compelling columns each week.
And local school and college administrators: Let your student journalists work without interference to tell the stories — the tough ones, as well as the upbeat ones — of your campuses. The reporting should be accurate and fair. But it also should be unfettered.