Remember the UCD 200 scandal?
If you missed it, in February, a student journalist reported that, “It is believed a private Facebook groupchat with as many as 200 members is active among male students at UCD, in which members share and rate stories and pictures of girls they have slept with.”
The national media picked up the story, the university “instigated an investigation”, and the report declared that “The claims in the article have been fully investigated and have been found to be unsubstantiated.”
The student journalist who wrote that article for the College Tribune was in his final year studying history and politics at UCD, which does not have a journalism programme. He had no formal training in journalism.
Was he failed by a student-journalism system in which student editors with no formal journalism training oversee student reporters with no formal journalism training? Does this system need to be changed?
UCD is not the only university in Dublin that allows students without any formal journalism education to write and edit newspapers.
Trinity doesn’t have a journalism programme either. Sarah Taaffe-Maguire, who is doing a graduate degree in law there, says she “wrote for Tn2 and Trinity News as well as being Deputy Features Editor for Trinity News”.
She hasn’t had any formal journalism education – but she has picked up bits and pieces along the way. She did a module on media law. She got out a handbook on journalism. She read the Trinity News style guide.
Taaffe-Maguire also got a presentation on ethics from a student editor. And she got lots of coaching and mentoring from more experienced student journalists, who would check in on her, and were always around to answer questions, she says.
So was that enough? Did she feel she was adequately prepared for the responsibilities she was given? “I found it to be enough,” she told me recently by email.
“I always felt incredibly supported and prepared. Everyone in Trinity News is knowledgeable and giving with their time,” she said. “If there was something they didn’t know, they knew someone who would know as there are many alumni working in journalism.”
The student who wrote the UCD 200 story also learned as he went. His name is Jack Power.
He started writing for the College Tribune in his first year at UCD, he told me recently by email. “It’s very much a learn-as-you-go experience. But over the year you’d get guidance from your section editor or the paper’s editor,” he wrote.
By the time he wrote the UCD 200 article, he was the paper’s innovation and politics editor. He still had had no formal training in journalism.
As the school year begins again this autumn, Power will return to the Tribune as its top editor. He says he will have “a staff of 12 or 13 section editors, and then you’d have a further team of about thirty writers”.
Power stands by the path he chose into journalism. He says he decided not to study it because he believed an arts degree would prepare him better to be a journalist — giving him an area of expertise, as well as strong skills for critical-thinking, analysis and investigation.
And, looking back, he does not wish that he had a senior journalist or mentor looking over his shoulder when he was deciding whether to run with the UCD 200 story.
“Going through that experience, of national headlines, intense pressure from the university authority, and huge online criticism is certainly a learning experience. But as a journalist, or in any profession you’re only going to learn by messing up,” he says.
“Student press is held to the same account as any other paper, and if we mess up we’re just as open to being sued. I’ve had a fair few brushes with legal threats, so it’s not as if we’re acting with impunity,” he said.
(Power has views on how the whole UCD 200 story went down, and the roles of the student government and the university, but this isn’t a post mortem on that story. So I’m going to stick to talking about the student-journalism system.)
It’s not necessary or desirable for everyone to do a journalism degree before getting into journalism. Having all kinds of people, with all kinds of educations and life experiences working as journalists enriches the profession.
I’d estimate that less than half of the journalists I have worked with over the years have had journalism degrees. And I haven’t noticed any correlation between having a journalism degree and doing better journalism.
But then, I would say that. I don’t have a journalism degree.
I stumbled into journalism when I was getting towards the end of an arts degree and realised I had gained no useful skills, except how to research things, analyse them, and write about them. So I looked around for a job that required those skills.
With zero experience, I got a summer internship at the Burlington Free Press, a daily newspaper in the US state of Vermont, basically by annoying the editors there until they took me on. I was given no formal training, but they put me to work reporting and writing articles, and supervised me very closely.
Later, I wrote a little for my university newspaper, and then, after graduation, I did a fellowship at the Poynter Institute in Florida, where they gave me a bit of money to live on while I studied news writing, reporting and ethics for six weeks (and went to the beach a lot).
And from there, it was on to a full-time career in journalism for a good few years. Along the way, I’ve worked with student journalists.
I taught journalism for two years to university students at the American University of Central Asia in beautiful Kyrgyzstan. While there, I worked with students producing student newspapers.
I’ve also taught short journalism courses in Kolkata and Dublin. And as an editor at Dublin Inquirer I’ve worked with students who have freelanced for us, including Power and Taaffe-Maguire.
My impression of student journalists is quite positive.
Journalism is a bit like cooking: anyone can do it without any skill, experience and training, and they might well produce something foul, but they will definitely have a result to put on the plate, and they’re unlikely to do anyone any serious harm, except in rare cases.
For cooks, this might mean giving guests food poisoning. For journalists, it might mean getting something so disastrously wrong that it ruins someone’s life, and perhaps results in a successful defamation suit that financially ruins the journalist.
But these cases are rare. And if the beginning chef or journalist just sticks with it and keeps on muddling through, especially if she has help from a more experienced cook, she will likely improve.
Why do it the hard way, though? Why not take a little time to learn some of the essentials first?
I’d suggest that a short course in journalism would benefit anyone starting out in it, whether as a student, or as a professional. Mine (at Poynter) was certainly a huge benefit to me.
At a minimum, I’d suggest four to six hours of classroom time covering reporting methods, journalism ethics and media law. Or, if that’s too formal, too much of a burden, just a couple of books covering those same topics.
Taaffe-Maguire argues that even a minimal amount of training is a bad idea.
“If there’s a minimum amount of formal training each contributor has to do it could turn busy people off and create an unnecessary barrier to entry,” she says. “If I was required to read a book or do class time I would never have written my first or second article. That’s not because I didn’t really want to write, it was because I was commuting, working, trying to get good grades, involved in college societies and maintaining relationships. The articles were good without reading books or doing compulsory class time.”
To which I’d reply: there’s no shortage of journalists, so there’s no reason we need to be keeping the barriers to entry low to encourage more people to enter the profession.
In addition to getting some training, beginning journalists should start out working as part of a team, with more experienced journalists closely supervising them – perhaps even people more experienced than student editors.
It’s not about having people around to tell students what they can and can’t write. It’s about having skilled, experienced people around to help them cover whatever they want to cover in the best possible way, to produce the strongest possible article.
Power says the the College Tribune has a board of trustees “who are all past editors now working in mainstream media”, and that they “provide a network of support if you need it when you’re ever unsure about an article, if the university attempt to encroach on our independence, or if we get into legal trouble”.
He bristles at the idea of additional supervision. “I’d take any move to plant supervision on myself as an encroachment on our independence,” he says. “The fact students run the paper and that the editor is just another student gives the paper much more scope to question the concentration of power in our universities.”
And Taaffe-Maguire argues that professional (as opposed to student) supervision is just not practical. “Would they have to read every article published?” she asks. “Would they have to be at every meeting? Would they work office hours and so could meetings only be business hours Monday-Friday? What if they are sick or on leave, does an issue not get published?”
The student-journalism system isn’t broken, Taaffe-Maguire says, so there’s no reason to try to fix it. “It’s worked well for decades and I’d say the majority of Irish journalists got their training from student journalism rather than through a journalism course,” she says.
But I’d say that all of us journalists, students and professionals, inside Ireland and beyond, could be doing a better job – should be doing a better job. It’s not that anything or anyone is broken, it’s just that we can always do better, and we should always be striving to.
Getting a minimal amount of formal education in the methods, ethics and laws of our own profession would be a good place to start. And making sure that we have the most skilled, experienced possible editor looking over our shoulder to make sure we stick to the high standards we know we should be sticking to, is important too.