At the University of King’s College in Halifax, 11 master of journalism students spent two-and-half months of the summer learning new skills and grinding out assignments.
But instead of focusing on class coverage or each other’s marks on assignments, the hottest topic of discussion was how to introduce themselves to sources: as a journalist, or a journalism student.
Many of our assignments required us to contact the city, courts, police and emergency services — something all journalists need to do. Yet, we were often pushed to the bottom of the priority list.
The Halifax Regional Municipality website says media requests by journalism students are “logged and dealt with in sequence.” The City of Ottawa website says the same thing.
Three years ago, the Halifax Regional Police threatened to cut off all access to King’s journalism students after being bombarded with “rude” and “unspecific” media requests, recalled Tim Currie, the King’s journalism school director.
Former director Kelly Toughill requested a list of people who had contacted them.
According to Currie, more than a dozen requests originated from an e-mail address that did not belong to a journalism student.
A King’s student from outside the journalism program had been contacting police for a story for Dalhousie University’s campus newspaper, the Dalhousie Gazette. The Gazette is almost entirely run by King’s journalism students, so the police made an educated assumption.
The rule states, “Students must talk to their instructor before they contact Halifax Regional Police or RCMP. On approval of their request, they must send the police an email from their official school account that is cc’d to their instructor.”
The Toronto Police Service asks that journalism students email their requests.
Even the University of Toronto recently pushed away student journalists writing for The Ubyssey, the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia.
“Due to the high volume of media requests we receive we are unable to assist with requests from students other than our own,” U of T wrote.
Word of this reached the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“It’s unacceptable for our post-secondary institutions to ignore media requests from student journalists,” CAJ vice president Evan Balgord said in a statement released on Twitter, adding that student journalists are journalists.
To be fair, not everyone pushes students to the side.
During the summer semester, a city councillor and the executive director of the Spryfield Business Commission took time out of their weekends to talk with me on the phone. The Nova Scotia Courts media office loves journalism students, and for this piece alone, Halifax Regional Municipality senior communications advisor Nick Ritcey gave me 20 minutes.
Ritcey said the municipality only has four senior communications advisors, and unlike a provincial government, the city’s departments don’t each have a media contact. This means all of Halifax’s municipal information runs through those four officers. On top of that, they have to write press releases, handle marketing for any upcoming events and work social media feeds.
Ritcey said the number of media requests varies day-to-day, but on a busy day it can be in the twenties, and that’s compounded when students contact them for assignments.
Ritcey also said they want information reaching the most people possible because their office is paid for by taxpayers. Or rather, CBC has a bigger audience than journalism students.
These are all valid points. But while students may not have the same audience as professional news outlets, they still serve readers.
Across the industry, local news organizations are shrinking, being bought out, or folding completely. Student media outlets are able to provide original, local content, without having to worry about a business model.
At King’s, there’s The Signal — the journalism school’s news outlet, which produces digital, radio and television news. The Signal is at one of the largest newsrooms in Nova Scotia — the digital newsroom alone can have 20 reporters at one time — and produces breaking news, features, podcasts, newscasts and investigative stories.
The journalism schools at Carleton University and Ryerson University also have similar outlets where students can submit their work. At Carleton there’s Centretown News, Capital News Online, Midweek, 25th Hour and Catalyst. While Ryerson has the RSJ Wire, The Ryersonian, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, as well as the EyeOpener.
Some students even have professional experience. My classmates and I have worked for organizations like the CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, even Al Jazeera. That seems to be overlooked or forgotten when people read or hear the word “student.”
We are not amateurs.
We are professionals further educating ourselves, who have to use the student label because we’re not writing for a professional organization.
And while many students are new to journalism, taxpayer-funded government bodies and institutions that support journalism have a responsibility to engage with students as they would with professionals.
Students are journalists — it is time we be treated that way
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:15 am ET on Oct. 24, 2018 to expand on the circumstances leading to the implementation of an administrative procedure for contacting police.
Nicholas Frew is a recent graduate from the MJ program at the University of King’s College, who is trying to become his best version of Clark Kent. He is now working at the Winnipeg Free Press as a summer reporter. Frew is sometimes referred to as “Boy Wonder,” because of his fandom of superheroes and because he once saved a man by lifting a motorcycle off of them. Follow him on Twitter: @n_frew6.