American University had just returned to in-person classes. To help keep students safe from what was then the first Omicron wave in February 2022, the university provided a limited number of KN95 masks.
Only, as Skye Witley soon found out, the masks weren’t actual KN95s.
Witley, an editor for the university’s student newspaper, The Eagle, had received a number of complaints about the mask’s legitimacy and decided to see if there was any merit to the concerns. He conducted a deep dive into CDC regulations, reached out to experts, spoke to nonprofits that helped source legitimate KN95s. Everything pointed to the same thing: The masks were no good. The university confirmed this with Witley, claiming that their supplier had unknowingly stocked them with faulty masks.
Witley wrote up the story, determined to give the student body and surrounding community the important information that the masks they had been adorning were in fact illegitimate. As expected, the news quickly picked up speed, and pretty soon articles about it appeared on local television stations’ websites. But they forgot one thing: to credit The Eagle for this breakthrough.
Unfortunately, Witley’s experience of being uncredited by another publication is not unique or exclusive to student journalists. Taking the work of other reporters without citation happens in the industry at large, and there are real pressures for breaking news reporters – who are often the ones who do the ripping off – to churn out article after article per the request of their higher-ups. But over the years, there have been countless examples of both local and national publications writing stories without properly crediting the student newsrooms that broke them first.
“I’ve been in journalism for 45 years and I’ve seen behavior like that, where students’ original work is being followed by professionals,” Lucy Dalglish, Dean of Philip Merrill College of Journalism, explained. “I’ve seen professional journalists not crediting each other when stories have been broken.”
“It’s happened for years. I’ve seen local printer reporters complain about TV stations taking their work and rewriting it in a shorter version,” Sarah Brown, a News Editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, added. “As journalism has become increasingly online, a lot of reporters are under pressure to publish a lot of stories very quickly and aggregate from various sources.” She added, “It’s become very easy to take something you found online and rewrite it a little bit and publish it.”
But student journalists are in a different position than “professional journalists.” While full-time reporters are paid, student journalists are often not, opting into unpaid labor in exchange for experience. To go through all the grunt work and not get compensated with credit is frustrating, to say the least.
“Point blank, we are journalists,” Witley said. “We’re not necessarily completely professional yet because we’re not fully employed in the journalism industry, but the work we do still takes up a massive amount of our time and energy because we care about the work that we’re producing.”
Not to mention, student journalists are specifically responsible for reporting on the institutions they are a part of. In this way, they essentially function as beat reporters, well-versed with the ins and outs of their respective campus communities.
“Student reporters are on the frontlines of news happening on campus and because of that access, they’re going to get sources and scoops a national newsroom won’t,” Brown said. Brown often connects with student journalists in her reporting. “The work they do is so important, especially in the context of local news being eroded and there’s not a lot of local higher education reporters anymore. Student journalists are filling an enormous gap [left] by the shrinking of journalism.”
Taking advantage of a student network, and not attributing credit where it’s due is contradictory to the ethics of journalism. After all, citing sources is one of the key tenets of reporting.
“One thing that you learn in the classroom as a journalist is if you report something and it didn’t come from your own reporting, you credit that and point the reader in the direction of the person who did provide that information,” Witley said.
And as Witley noted, similar incidents have happened at The Eagle before. Nina Heller, the incoming Editor-in-Chief, explained how she co-wrote a story about an abolish Greek Life movement on campus in the summer of 2020. Several months later, a national publication had a story exploring Greek life disaffiliation across the country and centered the story around the exact same source.
“It was very interesting because it happened two months after we did ours so it wasn’t like everyone was trying to write the story at the same time,” Heller remarked. “We wrote a story and a few months later, they wrote theirs and it had the same person which was an interesting coincidence.”
Heller understands that it’s common practice to use previous articles on the topic to help find sources. However, she wishes that they had at least acknowledged or credited the original story.
“As student journalists, you work so hard, and you’re unpaid, and you’re just trying to do the best that you can with the resources you can,” Heller said, “To see something get picked up by a national outlet and you don’t even get a hyperlink is kind of frustrating.”
This experience can be especially frustrating and demoralizing for newer writers. At the beginning of her time at the University of Nevada-Reno student newspaper, The Nevada Sagebrush, Taylor Johnson was assigned to write about changes to campus parking and transportation. She did the reporting, wrote the story, and filed it, thinking nothing of it. Shortly after, she received a call from the Editor-in-Chief asking if she had any evidence of recording the interviews. Why ask? A local station word for word copied and pasted the article without citing Johnson.
“That feeling really sucked, especially because it was the first year I got into journalism,” Johnson said. “I don’t come from a journalism background, I didn’t do it in high school, so to experience that when first getting into this field was horrible, especially because I was the one on the ground reporting and they weren’t.”
Dalglish, the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said there are established resources for students in similar situations. Two examples are the Student Press Law Center or Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.
However, as she explained, it’s probably not grounds for legal action. “If you want to spend the next ten years litigating it, go after them for violating your copyright. But most of the time, in my experience, if you point it out to the newsroom leader, the person gets fired, and I think that’s probably the best consequence than getting drawn out in some long litigation.”
Some of the student journalists I spoke to did call out the publications and felt like after the reporter or publications made amends, they were satisfied with the outcome. Others were a bit more frustrated with how the situation was handled. For example, after the editors-in-chief of Johnson’s student paper hounded the local station they ended up changing the article but still kept quotes from Johnson’s original article and didn’t attribute anything to Johnson or the student paper. Unfortunately, because of a lack of sufficient funding, the student paper could not hire a lawyer to pursue the case further.
“We had to take this loss and mull about it as we moved on,” Johnson recounted.
Heller recognized that there are some journalists who credit her student newspaper’s work, and she’s especially appreciative of that. But in the cases when people don’t, it’s damaging to the student journalists who are struggling to be respected.
“We’re the ones [who] feel the impacts the most because we want to be heard and taken seriously at the end of the day, and it’s really unfortunate when other outlets don’t give us that.”
Ripping off student stories is detrimental to the industry as a whole. There is already a high turnover rate in the industry. As Johnson notes, legacy papers should be assisting student papers — either financially or more generally — to ensure student journalists are adequately credited and supported to help ease their entry into the industry.
“Journalists need to do a better job of uplifting student journalists now than later because we are the ones who are the future of journalism,” she said. “To not support us, to keep ripping us off, to undermine us, that’s not going to help anyone and it’s going to end up hurting the field in the long run.”
And there are efforts to do so. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently piloted a campus correspondent program where student journalists can publish stories in the Chronicle and get paid for their contributions.
“We’re still experimenting with the best ways to tackle that, but the more we can do on that front, the better,” Brown explained. “Student journalists are not some kind of lesser journalists. They are real reporters doing really tough work and getting scooped. The more that we can do as professional newsrooms to uplift that work and give them opportunities to have their work reach wider audiences, the better.”
And while Brown notes she can’t speak for other outlets and their protocols for crediting, it seems like a no-brainer to just give credit as much as possible.
“It’s so easy to do, and imagine what a transformative thing that can be for a student reporter.”
Hannah Docter-Loeb is a freelance writer who recently graduated from Wesleyan University. She loves to write about pop culture, science, and her hometown of Washington D.C. You can find her work at hdocterloeb.com.
This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge. Copy editing by Gabe Schneider.
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