Student journalists need laws to match new role

In November, the Washington Post’s investigative team published the kind of labor-intensive blockbuster that – in today’s economy – has become almost prohibitively costly: Deconstructing an extravagantly mismanaged $32 billion federal housing program that has littered America’s landscape with never-to-be-completed apartments.

In the latest installment in its series, “Million Dollar Wasteland,” the Post meticulously documented how some $40 million in grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development got squandered on unfinished housing units due to lax, or nonexistent, oversight.

How did the Post manage to inspect 75 locations from Santa Clara, Calif., to Irvington, N.J., to West Palm Beach, Fla.?

It didn’t. College journalists did. More than four dozen students fanned out across the country to eyeball what were supposed to be newly built affordable housing units – and often were, instead, vacant lots.

This is journalism’s new reality – the reality that students are not the future of journalism, but the present. Even more than they realize, readers are dependent on students as front-line newsgatherers, telling essential stories that have nothing to do with keggers and sorority rush.

A good-government think-tank, the New America Foundation, focused on the growing need for journalism schools to feed their communities’ appetite for news in an October 2011 report, “Shaping 21st Century Journalism.”

The report analogizes the role that j-schools can play to that of teaching hospitals, where doctors-in-training serve the community by providing direct patient care.

The authors challenge journalism schools to step up and assume responsibility for being primary news sources for audiences beyond the campus. But if we are to place big-time professional responsibilities on the shoulders of student journalists, then they need big-time professional legal rights to match. That means enacting laws in every state that protect college journalists against censorship – and their advisers against retaliation – for what they say and write. And it means ending college journalists’ “second class citizen” status under the reporter shield laws of Florida, Texas and a handful of other states, where only salaried professionals are assured the right to protect confidential sources and information against compelled disclosure.

Frank LoMonte, executive director

reports, Winter 2011-12