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December 9, 2004

the campus newspaper and civil society

"There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers"--Alexis de Tocqueville.

This week, some colleagues and I have been conducting focus groups with politically and socially active Maryland undergraduates, in order to identify opportunities for leadership, service, and civic participation on campus. We hope to publicize the full range of opportunities to other students; we will also think about how to fill any gaps in the array of student associations and programs.

In both groups of student leaders that I moderated last night, there was tremendous antipathy to the campus newspaper, the Diamondback. Some participants acknowledged that it's a student product, published daily in color, and free--which is an impressive achievement. Nevertheless, they felt that the newspaper relentlessly criticizes the student organizations that it covers, while utterly ignoring many other groups. Thus, they said, it fails to inform students about opportunities for participation and instead tends to reduce trust and respect for the civic work that students do.

I am not a regular reader of the Diamondback, nor have I asked its editors and writers for their side of the story. But the important questions go far beyond the performance of a particular campus newspaper. In the 1990s, under the heading of "public journalism," many reporters and editors began to re-consider their role in civil society. They asked whether some of their reflexive assumptions (for example, that good news is never newsworthy; or that all newsmakers are powerful people or criminals) were good or bad for civil society. Those questions prompted deeper ones about the role of the press in a democracy. Is a newspaper a watchdog, a gadfly, a dispassionate truth-teller, the "schoolhouse of the common man," a forum for debate, or a gateway to civic participation? Each of these roles is problematic in different ways.

Unfortunately, public journalism (seen as a dialogue, not as a batch of projects and programs) has faltered in the mainstream press. Although I haven't analyzed the Diamondback itself, I suspect that student journalists copy what they take to be professional norms and roles (especially the notion that they are "watchdogs"); and they see student organizations as potential tyrants or malefactors, much as reporters view the state and corporations. Student journalists do not ask whether these roles make sense or are useful on a campus.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:36 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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