When bad news breaks on university campuses, student journalists and their tutors face particular pressures when reporting.
For students, it balancing being an observer with also being part of the community you’re reporting on. For tutors, it’s about protecting students’ right to report at all, whilst also educating them to work ethically.
Last week at my university, news spread swiftly via social media that a student lay seriously injured after apparently falling from a hall of residence building in full view of dozens of passers-by. Images were circulated from phone to phone of paramedics administering CPR, presumably thinking this wasn’t a fatal incident. But, sadly, he didn’t and was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after.
The reaction from our student journalists was interesting, with some condemning any coverage of the incident whatsoever. Some argued that real-time coverage of such a tragedy is prurient, while others suggested that campuses are such tight-knit communities that the ethics of mainstream media are deficient.
For two days, late into evenings, I was mediating between various university personnel, students and fellow journalism staff who all had particular views and approaches – all valid but in many cases conflicting.
The first question asked by many was whether student journalists should be reporting such an incident at all. This was the view of many in the university community – and indeed some journalism students – who believed it to be a very private matter. But the fact that many witnessed the event, were sharing via social media and were also looking for sources of support, students and staff needed clear factual information. The university posted a paragraph online later in the day confirming there’d been an incident, but by this time social media and indeed the local press were reporting on it. So the case for sensitive, responsible factual reporting was made.
But in providing ongoing web updates, it was vital not to speculate on the cause of the death. Students needed urgent guidance on vocabulary so as not to pre-empt any coroner’s decision. The fact that some local media were using particular technical terminology did not mean our students should follow suit or see real-world media as setting the standard. Real-world media get it wrong and aren’t always the exemplar students should aspire to.
Students also had to be very mindful of identifying the deceased before his next-of-kin was informed. One image in wide online circulation depicted an open window above the spot where he lay. There was no evidence at that stage to suggest he had fallen from that window, but more important was the fact that it narrowed down the ID to one of six occupants of that flat before family had been informed. A significant number of families find out about their loved ones’ deaths from the media, and I didn’t want that to happen because of our student journalists.
Then there’s the issue of being a student and a reporter. The lines can be blurred when caught up in the moment and it was evident that our students found the situation complex, fast moving and harrowing. As part of the university community, there were subjected to abuse for deigning to report on the incident as if it amounted to betrayal. Then again, members of the community – like the home-grown beat reporters on local papers – are ideally best-placed to reflect the feelings of their own locale and report with due sensitivity.
A student reporter covering an event on campus has to ensure they are mindful of how they are perceived. You cannot slip in and out of reporter-mode. If you are reporter then that’s how you will be perceived by all – you cannot take a 10-min break and be a campus citizen then become a reporter again. Everyone will assume you are taking notes for your story even when having an innocent chat with a bystander.
One of the big questions our students faced was whether you have to act with greater sensitivity when reporting on your campus community than you might covering a story off campus. This was made particularly evident when the aforementioned image went viral. It wasn’t generated by journalism students but was re-tweeted. There was no consensus amongst staff and students as to the journalistic ethics involved in distributing the image. Some felt it was a factual depiction, taken from far away, which did not identify the student and was within the realms of taste and decency. If the event was off-campus or in a war zone, we would not hold back from depicting the aftermath, they said, so what’s the difference? Others felt it was an invasion of the man’s privacy and had the capacity to harm those who knew him by forever being online.
For my own experience covering some particularly shocking and harrowing stories such as the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, the local press do strike a different tone to the nationals. The question I always ask is: does the image add anything? Is it in the public interest to see it? You always have to consider the specificities of your audience, not apply a one-size-fits-all approach. What might work in the Mirror won’t necessarily work in a local. This was borne out by the fact that a national and regional newspaper covered the event on campus in gratuitous detail, yet to date that coverage has not been openly criticised like that careful reporting by students has. People have different expectations of student journalism, perhaps.
Post-Leveson, it’s clear just how anti-journalist even informed academic communities have become. One of the many calls I received from across the campus was a senior manager imploring me to stop student journalists harassing residents of the hall in question. When CCTV images of the miscreants were scanned and sent to me, it was apparent they weren’t our students but staff from those very national and regional newspapers who had used misrepresentation to get in and gain access to the deceased’s flatmates. But the gut reaction of university staff was that this was how student journalists would also behave. Maybe some would, but minimising harm is always the mantra in our teaching. It shows that student journalists are viewed in the same light as national tabloids and perhaps have to work doubly hard to build bridges.
So how should student journalists cover tragedies close to home? In community reporting you need to reflect the campus mood, the support available and create a greater awareness of the pressures of student life. You should report the facts in a non-sensationalist way to put paid to rumour and speculation, but also ensure that people are aware of support and resources on campus in the immediate aftermath. You need to allow people a shared space to express the emotional impact of the event. Where there may have been a suicide – and we don’t know that in this case – it is responsible journalism to speak with charities and support groups for guidance both on reporting styles, facts and advice for the community. Providing helpline numbers is essential. And ask the question ‘what happens now?’. How is the university supporting its students, staff, the deceased family? How is it preventing further tragedy, if indeed it can? What can the wider staff/student community do?
The idea that journalists are just reactive fact-disseminators in community reporting is rather misguided, I feel, and ignores the potential role reporters have to bring different parts of a community into useful dialogue. Journalists are under pressure to rebuild trust and local journalism’s been particularly affected by the mistrust wrought in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. While student journalists should not hold back from reporting the truth, however unpalatable or distressing that might be to some, you have do so mindful of your context. Keep reminding yourself why you are reporting this – what is your purpose? – and you’ll hit the right note. In this particular case, students have a unique insight into the specificities of the campus community and I am really looking forward to learning what positives may emerge or what public interest might be served out of this unfortunate tragedy.
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