The Score on Canadian Student Journalists

During my undergrad, I worked at the Caper Times, CBU’s student-run campus newspaper. I wrote a column called The Bike Lane, which was published every two weeks between 2002-2006, and was editor of first the Arts & Culture section and later the Features section.

One of the perks of being on staff was getting to attend a national Canadian University Press (CUP) conference in Montreal, and two Atlantic Regional (ARCUP) conferences: one in New Brunswick, and one at CBU, hosted by the Caper Times.

The Caper-Times-hosted conference was, I think, during the 2005-2006 school year. That was of course in the dark ages of the Internet, when most campus newspapers didn’t even have a website, so Google isn’t much help jogging my memory. But whenever it was, 2013 isn’t the first time the conference has been held in Cape Breton, despite what the current Caper Times staff seems to think about the ARCUP conference they recently hosted.

Not that it matters. It just made me chuckle. After the first-first CBU-hosted conference, I wrote in my column that Canadian student journalists are getting it all wrong. (Not my exact words — my tone back then was at least 100x more caustic.) It was after a panel billed as “The role of campus newspapers.” The question that ended up being discussed was more like, “What even is news? And how should student journalists cover it?”

Opinion was divided. Between one wrong and another.

The first (wrong) argument goes like this: Every news story is made of facts and nothing but. The student reporter’s job is to observe and report these facts. According to this argument, news exists as if in a vacuum, the objective reporter need only reach in and pull it out — and then get it to press as fast as possible before it gets contaminated with bias or opinion!

If this were true, robots would be reporting the news, and all journalists (student or otherwise) would be out of a job. All except opinion columnists. But opinionated robots wouldn’t be far behind.

Thankfully, news stories are not like this. Instead, news stories are a reporter’s interpretation of an event. The reporter is, hopefully, more authoritative than any old joe. But that authority, like all authority, is not absolute; it is open to challenge and criticism from other perspectives.

If you’re a student journalist reading this, and this idea of news makes you uncomfortable, get yourself reassigned to the sports or business desk (or the college equivalent). You can report game scores or stock market stats or whatever…

These are facts. They are observable, verifiable, simple and static, i.e., if the score of last night’s game was 51-49, it will forever have been 51-49. Just don’t interview the players and coaches. They might tell you why the game was 51-49, and chances are their stories will differ from those of the players and coaches on the other team.

And while that might not be a particularly interesting example of a news story, it’s what the news fundamentally is: slippery, debatable, complex and dynamic.

Consider another example given by one of the conference participants back in 2005/2006:

Two public figures, Person A and Person B, dispute a budget expense. Was it X or not-X? The intrepid student reporter must look critically at the claims of both sides, and tease out the truth of the matter.

Bored!

Just as the score of last night’s game can’t be both 51-49 and not-51-49 at the same, there can only exist one correct number here. It will be observable, verifiable, simple and static. So first, find that number. And where will you look for it? Not with either of the “Persons”, dummy!

There now. Got it? Good. Great. Now that the boring “truth” part is over, let’s get down to the interesting part. The news here is not which number is correct. It’s that either someone is lying about budget numbers, or was misinformed by a subordinate, or is bad at math, or… or… Or maybe — shit — maybe both numbers are true(ish), depending on how one interprets the guiding policy!!

The intrepid student reporter may not have uncovered any secret truths about sinister motives, incompetent subordinates, or poor math skills. But he or she may have shined some light on the secret ideology of various public figures, given how they seem to interpret policy. So let the debate begin! (Oh and good for you, intrepid student reporter, for getting the debate going. Seriously.)

Speaking of ideology, this brings me to the second (wrong) argument, which goes like this: campus and community newspapers should seek out and cover stories that have been marginalized by the mainstream / corporate / Right-wing media. In a nutshell, push the Left’s agenda.

If the first position was about objectivity, this second position is about revealing the hidden conservative bias in the mainstream media’s so-called neutrality — its ostensible objectivity.

I’m all for uncovering bias disguised as truth, but it goes further. According to some, the role of campus newspapers is to provide something called counterbalance. But if you start with a deliberate agenda, how can this balance be anything other than ironic? It doesn’t straighten the slant of the Right-wing mainstream media; it merely creates a mirror-image slant in the opposite direction.

It doesn’t matter whether this pseudo-balance can be achieved in practice. We shouldn’t desire it even in theory. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore on a teeter-totter. Nuff said.

So what is news?? And how should student journalists cover it??

News is storytelling. It’s hermeneutics (the art of interpretation). It’s also facts, and plenty of them — but facts in context. Two plus two will always equal four, and the score of last night’s game will always have been 51-49. But if the context changes — if a steroids scandal is revealed, for example — then everything changes. Except the score, that stays the same. But now it means something new and different.

The facts aren’t the end of the debate, they’re just the beginning. The goal is to neither do away with bias (false objectivity) nor embrace bias with wholehearted irony (false balance). The goal is to negotiate bias — your own and others’. To hold it up in the light of your intuitive sense of fairness. And then negotiate your intuitions. Rinse. Repeat.

I know, it’s probably an infinite regress. But, as my wife says, just waking up in the morning is a slippery slope. No one said this would be easy. But you can deal with this slipperiness either by diving in or letting it trip you up like a banana peel. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor.)

Either way, your chances of getting a job in Canadian journalism are probably 51-49.