Two BCIT journalism students say they were suspended from their school magazine, The Link, after an email from their publisher was posted online. In the email, the students were encouraged to write positive stories about the school following an alleged peeping-Tom case that rocked the campus.
The Link is run by the BCIT Student Association, which is entirely separate from the university.
BCIT had been criticized for not telling students about a man who was arrested and charged in November for secretly recording men in a campus bathroom. When news of the arrest broke, Link’s publisher Dan Post sent the students—Jessica Fedigan and Lindsey Howe—an email calling it a “non-news story” and encouraging them to “take this opportunity to promote all the positive BCIT student stories coming out of this campus.”
Post, who works for the Student Association, denies he was trying to censor student reporters.
“At no point did I ask my staff to not report on the BCIT voyeur incident,” Post told CBC News. “I did not attempt to censor my writers, I did not attempt to encourage them to downplay or spin this very serious matter. I did, however, encourage them to promote positivity whenever possible, something I believe this world desperately needs more of. I stand by that message.”
This case brings into question how often university papers have their content and focus challenged by other entities on campus.
VIU journalism professor Richard Dunstan was on the Navigator’s Board of Directors for a couple years, stepping down in 2003, and has always been considered an unofficial advisor for the editors.
He says he doesn’t know anything of this level occurring at VIU, but explained there have been a number of disputes between the paper and the Students’ Union trying to exercise influence in various ways in the past. These concerned things such as funding, election procedures, and physical facilities.
“The Nav is explicitly set up separately from the Students’ Union, with its own non-profit corporation and board, to avoid this sort of nonsense,” he said in an email. “I’m not aware of any directives even attempting to tell the Nav what to print on a matter like this. As to the substance of the dispute, it’s just the sort of mindless boosterism that serious journalists have always resented and resisted.”
On the other hand, Dunstan suggested being suspended from the magazine due to the circumstances is not surprising. “It is fair to mention that publishing a contentious memo from the boss and criticizing it in the newspaper supervised by the boss would most likely get you fired from any publication,” he said.
SFU’s the Peak is independently run and has not experienced such conflicts. Editor-in-Chief Max Hill says he has spoken to several student journalists in Canada who have had similar struggles with administration and students’ unions “usually as a result of their being owned or operated by those bodies,” though he is unable to give specifics.
“I tend to think that student newspapers should have total freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, so naturally I disagree with the publisher’s choice to suspend the writers,” Hill said. “If the editors of the Link believed this was a story worth covering, that decision should be respected.”
Editor-in-Chief of the Capilano Courier Andy Rice said he believes such issues may occur when the paper must answer to administration or the student association on a broad scale. Howe is his former News Editor and he says he can speak to her credibility as a journalist.
“We’re lucky at the Capilano Courier in that we’re autonomous and we don’t have any collateral with our school’s administration or student association,” he said. “There’s no fancy legalese dangling over our head that makes us fear we’ll be evicted if we write something unfavourable about anybody when it’s warranted. For other papers, that’s different.”
Rice believes that being students can put a target on the backs of journalists for people who want to push their own story agenda.
“We don’t have a journalism program at Capilano University, so I’m constantly reminding our editors and contributors to be careful of ‘spin’ and those moments when people do try, sometimes quite innocently, to turn your news story into a carefully-sanitized press release,” he said. “Newspapers have a duty to report the facts and bring light to issues that affect their campus community—good, bad, or otherwise. Good for Lindsey and Jessica for setting that example for the rest of us.”
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