There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist’

Learner plate image by Michael Summers

Learner plate image by Michael Summers

The Carnival of Journalism is back, and this month is looking at student media. That gives me an excuse to talk about something I seem to find myself ranting every year: “You are not student journalists”.

It’s on Twitter profiles, blog ‘about’ pages, LinkedIn profiles and business cards. And it’s an anachronism.

There is no such thing as a ‘student journalist’.

Students of journalism no longer practise their work in the seclusion of a classroom. They do not write solely for lecturers, or even for each other.

Any student on a course with some awareness of the modern media world publishes their own blogs; their student media is accessible around the world. They contribute to networks, and build communities.

Even if their course provides no opportunities to do any of these things, they will have Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts.

All of which means that they are publishers.

Ignorance is bliss?

Describing yourself as a student journalist suggests that you haven’t noticed this.

But worse, it reinforces a similar ignorance in the people you talk to as you go about your business.

These are the press officers that say “We don’t deal with student journalists” and the election officers who stop you at the doors of the count – but also the sources who say “I didn’t realise what I said was going to be published.”

Journalism students need to be honest with the latter and forceful with the former. A large part of that means making a mental shift from ‘this is just an exercise’ to ‘this is a real story with real implications’. In other words that move from ‘I am a student’ to ‘I am a journalist-publisher’.

Not just an exercise

For a start, as a publisher you have to be aware of contempt of court, libel, and copyright. This is not an option – and the number one reason you can never think your work is ‘just an exercise’.

You also have to think about syndication: who you might supply your content to. I encourage my students to work as freelancers, and often put them in touch with different news organisations depending on the story.

I set up the Birmingham Datablog as just one way of facilitating that, but the ‘teaching hospital’ model of journalism schooling can be misleading: wherever students publish they are part of the same content ecosystem as traditional publishers.

So there is no such thing as a student journalist. There are only publishers, and non-publishers. Your story can be seen by a million people, or only one – but you should always prepare for the former. As should the press officers. And your sources.

So change that Twitter biography; that About page. And take your job seriously: because if you don’t, no one else will.

UPDATE: Martin Hirst replies in a guest cross-post here.

“In my view, if we do not acknowledge the student status of our students (no, that’s not a tautology), we are not being diligent in our duty of care (the pastoral role of all teachers at all levels) to ensure that we “first do no harm”. Yes, we have to, as Paul rightly points out, engage our students in the daily routines and socialisation of newsroom practice and we have to move beyond the newsroom model too; but in doing so, we have to be constantly mindful that our pupils must be kept safe.”


This prompted Victoria Baranetsky to publish a response of her own:

“Student journalists who are not afforded the rights of citizens nor the rights of journalists must be given some protection.  Thus, it is important we acknowledge their actions may transcend their status – whatever it may be.”

20 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist’

  1. Bridget Grogan (@NEWSGAL100)

    Excellent point. When “student” journalists begin working in the Innovation News Center in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, I point out to them that they have already begun their careers. Yes, they are journalists who happen to be working on a degree at the same time. But their work is just as significant as that of any journalist anywhere. They interview, write, shoot, edit and publish. They are journalists. For others to understand that, they have to understand it first. Bradshaw’s point is well stated.

  2. ethical martini

    Paul, I am not so sure on this point.
    We owe our students a duty if care that goes beyond that of an editor to a journo.
    They ARE students.
    I work from the following principle and have done so for 20 years in journalism education:
    “The newsroom is a classroom, the classroom is a newsroom.”
    Our students are learning to be journos.
    They are not yet journalists.
    I would be happy to expand on this if you would like a guest post on your blog.
    Otherwise interested readers can find me at Ethical Martini where a post on this topic will appear, as if by magic, within 24 hours.
    It is beer-o-clock here ans Satruday night (‘s alright for fighting) so I won’t be hitting the keyboard this evening beyond this quick intervention.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Would welcome a guest post. Note I’m not saying they should not say they are journalism students, or even journalists. I’m making the point that they are publishing – and need to recognise that in how they see themselves.

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  4. ashineonlondon

    Amazing video…gotta love a student demo, hope the police got some publicity for their behaviour! Proud to be a journo student!!

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  6. jimmy-j

    I get frustrated when student journos pretend to be freelancers. We sometimes get 4 or 5 students in a week from the same college wanting face-to-face interviews with our staff, and we’re a small charity. If the students lie to me, then I can end up mismanaging our slight resources because 99% of those students write for teacher and no-one else. I don’t have a problem with that, and we help whenever we have time, but it’s not fair to pretend you’re something you’re not…

  7. Jillian

    I tell my students exactly the same – you are trainee journalists. The way around the doubters is to have them present regularly on a community station, for eg., where they are learning the art by doing, not through theory. Then when they ask for an interview they can legitimately say, “I’m a broadcaster on the weekly program X on community station Y. Our weekly broadcasting on community radio encourages students to see themselves as legitimate content producers, and indeed furthers their concept of citizen journalist.

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