Established 1826 — Oldest College Newspaper West of the Alleghenies

Criticism of The Miami Student helps to shed light on the true goals of journalism

Milam's Musings,

I've always been uncomfortable with the term journalist. For the longest time, it felt too pretentious, too daunting and just too much right now.

But, in essence, I, and everyone that works at The Miami Student, are journalists. We are fellow students, yes, but also journalists, covering the university, student life and the local community.

In my four years with The Student as Online Editor, reporter and columnist, I've observed the tension between these two roles we assume: the student and the journalist.

Not tension I myself feel, but the tension our readers often convey with their comments about how we ought to operate.

Whenever the paper runs a story that, in any way, sheds a negative light on the university - whether it's the drinking culture, the Greek system (especially the Greek system), pay disparities, crime and so on - I see the comments disparaging us for doing so.

Sometimes those comments come from parents of students or potential students, feeling as if we've ruined Miami for them.

Sometimes those comments come from former students - alumni - also wondering why we're poisoning their nostalgic "love and honor."

Sometimes those comments even come from past editors of the Student, feeling as if we've gone off the rails compared to what they would do. This particular subgroup is the most head-scratching to me, as they ought to know better.

The usual refrain is, "Why are you so negative about Miami?" Or, "Why do you even go to Miami if you hate it so much?" Or, "What a rag this paper has become." Or, if it's in relation to the Opinion section, "What a liberal rag this paper is."

The insinuation is obvious enough - print only that which makes Miami look good. But that's not the role of a journalist. The role of a journalist, whether they're covering government, business, leaders and yes, universities, and whether they write for the New York Times or The Miami Student, is to tell the news, be it positive or negative.

Our particular job is to ensure the university is held accountable, not to be a public relations arm of the administration. And, if we are doing our jobs accurately and truthfully, the benefit is to the student body enrolled at Miami and the surrounding community.

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Just this month alone, the Student published stories on the salary database for Miami, a gender discrimination lawsuit brought against Miami and Miami's dependence on contingent faculty.

In the prior month, Miami was found to be among the least compliant with Sunshine Laws.

Last year, other front page stories included the amount each student pays in fees to athletics, faculty concerns with regional restructuring, where theft occurs around Miami's campus (I wrote that piece), Miami's suspension of three fraternities during the summer and various stories on sexual assaults on campus.

Going back to 2014, there were stories on student meal plan costs (an ongoing issue at the moment, too), students and drunkorexia and an examination into the budget for the Armstrong Student Center.

Would anyone argue that the student body, the surrounding community, prospective students and alumni are better off not knowing these stories?

This is not a pat-on-the-back musing. This is not a rah-rah, let me defend the Student's honor musing. I'm seriously inquiring if people think we ought to not run those stories, if we should just sit on them and remain quiet.

Last month, when Miami University hockey senior goaltender Ryan McKay was suspended, comments told us to do exactly that: stay silent on it, as McKay had been through enough.

But our job is quite the opposite.

Moreover, the criticism that we are always negative doesn't make sense, either.

There's the Slice of Life and Humans of Oxford features in the Culture section, giving an inside look into student life and activities on campus.

Or there are the victories of the various sports teams at Miami inside the folds of the Sports section.

Or the photographs of campus often spread throughout each newspaper edition.

Again, our job isn't to ensure some ratio of positivity to negativity; it's to report the news as it comes and relay necessary information to the community we serve.

Media criticism is my favorite area of journalism, second only to opinion writing, and nobody ought to go into writing of any kind, much less journalism, if they don't have thick skin and are unable to take criticism.

For example, in my four years, I've unfortunately seen many typos in headlines, subheadlines and within the body of stories, many of which I also failed to notice and correct in the online version. Likewise, we've had to correct or retract stories and, in one case, dismiss a reporter for plagiarizing.

The Student does its best to aim for the highest quality every issue, but as humans, sometimes we're going to fall short. There's no publication free from those types of errors.

But the types of criticisms I'm talking about are fundamentally misunderstanding The Student's mission as a paper and our relationship to the university while creating that unnecessary tension between the role of student and journalist.

In particular, I find the comments on the Opinion section pieces to be the most baffling. Obviously, we get the aforementioned "liberal rag" criticism, even though anyone of any political persuasion can write to us.

However, it's the comments conflating opinion pieces with our newswriting I find confusing. The Opinion section and the News section of the newspaper are separate entities, occupying their own space and rules.

The only opinion piece endorsed by the newspaper is the editorial board piece, which itself is still distinct from the news section.

Now, criticism of what Opinion editors choose to run in the Opinion section is valid. In other words, not everything that's emailed to us necessarily ought to be printed for a variety of reasons. For instance, in November of 2014, running an anonymous letter to the editor from a supposed professor about international students was probably worthy of criticism.

Along the same vein, Joey Hart's satirical pieces routinely draw outrage for turning the Student into The Onion. But there's a place for satire within the Opinion section and the entire newspaper doesn't have to be The Onion to achieve that.

Now, criticism of my job, as the Online Editor, in posting Hart's satirical pieces to social media is fair. If you think I should make it much more obvious that Hart's pieces are satirical, I understand.

As I've been saying, there are areas where there are valid, constructive criticisms of what we do and other areas where it seems there's a misunderstanding of what we do as a newspaper and as journalists.

In life, we have a tendency to make sense of the world through a "contrasting other" - everything, then, turns into a battle of us vs. them.

None of this is about student media vs. the university, student media vs. the student body or anything like that.

It's about the search for truth, transparency and accuracy.

And if we're doing our job right, sometimes that means making those in power uncomfortable.