Some of Canada's student newspapers. Photo courtesy of Julianna Damer.

Student journalism can help save our news media ecosystem

By Errol Salamon for Policy Options While the idea of a journalism crisis isn’t new, the perpetuation of fake news during the 2016 US presidential election, arguably, has intensified the crisis and the threat to the democratic and civic function of journalism. “Truly fake news is like counterfeit money — it has been manufactured for…

By Errol Salamon for Policy Options

While the idea of a journalism crisis isn’t new, the perpetuation of fake news during the 2016 US presidential election, arguably, has intensified the crisis and the threat to the democratic and civic function of journalism.

“Truly fake news is like counterfeit money — it has been manufactured for profit or to devalue political discourse,” wrote the Public Policy Forum, an independent and nongovernmental organization, in a report published in January. “The best defence to fake news is a strong offence, widely disseminating real news produced to the highest standards.”

Widely distributing content by student journalists could help circulate more high-quality journalism through the news media ecosystem. The New America Foundation reported in 2011 that one way to circulate more student journalism is for “students to produce content at school that is then distributed through industry news outlets.”

J-Source, a nonprofit news site for which I’m the work and labour editor, reprints industry-standard student journalism as well as original and reprinted content from professional journalists and academics. Launched in 2007, J-Source is a collaboration of post-secondary journalism programs in Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University.

J-Source reprinted stories in 2016 on diversity in the media workforce and the changing newspaper workforce from a journalism project called BeLaboured. This project was originally produced by the Canadian University Press (CUP), a nonprofit co-operative of student newspapers across the country. Focusing on the future of work and how to determine its value, CUP not only paid the students $1,350 per article but also paired them with a professional mentor, thus giving them decent pay and a valuable learning opportunity.

As the labour beat has become more scarce at newspapers in Canada since the 1960s, student journalists have recognized the importance of continuing coverage of workers, working conditions and labour union protection. J-Source has also featured other work and labour stories by students across Canada, covering the Halifax Chronicle Herald strike and unpaid work opportunities at the CBC. In this way, J-Source has demonstrated that industry news outlets and students could benefit from such content-sharing.

Commercial media companies could also work and build long-term partnerships with student journalists, who have long attempted to counter false news.

Ontario university students collaborated with striking editorial employees at the Thomson Newspapers-owned Peterborough Examiner in 1968-69 after the Toronto Newspaper Guild called on students to support workers on the picket line. Guild members and students from the University of Guelph’s Ontarian newspaper launched a tabloid newspaper, the Peterborough Free Press. They published the 6,000-copy circulation Free Press for nearly two months, financing it through advertising and sales. The Free Press described itself as an “alternative to the Examiner.”

More recently, when striking Halifax Chronicle Herald workers set up an online news site called Local Xpress in 2016, they considered establishing a paid student journalism internship program. And students have been showing their support for the strike, as Ontario students did in Peterborough in the 1960s. Some journalism students from the University of King’s College in Halifax have joined the picket line.

The special Senate committee on mass media (the Davey committee) devoted one day of hearings in 1969-70 to the student press, a research effort that is unprecedented in media policy research. The committee’s report included one chapter on “Student Papers” and Ontario Liberal Barbara Sullivan’s special report on “The Student Press in Canada.” The committee recognized the long tradition of editorial freedom in the student press and the key role that students played in demanding that their elders in newsrooms reassess “objectivity” to help counter the problem of false news. In today’s “post-truth world” of fake news and “alternative facts,” it’s more important than ever to critically reassess objectivity, explicitly identify biases and commit to evidence-based journalism.

The federal government should thus fund more research to understand the role of fake news and the potential benefits of student journalism in the news media ecosystem, across print, broadcasting and digital platforms.

The  Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, in its 2006 Final Report on the Canadian News Media, noted that the periodic polls and studies of the Canadian news media are a starting point. This research has been conducted by university departments, schools of journalism, senate committees, parliamentary committees, federal task forces or independent nonprofit organizations. But this work isn’t enough. As the committee said in its report, Canada needs a “permanent, full-time research centre devoted to the study of the Canadian news media that produces regular reports on its findings.”

The committee highlighted independent research centres in the United States, such as the Pew Research Center and the Poynter Institute, as models for Canada. The Pew Centre, in particular, publishes The State of the News Media, an annual report on US journalism. The Public Policy Forum’s report echoes this call to establish a research institute that is dedicated to the study of news and democracy and publishes annual reports on the state of the news media in Canada.

As well, Canadian university programs in communication and media should make it a priority to nominate (and the Canada Research Chairs program should make it a priority to fund) a Canada research chair in news media. The holder of this chair could aim to achieve excellence in research about student journalism, as well as the Canadian news media ecosystem more broadly.

Students have played an important role in filling the gaps in news coverage, working collaboratively with professional journalists. If the government and news media companies want to demonstrate that they are committed to safeguarding a future for civic journalism, they should support more research on content from student journalists, student-industry collaborations, and non-objective journalism.

Errol Salamon is a CWA Canada Associate Member and the work and labour editor of J-Source. He’s also co-editor and contributor to Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press). You can find him on Twitter @errolouvrier.

This story was originally published on Policy Options and is republished with the author’s permission.