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What Lessons Recent Campus Newspaper Investigations Offer for the New Year

In the spirit of a fresh academic year, I am breaking from writing a feature to reflect on what two notable investigations launched by university newspapers this past year can teach us about our responsibility as student journalists.

In the span of just nine days in July, problems that college newspapers helped uncover ousted high-profile individuals at both Northwestern University and Stanford University.

The impact of the student reporters responsible for those investigations underscores the critical ways that university newspapers can hold their communities to account. As we at The Saint consider where to place our energy this year, we might glean some insights from them.

Last autumn at Stanford, a first-year student on the university’s independent campus newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a review that detailed troubles in scientific studies that the school’s president — Marc Tessier-Lavinge, a neuroscientist and former biotech executive— had supervised. It included evidence of research manipulation in four of Dr Tessier-Lavigne’s studies and sloppy scientific engagement in a fifth that claimed to have changed how the scientific community understood Alzheimer's disease.

In July, a panel of independent researchers nominated by the university to conduct an investigation into those accusations cleared Dr Tessier-Lavigne of having fabricated his findings but suggested at least four of his papers had “multiple problems” and relied on research conducted without customary scientific rigour. They also found that he had promoted a lab culture that enabled research mishaps and failed to address concerns raised over his work’s integrity.

That was enough to push Dr Tessier-Lavinge — who had been raking in annual compensation of nearly $1.3 million from his position at Stanford, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education — to resign and retract three of the papers investigated in the probe.

For his reporting on the Stanford president’s work, Theo Baker, the son of two notable U.S. journalists, won the George Polk Award, an accolade he now shares with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, James Baldwin, Walter Cronkite, Joan Didion, and other household names.

“I think it’s pretty clear that without our reporting, this report wouldn’t have come around,” Baker told The New York Times. “More than anything… this should raise conversations about the value of student journalism.”

Baker’s call to recognize the importance of student reporting was again amplified in July, when an article written by reporters at The Daily Northwestern revealed a long-time culture of hazing on Northwestern’s football team. It shared personal accounts of older players forcing younger teammates into nudity and sexual acts as a consequence of performing poorly on the field. It also revealed how the university had faltered in its handling of an investigation into that hazing.

The Daily Northwestern’s story put the team’s coach — Pat Fitzgerald — on a two-week suspension. Two days later, the students published a second article on the football team’s racist culture that got the coach fired. It also prompted a former player to sue Fitzgerald and the university over the team’s abusive culture.

It’s worth noting that Northwestern — along with other U.S. schools like it — takes American football seriously enough to have paid Fitzgerald more than $5 million as part of his 2022 contract.

These examples of purposeful student reporting at Northwestern and Stanford have rightfully rehashed conversations over the power that students — backed by a supportive outlet and equipped with the right questions — can have in promoting transparency at the cash-strapped schools they attend.

The common link between the two investigations was summed up in an article published by The New York Times: “Inquisitive student journalists,” the newspaper wrote.

St Andrews students might ask themselves: how can we, too, be more inquisitive journalists?

At The Saint, we often place our reporting in light-hearted terms. We encourage playful satire that mocks the absurdity of our glammed-out fashion shows and over-indulgent drinking culture. So long as students are St Andrews students — and pay steep fees to don black ties and cover them in red wine — there will be a place for that writing. Plus, there’s no denying that articles that argue ABBA is the greatest band of all time or offer counsel on dating snafus can make delightful reads.

Not all playful articles need to be shallow, either. I often encourage my writers to report the kinds of stories that draw readers in with compelling human interest. I point them to past articles — like those that explore how students acquire drugs on the dark web or unconventional polygamous relationships — as examples of compelling and well-reported narratives.

Student life also doesn’t always permit time for deeply researched investigative journalism. It is sometimes necessary to engage in the kind of project that I have embarked on here: forcing out 1,250 words in an hour after neglecting a deadline (Amelia and Alex — I’m sorry).

But even if this article is no example of it, the impact that student reporting at Northwestern and Stanford has had this summer ought to beckon us towards the higher standard of journalism it shows is within our reach..

We should be motivated to look harder and more diligently in our reporting not just because we are interested in the awards and attention it can yield, but because we want to see our university at its best. As Baker soundly told The New York Times: “If you love a place…. you want to push it to be more transparent.”

But reporters at major U.K. newspapers often rake in more scoops about the university we cover than we do. That represents not only a failure of love, but of economy. Keeping a newspaper independent is expensive. It would be a shame if we reserved our autonomy just to afford printing satirical jostling and half-baked political takes.

To begin more fully fulfilling our responsibility as student journalists, we ought to start making the most of our unique access into student and academic life at our university.

For instance, reporters might start following up with peers who disclose problems to them to see if their qualms fit into larger trends. Noah Sheidlower, an economy reporter at Insider, noted that that approach can uncover issues in areas like mental health that larger publications are often out of touch with.

"Student journalists tackle important stories from angles that other reporters may miss,” Sheidlower said. “The localised aspect of student journalism allows for deep and careful reporting that unearths deep truths hidden away from the surface.”

Reporters could also look more deeply into areas like university finances, noted Stephen Pastis, a reporter at the Tampa Bay Business Journal who won a 2022 Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his student reporting in the Carolina News & Reporter on the business of recycling.

“Never underestimate student journalism,” Pastis said. “College campuses are full of academic breakthroughs and creative brilliance, and it’s important that on-campus stories are told.”

Embedded in the term “the press” is a sounding to the tight clamp journalists ought to place around the communities they cover. The dogged reporting that students at Stanford and Northwestern have trailblazed this year emulates that call to action.

As we reflect on what we might achieve at The Saint this year, I hope that you will join me in thinking more critically about how we might also hold our community to account.

Illustration: Clodagh Earl

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