When Student Newspapers Cover Race

Students at three universities are dealing with histories of mistrust between student newspapers and students of color, pushing campus media to better cover race and activism.

By Meerabelle Jesuthasan

In November 2019, students at Northwestern University protested outside a campus event hosting Jeff Sessions as speaker. The student-run paper The Daily Northwestern covered the protest, as they do most controversial events on campus. But this time, they got pushback. After being criticized for their reporting methods by some students, the paper released an editorial apologizing for their coverage of the protests, specifically for taking pictures of student protesters, and for finding students’ numbers in the university directory, and reaching out via text message. “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups,” the editorial read, referencing students’ concerns that they might face reprisal from the University or that the photos being shared felt “retraumatizing and invasive.”

The apology came two months after student activists at Harvard criticized The Crimson, the college’s daily student newspaper, for its coverage of an anti-ICE rally, in which a short sentence mentioned that staff writers had reached out to the federal government branch for comment. In October, Act On A Dream, the immigration advocacy organization that planned the rally, responded with a petition against this practice, highlighting instances when immigration advocates have been targeted by ICE.

A few days later, four members of The Crimson’s staff, including its president and managing editor, wrote a letter standing by the paper’s decision, explaining their policy to “always make every effort to contact the individuals and institutions we write about” before publishing a story.

Media professionals had plenty of opinions on both situations.

New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss lamented The Daily Northwestern’s editorial letter for apologizing for basic journalistic practices. The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg praised The Crimson’s for sticking up for them. Robby Soave, a senior editor at the centrist website Reason, decried both the student activists’ lack of familiarity with the reporting process and the reporters for caving into them. This is hardly the first time that student newspapers have faced backlash for their coverage of race and protests, nor the first time that activists and students of color have been accused of misunderstanding the point of journalism.

But it’s possible that professional journalists are missing a more nuanced and pressing discussion happening on college campuses. Distrust of campus media from student activists and students of color runs deep, perhaps for good reason. It’s often a defense against college newsrooms that can be perceived as majority-white mouthpieces for institutional opinion.

Recently, campus papers have started administering diversity surveys of their own staffs, and the results have confirmed dismal levels of racial and economic diversity, even when compared to the rest of the student body. At The Daily Northwestern, for example, white students made up 53 percent of the newsroom in 2019, a slightly higher share than the student body. Asian and Asian American students made up 16.1 percent of the entire staff, compared to Northwestern’s overall 23.5 percent. The discrepancy, the editors realized, manifested in a lack of adequate coverage: “This quarter, the Asian and Asian-American community received little coverage from The Daily,” wrote the editorial board in presenting their 2019 Diversity Report.

Beyond the numbers, the ways student newspapers cover controversy can have serious material impact on students. Protesters can face disciplinary action if they are identified in photographs or quotes published by their own peers. (In 2017, Northwestern students protesters who faced disciplinary action told The Daily that they believed there was a connection to the paper’s coverage.) In an era of increased surveillance and deportations, some fear is that reprisal might even come from a government agency like ICE.

The pushback against some reporting norms on college campuses are not unfounded demands for special treatment, but a demonstration of what needs repair in the relationship between college papers and their most marginalized audiences. But even as student editors push efforts to include more voices in the newsroom, old tensions between activists and reporters on campus linger.

Alexander McNab, a Black man and recent Columbia University graduate, doesn’t know exactly where that distrust comes from. When he first joined The Eye, the Columbia Daily Spectator’s weekly feature magazine, he pitched a story relating to the Black student experience, listing several organizations that he wanted to reach out to. His editors surmised that he must be new—those organizations, he was told, would certainly not speak to him.

“Some of the most prominent voices and communities of color on campus refuse to talk to the Spectator,” says McNab, who points out that, in contrast, the paper has no problem with access to the administration. “Although I think it’s silly, I’m sure they have at least what they think is a good reason, which is probably something that Spec did to them at some point in time. I don’t really know what it is, because that’s been going on since before I arrived. But that’s a bad sign.” (The Black Students Organization at Columbia did not respond to a request for comment.)

McNab went on to write several features, usually with a focus on gentrification and communities of color off-campus. He became wary of the news section’s lack of in-depth coverage of those communities—the paper cut their City News section in 2016, and its re-introduction as a section at The Eye was limited by geographical restrictions that McNab finds illogical since they don’t cover half of the surrounding neighborhood. (The paper restored its City News section this year, focused on stories that relate to Columbia.) He also notes that while Ava DuVernay’s series and Ken Burns’ documentary on the Central Park Five were being discussed across the media this year and in 2012, Columbia’s paper did not cover it, despite the fact that the prosecutor on the case taught at Columbia until earlier this year.

McNab suspects that editors sometimes avoid stories that are critical of Columbia’s record on race or its relationship to the surrounding neighborhood because they want to preserve their relationship with sources in the school administration. As he points out, the paper has ample access to the school officials have run profiles and Q&As with the school president himself. In contrast, he says, reporters never expect to hear back from a request for comment to the Black Students Organization.

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A lack of trust between activists, communities of color, and the press is not unique to student journalism. Both on and off-campus mainstream journalism has been historically very white and often sided with police, the state, and against activists. The tension at campus papers is not uncommon, but a microcosm of a widespread problem within the industry.

But a college is also a particular environment. According to certain rules of journalistic integrity, reporters should avoid close personal relationships with sources—but depending on the university’s size, that might be difficult to avoid, especially when students of color make up a minority of the student body. And as journalists, students of color often find themselves both covering an issue and affected by it as minorities.

In April 2019, during his senior year, McNab unexpectedly became a public figure when several Barnard Public Safety officers physically restrained him and pinned him down in an aggressive encounter that was filmed and widely circulated online. McNab had declined to show his Columbia University ID, noting in later interviews and in his own writing that the practice of showing ID was inconsistently enforced, and usually not enforced at all with white students.

He thought that the video, showing events The New York Times described as a “flashpoint over racism on campus,” would be unambiguously interpreted as racist policing. But it was not. In a column in the The Eye, McNab reflected on varying interpretations he had seen—one email from deans at Columbia University called the incident a reflection of “racism on our campus,” while an email from the president of Barnard, sent on the same day, called it only a “recent campus incident.”

McNab thinks that the reputation the incident established as “that person who resists authority” might have been part of why he was allowed to publish a searing senior column at the end of his senior year, entitled “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” In it, he roundly criticized the Spectator for, among other things, failing to cover the local community that the university was so rapidly displacing. One of his other friends wrote a column that also criticized the paper; the editors, he says, decided not to publish it.

This year, the Spectator developed a staff diversity survey for the first time, and delivered its own apologetic editorial for having “failed to represent and reflect the experiences of students of color both in our coverage and in our organization.”

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Writing and editing pieces that are about race—or are even just sensitive to it—is a skill that some student papers are formalizing by creating a dedicated position on their editorial staff. At Arizona State University’s State Press, Barbara Smith is the paper’s second ever diversity officer. Her primary job is to act as a discerning eye on articles that might need attention to make sure that the content is not marginalizing, inaccurate, or offensive.

“It is basically one of those things to make sure that we can learn our lessons, for lack of a better term, before other people can get to us,” she explains. “Mistakes are still made, but it’s a lot easier to deal with those internally.”

If any harmful prejudices those mistakes slip into publication, Smith acts as a mediator between the editorial board and disgruntled students. This fall, she was contacted when the editorial staff decided not to run a story about alleged blackface photos displayed in a campus office. Upon examination, they had determined that the person photographed was actually not actually in blackface (their body was painted several colors), and therefore that it was not worth publishing.

About a week later, one of the groups that the reporter had reached out to for comment sent an email asking the State Press to reconsider its decision. The group expressed disappointment and said that the decision silenced marginalized students at ASU. Smith, who is Black and wrote extensively about her own experiences with racism on campus as an opinion columnist, explained the editorial decision in first-person plural. “After careful consideration of the potential impact, we decided that [publishing the piece] would incite more controversy and harm within our community,” she wrote, and invited them to submit a letter to the editor.

Those kinds of decisions are made as a group. In this case, she also felt certain in her personal judgment as a Black woman.

A solution isn’t always so clear cut. Smith points out that the Diversity Officer, like any other student, is learning. She says that at times, the blowback against student papers can feel disproportionate. And although their mistakes might make ripples on social media at times, a college paper is just that—a college paper.

“There’s only so much we can do, because we’re just so far down the pipeline,” she says. “So I always applaud the student newsrooms. We’re working extremely hard as the bigger papers close.”

As a student of color, Smith understands the personal toll of racist incidents at ASU. But she finds it frustrating that certain activist groups refuse to talk to reporters, or don’t understand that they will seek out more than one opinion. But it’s a problem that runs deep and reflects inherent distrust between institutions; an individual is unlikely to solve it in the span of a typical four-year undergrad.

At some schools, instead of hoping the main student paper will change its coverage of race, students are creating alternatives that attempt to show what’s possible when trust and diversity are built into the model.

Lauren Lumpkin was a junior at American University in the fall of 2016 when she joined The Blackprint, a new publication that was started by two Black women in the year above her. It was supposed to be an alternative to existing campus news and to serve as a voice by and for people of color.

That school year, anti-Black racist incidents began escalating on campus, starting with students throwing rotten bananas at a Black freshman. As she read the coverage in other student publications, of which she “wasn’t a fan,” Lumpkin remembers thinking: “How come Black people aren’t writing about this? How come Black people aren’t involved in editorial decisions?”

There had already been six hate crimes reported on AU’s campus in 2016. But the tensions came to a head in May 2017, barely a month after the university had elected its first African American woman as student body president. It was the rush of finals season when someone hung up bananas in nooses in three different campus locations. They were emblazoned with references to Harambe and the student body president’s historically Black sorority.

Before that, The Blackprint had never covered breaking news. But when the news of the hate crime exploded into the publication’s group chat the next morning, the entire team—still a small newsroom at the time—sprang into action. Over the next few days they ran from protest to protest and meeting to meeting. People were hurting, upset both by the late notice of the incident and by the perception that the administration was doing little to address the growing tensions on campus.

Lumpkin quickly realized that The Blackprint’s mission and demographics might be an advantage in covering the story. Some students told Lumpkin explicitly that they would only talk to her because she was with the publication. She suspected that the trust was built in because they were both Black, but also because of longstanding distrust of more established campus media. There was a sense, Lumpkin says, that other outlets like the main student paper, The Eagle, would side with the administration.

Haley Samsel, the news editor for The Eagle at the time, told me that, to her knowledge, there was no outright hostility or refusal to talk to the newspaper’s reporters that significantly affected their access. But there was more general backlash against the paper’s demographics and policies. Although it had been an unwritten rule before, only after that semester did The Eagle establish a formal, written policy about protests—staffers could participate in political actions about campus issues, but if they did, they could not report on them.

On May 3rd, Lumpkin attended the walkout and protest both as a journalist and as a participant. The incidents felt personal. She was one of the very few Black students on campus, and after a year of mounting incidents, she didn’t want to feel like she had to choose between reporting and supporting her peers. Looking back, Lumpkin doesn’t have regrets about her dual involvement—both participating in protests and reporting on them for The Blackprint—but she says she would not advise people to do the same.

The way she sees it, student journalists should be a third party not just for the sake of balance, but for the sake of holding both sides accountable, including activists. “A lot of times you see these movements fizzle out,” she observes. “I think you need people on the ground—people who’ll say, ‘Hey, remember your list of demands? Remember all that stuff you were doing? What happened with that?’”

Also, the experience drained her: “There’s ethical reasons why you shouldn’t report on what you’re actively involved in, but also, it’s just a lot of work.”

One of Lumpkin’s professors allowed her to skip a final exam because she was so overwhelmed. The night of May 2nd, she remembers staying up late with her peers to finish writing the list of demands to be read out at the next day’s protest, when she would also be taking notes and interviewing her peers. In the fight to protect Black lives and voices on campus, it was hard to tell where organizing ended and where reporting began.