Critical Thinking? J-School Students and Industry Vets Tackle the Tough Questions
Q: Last spring, the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. launched weekly sections covering three major universities in the county, but the proposal says the schools are funding the paper's coverage. Do you think this is a smart way to bring in new revenue or do you think it goes against journalism ethics?
A: As a publication, covering your advertisers can sometimes be tricky. However, the newsroom and advertising office are almost always separate, so there's not much risk in most stories. When it comes to your advertisers funding a special section that covers them--especially in the case of colleges and universities, which are major institutions in their communities--it's a different case. There's a huge question of ethics here. If a negative story about a college is printed or will be printed in this special section, will the college threaten to pull the plug on funding? Equally importantly, will an editor bend under the pressure and allow that threat to stop the story from running?
It's tricky. What is vital in this situation is a good relationship between the reporters and editors involved with the section and the communications staff and administration at each college or university. While it seems higher education public relations professionals are almost as well-trained in question avoidance as politicians, a trusting relationship can go a long way when conflict arises.
A strict agreement with the colleges not to pull advertising in response to reporting is also vital. The newspaper industry is still rooted in business and driven by revenue, and great content alone will not keep a publication financially solvent. Everyone loves positive press, especially institutions of higher education, but there needs to be a solid written agreement that truthful, accurate stories that may not portray the school in its preferred light won't cause the breakdown of the business relationship.
Important stories come out of colleges every day, especially those that are publicly funded. These are stories that need to be told and these are stories a university may try to squash.
Amanda Coyne, 20
junior, University of South
Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
Coyne is the news editor of The Daily Gamecock, the editorially independent student newspaper of the University of South Carolina. She is apolitical science and journalism student who hopes to become a state government and politics reporter at a major metropolitan daily newspaper upon her graduation in Map 2015. …