Student journalists say they are not producing Fisher-Price journalism

Copies of Plainsman
The Auburn Plainsman was founded in 1893 and continues to be a top winner in collegiate news competitions throughout the U.S. It is an independent student-run newspaper on the campus of Auburn University, Alabama. Photo by Sharon Dunten

By Ariel Cochran, SPJ Region 3 intern and SPJ Auburn student chapter president

Broadlee Chip
Chip Brownlee

The fight to retain First Amendment Rights is a constant battle for student journalists within college campuses across the United States. Chip Brownlee, a junior journalism and political science major and editor-in-chief of The Auburn Plainsman says, “There’s little things every day” that might fragment or dislodge the rights of student journalists.

Recently, Brownlee dealt with a reporter who was removed from an open campus meeting where student organization salaries were discussed. In another instance, The Plainsman had to seek legal action together with the Alabama Press Association to fight against the exclusion of a special edition of The Plainsman within the university’s Camp War Eagle orientation bag.

SPLC logoThere is also the Student Press Law Center, a non-partisan 501(c)(3) corporation out of Washington, D.C, is an organization dedicated to providing legal resources and education for high school and college journalists.

For Auburn University’s student newspaper, these organizations may have led to success against the opposition that infringed on their First Amendment rights.

Dr Chris Roberts U of Alabama
Dr. Chris Roberts

According to Dr. Chris Roberts, associate professor of the University of Alabama and Dr. Clay Carey, assistant professor and Samford University’s SPJ adviser, the idea stands: universities are fighting to keep up personal image.

“One of the greatest elements that stands in opposition on strong journalism being done on college campuses is the image obsession that some universities have right now; how they are prepared or portrayed in any type of communication,” said Dr. Carey.

Are students too young to handle the news?

To Dr. Roberts, this may have to do with the perception of student-journalism as too young and inexperienced.

“Student journalists have to be good at what they do. In many cases, we’re talking about 19-year-olds with limited experience taking on powerful adults who have more years of experience and money that supports their PR machines. It’s often not a fair fight,” said Dr. Roberts.

In order to combat the opposing forces, student journalists must serve their audience with journalistic accuracy …” said Dr. Roberts.

He said he believes that in order to combat the opposing forces, student journalists must serve their audience with journalistic accuracy, willingness to learn, and the ability to be unafraid of speaking the truth and holding the power accountable.

Asia Burns
Asia Burns

According to Asia Burns, a Samford Univesity senior journalism and mass communications major, professional peers don’t always take students journalists seriously.

 “As student journalists, the common perception is that we are essentially Fisher-Price journalism,” she said. “We’re journalists but like the kid version of journalists that hasn’t quite matured, yet which to an extent is true, but that perception has the tendency to prevent us from performing at our best and being taken seriously.”

A university honor code versus aggressive reporting

Burns is the president of SPJ Samford University student chapter and editor-in-chief of The Samford Crimson.

Samford CrimsonBut Burns said that her newsroom also faces a distinctive honor code set by Samford University that might prove to be difficult to maintain while reporting and writing underneath university authority.  Samford University, a private Christian university within Homewood, Alabama, near Birmingham, Alabama. The university also has a long standing history with the Alabama Baptist Convention.

There is potential risk for article rejection, says Burns. 

Dr. Carey says the university’s history and the honor code might provide a challenge to its student journalists.

Dr Clay Carey
Dr. Clay Carey

“There are certain topics student journalists are instructed not to write about such as alcohol use — content that would promote actions or go against the honors code of the university,” said Dr. Carey, “There is an editor’s contract that they (the editors) must sign that lays these rules out.”

Burn says this climate, at times, affects the writing and editing process.

“We want to give the audience what they need and what they want at the same time. We write in a way that our audience can stomach [it]. Our challenge we run into again and again is how to write the story in the way the audience would be receptive to it, especially in our niche,” said Burns.

According to Samford University’s 2017 Quick Facts, The Samford Crimson serves a predominately white, Christian demographic.

We’re trying to think the best way to appease our audience plus we are on deadline. We find ourselves in a rock and a hard place often,” said Burns.

“We’re trying to think the best way to appease our audience plus we are on deadline. We find ourselves in a rock and a hard place often,” said Burns.

Dr. Carey said, “The ability to lean on college journalists to try to discourage certain types of stories, angles and aggressive stories happens on any university. This is very much something that stands in opposition to aggressive reporting that tries to bring issues into light.”

Collegiate news makers have professional support

Frank LoMonte
Frank LoMonte

Censorship and removal are common forms of obstruction of The First Amendment that are documented within K-12 grade school journalism as seen in the recent CNN Opinion piece “Free Press Shouldn’t Stop at the School Yard” by Attorney Frank LoMonte that delved into several examples of high school journalists pressured to self-censure while school administration applies pressures of their own. LoMonte is a professor of media law at the University of Florida, where he runs the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information

Despite these pressures, there are organizations dedicated to helping student, and professional, journalists when their First Amendment rights are challenged.

Alabama Scholastic Press Association

Within Alabama’s borders, the Alabama Scholastic Press Association provides resources for student media advisers and reporters. Also the Alabama Press Association which, like the Society of Professional Journalists, provides legal support to student members in order to protect free press when it is obstructed.

For Auburn University’s student newspaper, these organizations may have led to success against the opposition that infringed on their First Amendment rights.

In the summer 2017, Brownlee reached out to an attorney at the Alabama Press Association for help to prevent censorship and removal of the student newspaper within a then-approved distribution of a special edition for new students during orientation. 

Sometimes you have to call an attorney

According to Brownlee, Auburn University’s Mark Armstrong, director of the First Year Experience Office, allegedly backed out of an agreement to include special edition copies of The Auburn Plainsman to be included within Camp War Eagle orientation bags distributed to new students.

Mark Armstrong Auburn
Mark Armstrong

Over 10,000 copies of the newspaper and signing contracts with distributors and advertisers were in peril. Brownlee said the censorship and removal might have been in response to Armstrong’s disagreement with three columns featured in the orientation special edition.

After reaching out to the Student Press Law Center about censorship of The Plainsman, Brownlee said there was a turn around. The First Year Experience Office upheld their portion of the agreement and distributed the orientation special edition, preventing a huge loss in revenue for the student newspaper.

According to the Student Press Law Center, instances like what The Plainsman experienced are common.

Diana Mitsu Klos and SPLC
Diana Mitsu Klos

“Student Press Law Center receives more than 2,000 inquiries a year from college journalists and advisers,” said Diana Mitsu Klos, Student Press Law Center director of engagement.

SPLC has been around since 1974 and according to their sources, is the country’s only non-profit organization created sole for protecting the First Amendment Right for student journalists.

“We typically receive requests on how to fill Freedom of Information (FOI) requests or seeking additional information about ensuring that journalists can attend public meetings,” said Klos, “We receive questions about basic rights of journalists who are covering events on their campuses or their greater campus community.”

This information is also present on the Student Press Law Center website.

First Amendment art 2

“It’s readily accessible, and we even have a section called ‘Know Your Rights’. We also have a series of presentations done for students and their advisers,” said Klos.

In the case of The Plainsman and The Samford Crimson, Klos said she suggests that the best option for student journalists to fight and retain their First Amendment Rights is to be well resourced and persevere.

The most important things are to have the facts, be persistent, and don’t give up,” said Diana Mitsu Klos

“The most important things are to have the facts, be persistent, and don’t give up,” said Klos. “There’s a tendency toward college and universities that avoid transparency in the name of image and public relations. Public education is something that students and their loved ones are paying for and they have the basic rights to know how their decision making processes and governess is done there [the university].”

Newsrooms show students the fight for rights

Burns, an intern at a Alabama newspaper, has seen first hand how professional journalists fight for First Amendment rights. Last September Burns says she watched Starnes Publishing, a media group based out of Birmingham, Alabama, fight first hand to expose the truth and inform the public. 

Atlanta bridge collapse You Tube photo
After the Atlanta I-85 bridge collapsed in 2017, Starnes Publishing started an investigation of the condition of Alabama bridges. YouTube photo

After Atlanta, Georgia’s I-85 bridge collapsed in spring 2017, the newspaper was seeking information on the condition of bridges across the state of Alabama. 

Burns says Sydney Cromwell, managing editor of Starnes Publishing, led efforts for information. She wrote a response piece titled, “A Bridge Too Far,” about Alabama bridges.

Sydney Crowell
Sydney Cromwell

Starnes Publishing did send multiple FOI requests to gain information. “There were people that fought her [Cromwell] to prevent the obtaining of that information, yet she persisted and insisted on getting it,” said Burns.

As a result of receiving information from FOI requests, Crowell discovered that certain bridges within the state did not meet federal standards, says Burns.

SPJ student chapters host programs to learn more

At Samford University, Burns educates the community and her reporters about the First Amendment through SPJ student programming.

“We try to educate people on what their rights actually are. A lot of people want to protect their First Amendment rights, but it is easy to get confused about what your First Amendment rights actually are. What we have done is host events when we attempt to educate people on what that actually means,” said Burns.

First Amendment Jeopardy questionOne example of First Amendment educational programming is within Samford University’s SPJ chapter, where members play “First Amendment Jeopardy.” The game helps participants break down components of the First Amendment and how certain scenarios could obstruct those rights.

“When we think of the First Amendment we think of freedom of speech, when we think about what that means we think of people and their right to protest. People outside of journalism do not realize freedom of speech also covers freedom of press,” she said.

 Burns said she believes the press is more aware of First Amendment Rights than others.

People forget that freedom of press is a right and the affect freedom of press has on democracy,” said Burns. “It’s important for people to understand that impact, it’s more often than not that journalists are fighting for everybody.”

Fighting against the obstruction of the First Amendment is a daily battle for university newsrooms. The Auburn Plainsman educates their news reporters and has procedures in place in the case their rights are threatened.

“We have training sessions at the beginning of each semester that covers First Amendment rights and related topics. We also bring up these terms when they arise,” said Brownlee.

Collegiate news is becoming more mainstream

As local daily hometown newspapers struggle with financial woes and circulation issues, many collegiate newspapers have picked up the slack. And student journalists say there is more attention on them than ever before.

For example, The Auburn Plainsman caught national media attention and an increase in readership after their coverage of White Supremacist Richard Spencer’s visit on campus in spring 2017.

The Plainsman white supremeist ralley
Alt-right protestors outside of Foy Hall on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. Photo by Dakota Sumpter, The Auburn Plainsman


“In Auburn [Alabama] we still have two more newspapers, but I do think people are starting to come to us for more community news coverage,” said Brownlee.

“Advertisers are starting to come to us because such a huge population of the community are students so they’re trying to reach students through us. People are looking to us now because we are a reliable source of news. We are becoming more mainstream source of news.”

More and more collegiate news makers are moving into the news source for local information. One distinctive college town, Ann Arbor, Michigan, was one of the first American cities to lose their daily newspaper, The Ann Arbor News, in 2014, and became online with only two print editions per week. It’s staff was greatly decreased and its resources cut. 

The university’s independent student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, with its full staff and Monday through Friday print editions was able to investigate and to cover a breaking story that led to an investigation by the the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. The story reported was about a UM football player violating student sexual misconduct policy as a freshman but not addressed until he was a senior. 

There are more than 11 college newspapers not only serving their colleges but also the communities where they are located. 

Crimson white front pageAccording to Dr. Roberts, in the past few years, the University of Alabama’s Crimson White student journalists have covered big events such as systematic exclusion of minorities in the Greek system that led to national coverage and major changes on campus, and small issues like overpriced water at football games, that led to the university installing free water stations around the stadium.

Dr. Roberts said he believes these university reports have changed for the betterment of the public.

“In Tuscaloosa, we have one newspaper reporter who covers the university [University of Alabama] for The Tuscaloosa, and a local TV and public radio station owned by the university. Much of what the public knows about the university comes from student reporters,” he said.

Student papers receive unusual “Pushback” 

With increasing attention directed toward collegiate newsrooms, student journalists receive “pushback” in uncommon ways. The Auburn Plainsman, for example, reportedly discovered that the White Student Union on Auburn University’s campus were allegedly administering applications to try and “infiltrate The Plainsman.”

Brownlee said he believes that a university group calling itself the White Student Union might be retaliating on the belief that the Plainsman is pushing “liberal views.”

Veritas ProjectThis alleged action could be similar to infiltration efforts done by Project Veritas whose goal, according to their main website, is to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society,” said Brownlee.

The intentions of Project Veritas remain constant on the mind of The Auburn Plainsman editor.

“You never know when someone will try to ‘Project-Veritas’ us on a lesser level. We do have to be conscious every day on the things we cover and how they cover them. How we act outside our coverage as well. I think every day we are more and more conscious about how people who are looking at our coverage, how more people are looking to us, our responsibility growing in a community sense and civic responsibility sense, because there is so much animosity toward the press. Now I believe there is a greater need for the press than ever before,” said Brownlee.

Editor’s Note: Within the state of Alabama, the general consensus of students interviewed by Ariel Cochran, student journalist and SPJ Region 3 intern for, is that student journalists are just as credible as their professional counterparts, and because of this reason, they believe they should be treated equally by their peers and the public. Cochran has reached out to several universities across Alabama to report their experiences in working within the student media and the challenges faced in writing in a politically charged climate. – Sharon Dunten, editor of

Ariel Cochran mug
Ariel Cochran

Ariel Cochran is a senior at Auburn University. Her majors are magazine journalism and Spanish. Cochran is president of the Society of Professional Journalists SPJ student chapter at Auburn University. Cochran is the fall 2017 intern for SPJ Region 3 and will be writing for Read more about Cochran

Society of Professional Journalists

Twitter @spj_3