On Objectivity, Money and the Loch Ness Monster
Lynne Lott / Sun Star Advisor
Nov. 15, 2011
Village Voice Media, which owns the eponymous newspaper and a chain of respected alternative weeklies, distributes a “writer’s manual” to all new reporters. It covers story selection, the importance of reading and tenets of the company. Particularly interesting, I think, is what the manual has to say about objectivity.
“Keep in mind that objectivity is the Loch Ness monster of journalism. Only a few claim to have seen it, and no one believes them,” the authors write. I often bring this up in my journalism classes. My life experience defines how I see objectivity, I tell them. Your life experience performs the same function. To assume our viewpoints will match is akin to a man saying he understands childbirth because he saw “Knocked Up.”
Instead, I instruct my students to report honestly. That means rather than calling someone sloppy — a loaded adjective subject to reader interpretation — a reporter does his or her job through illustration. Does the person you’re writing about have an office with a garbage bin overflowing with discarded yogurt containers and a small chair-shaped space surrounded by piles of overstuffed file folders? Then write that. That’s based on observation. A person can’t object to reporting based on verifiable facts.
As the faculty advisor to The Sun Star, it’s my job to coach the students who run this newspaper. I can’t mandate, edit, hire or spend. The students do that. They do it with my guidance and with guidance provided by a five-member publication board. But what they do each week, they do largely alone. Sun Star editor Heather Bryant works 20 hours per week, at least according to her timesheet. I know from the time stamp on the emails I receive that this is as much a fiction as Harry Potter. Another thing I tell my students: as a journalist you will never work harder or for less money. And you will never have a job you love so well. Much like a visual artist, a good writer and editor cannot look at the clock and say “well, I’ve worked on this story for eight hours, I guess it’s done.” Instead, she strives to make it the best she can.
Heather is not alone in her commitment to the paper. Most of the staff works diligently through reporting and multiple drafts in order to do the best they are able, all while learning the ins and outs of a profession that at its best is nobler than any I know. Journalism is the rough draft of history. For all the criticisms and snap judgments reserved for those in the profession, few jobs concern themselves with informing the public of the events, people and policies that affect their day-to-day lives. They do this not to make money (that’s the publisher’s job, and The Sun Star doesn’t have one) or for personal gain (that’s the job of the four-term congressman), but — and this may be my personal objectivity talking — to inform, entertain, affect change and contribute to the greater good.
This is why the current state of the paper’s funding and oversight trouble me. Unlike the majority of college newspapers, The Sun Star’s funding comes from ASUAF, the student government. Such a structure is a clear conflict of interest, as was borne out last year at the University of California San Diego. Student government there dissolved the student-run television station and suspended funding to the student newspaper, The California Review, after a controversy involving coverage of student government. Similar conflicts occurred in the past few years at Montclair State University in New Jersey and Florida Atlantic University. It’s easy to see why. Can you image what would happen if Congress funded The Washington Post? For a newspaper to approach any standard of objectivity, it cannot be beholden to an entity other than the public it serves.
Currently, The Sun Star receives 7 percent of the “student activities fee” paid by all students at UAF. It’s $2.45 per student, about enough to cover the cost of printing the paper. The funding for staff salaries, office supplies, phones and everything else comes from advertising sales. New computers aren’t in the budget. Of the five in the office right now, three came from grants and one from UAF surplus. The journalism department donated the final computer when it updated a departmental lab. Simply put, this is not sustainable, let alone encouraging of growth.
Here at UAF, every new student organization recognized by the school must have an advisor. Advisors receive no additional remuneration for this role; most faculty contracts include “service” to the university and community as a component of our workload. Advisors are encouraged to “coach” and “educate” their organizations, according to UAF’s Student Organization Advisor Handbook. “Programs and student groups serve as vehicles in which students hone and enhance their learning,” according to the manual. UAF’s debate club has an advisor. The Latin Dance Club has an advisor. ASUAF does not. No board, like that of The Sun Star, oversees the student senators who manage upward of $500,000 in student money each year. The senators who work so hard to govern UAF’s student body have no one to look to for professional advice, no oversight and no one to check their objectivity. If they did, I’d like to believe The Sun Star would not be in its current situation.
Because attempts to negotiate a percentage increase in the amount of Sun Star funding failed last year, and because there is little incentive for ASUAF to grant autonomy to the student newspaper, the staff decided to pursue independence this semester through a petition on the ASUAF November ballot. It asks for formal separation between The Sun Star and ASUAF — as well as creation of a $7 media fee to fund the paper.
I told The Sun Star staff it would be difficult, a risky proposition at best. I spoke to the them about voter apathy, the fact that many people on campus likely didn’t even know a student newspaper existed. It doesn’t matter that students at many universities (including UAA) pay a media fee larger and less defined than what they propose. Getting students to back a new fee would require commitment that made their weekly news output seem a trifle. Just determining what, exactly, was required to get the proposition on the ballot involved at least two Sun Star publication board meetings, a flurry of emails and hours of conversations and research on the part of Heather Bryant and Ad Manager Jordan Schilling. Yet they persevered.
Reporters and photographers seek signatures each week in addition to their regular duties. I’m soliciting signatures too. I believe students should decide where their money goes and what it pays for. Heather’s done the math, down to the penny. She grew up participating in Future Farmers of America, an organization that required her to track all her income and spending. UAF and The Sun Star are lucky to have her resulting spreadsheets. She’s happy to show them off, if you’re interested.
Seven dollars per student, per semester will create a newspaper independent of student government and free of any potential influence. It will also create a bigger, better paper, with more coverage and valuable staff training to “hone and enhance student learning.” Many Sun Star employees aren’t journalism majors. They’re students who want other students’ voices heard. They recognize the importance of writing history’s rough draft, for today’s students as well as those who will refer to the paper’s archives in the future. If The Sun Star initiative makes it to the ballot, I have to believe it will pass. After all, it’s your voice. It’s your Sun Star.
Another fee is difficult to swallow, no doubt. The Sun Star staff has been working on a project involving student fees — their history at UAF, how they’re spent, what they fund. Unlike the proposed media fee, other fee research has netted surprisingly murky results thus far. Next semester, we hope to bring the students an accounting. It may not be everyone’s version of objective, but it will be honest.