Raising Journalists

On the one hand, if 43 out of 47 students working at the Washington Square News, a quasi-independent newspaper of New York University, determined that their working conditions were so intolerable that they could no longer suffer the paper’s new advisor, Dr. Kenna Griffin, they did the right thing. They quit.

On the other hand, that doesn’t make their complaints sound, just theirs.

Three weeks ago, a student-run newspaper with ties to New York University got a new editorial adviser: Kenna Griffin, a former reporter and editor who had taught journalism at Oklahoma City University for 16 years. She started advising the paper, Washington Square News, remotely from Oklahoma.

Griffin was not only hired by NYU to be the advisor, but has some not insubstantial experience in reporting. Granted, that doesn’t mean she’s God’s Gift to Journalism, but it makes her a lot more knowledgeable about it than a college sophomore. Presumably, someone at NYU decided that she was a good choice to advise the students at WSN and did so for a reason. And so she did what she was hired to do, shape up these inchoate journalist wannabes into future reporters.

“Dr. Griffin was increasingly rude and disrespectful to the staff, despite being repeatedly reminded that her words had a negative effect on staff morale,” the post said. “Dr. Griffin was unnecessarily harsh, and when confronted about her behavior, would defend it by arguing that WSN’s staff is too immature to accept critique.”

Since the complaints are both conclusory and subjective, neither of which reflects well on the students’ ability to express themselves, it’s hard to know what they’re complaining about. Did she not sandwich her moderated critiques between compliments, as is the pedagogical mechanism of choice these days since it’s considered offensive to just tell someone that they did something wrong?

Although, there’s a clue given when the students’ complaint goes on to contend that it wasn’t merely her being “unnecessarily harsh” (who decides what is “necessarily harsh”?) but that Griffin has a duty to bend to their complaints rather than reply that they were “too immature to accept critique.” Maybe they are. Maybe not. Perhaps parsing their grievances will give a clue.

  • Belittled the entire staff, with inappropriate behavior for an editorial advisor to students in a way definitely not how a professional should speak to other young professionals.

The staff is made up of NYU students, not “professionals.” That doesn’t make her behavior appropriate, but this reflects a pervasive issue in higher ed these days, where students, who by definition are there to learn and not because they already know everything (or anything), or at least know more than their professors, believe they are “professionals.” They’re not. They’re just students.

  • Refused to concede that people interviewed and photographed would want to be anonymous for safety reasons.

It seems that what’s meant here isn’t conceding what people want, but what the paper should do. Does the paper acquiesce to the generic feelings of “unsafety” by not naming people or does it identify the people in pictures and interviews because it’s a newspaper.

  • Dismissed trigger warnings on articles on sexual assault and marked them unnecessary.

This complaint seems sufficiently self-evidence as to require no explanation of the divide.

  • An editor stood up to Dr. Griffin’s demands and refused to edit out the word “murder” from our article about Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of Louisville cops. Dr. Griffin demanded the Managing Editor discipline them, as she “didn’t want to have a full deal publicly.”

Whether one chooses to call the killing of Breonna Taylor murder as a general matter is one question. Whether it’s an accurate word to use in a newspaper report is another.

There are quite a few other grievances, followed up by a lengthy list of demands, beginning with the firing of Dr. Griffin. Of particular note is demand 11.

All the editorial advisor’s decisions are subject to discussion and vote by editorial staff.

To be fair, much of what the students raise is the subject of a great deal of controversy within journalism today. Seasoned reporters argue that they should no longer report all the facts, but only those which comport with their “moral clarity,” their personal version of “truth” such that a reader can’t possibly learn of facts, claims or arguments that might lead them to a conclusion with which the reporter disagrees.

Other issues, such as trigger warnings or what constitutes sufficiently “respectful” speech from a prof to a student is more a matter of these peculiar times, when the relative concept of what and how a prof is required to speak to a student is in a bizarre state of flux. Professor Kingsfield is no longer appreciated. It’s hard to blame the students for believing they are entitled to dictate how Dr. Griffin should be allowed to speak to them; this has become the norm on campus.

From Griffin’s perspective, she may be trying to toughen up these student journalist wannabes to do the hard work of reporting. Sometimes it will be under adverse conditions. Sometimes in the heat of the newsroom, they will have an order barked at them by an editor running ten stories who doesn’t have half a day to massage their fears and feelings, and just needs them to use the accurate word.

Dr. Griffin likely has the best of intentions, raising tough, smart, hardworking, fearless, honest journalists. After all, these are students, despite their unwarranted self-importance, and the point of a college newspaper is to prepare them to be real journalists in the real world someday. But as 43 resignations show, teaching students is no longer about pedagogy.

If Dr. Griffin can’t teach them by being a bulldozer (assuming the students’ complaints have any merit), that’s the nature of the gig in academia these days. The students may desperately need to be taught, but whether they can be and how to do so is Dr. Griffin’s job. Now that students have been trained to believe they’re peers with their profs, entitled to “respect” and an education where never is heard a discouraging word, teaching them to grow up, toughen up, isn’t going to be easy.

15 thoughts on “Raising Journalists

  1. B. McLeod

    In an article yesterday, Mattingly’s counsel was signalling probable defamation suits against various media outlets for the “murder” accusations. Very possible they will at least get to a jury, given the self-defense issue plus the indication in the federal ballistics report that the fatal round was fired by Cosgrove, not Mattingly. The point the faculty advisor was trying to make here can be important, and a bunch of media “professionals” may be treated to an expensive remedial journalism class in the courts

    1. SHG Post author

      My guess is that it will be tossed as rhetorical hyperbole, short of defamation but more than sufficiently inaccurate for a journalist.

  2. JedD

    “Belittled the entire staff, with inappropriate behavior for an editorial advisor to students in a way definitely not how a professional should speak to other young professionals.”

    Excuse me? College journalism students wrote that?

  3. Curtis

    Would we notice if you replaced WSN with NYT? These students sound exactly like today’s journalists and Griffin sounds exactly like a soon to be fired editor.

  4. Charles

    From the post: “An editor stood up to Dr. Griffin’s demands and refused to edit out the word ‘murder’ from our article about Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of Louisville cops.”

    According to the NYU website, “Now among the largest private universities in the US, NYU provides a rigorous, demanding education to more than 50,000 students and undertakes nearly $1 billion in research annually.”

    Does a “rigorous, demanding education” permit a teacher to make demands of her students?

    I demand answers.

  5. Kathryn M Kase

    This is way insider baseball, but as one of the few in this forum who has a Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism, I would note that the NYU journalism program is accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. ACEJMC requires programs like NYU’s to teach students to “understand and apply the principles and laws of freedom of speech and press” and “write correctly and clearly in forms and styles appropriate for the communications professions, audiences and purposes they serve.” This is why practical programs such as student newspapers have faculty advisers: so that students can practically apply what they (ideally) have learned about defamation, writing and editing. Frankly, were I running the NYU program, I’d be inviting those who signed the complaint to remedial classes, not only about libel law, but also about how criticism — otherwise known as editing — occurs in the real world of newspaper, radio and television journalism.

    1. SHG Post author

      And without giving anything further away, your connection to journalism is far closer than your undergrad degree suggests. Just sayin’.

  6. Drew Conlin

    I wish I could say that I was very young ( college age) when I realized others knew more than I did and could point out my shortcomings and Just got plain wrong thinking. But I wasn’t, I was much much older. The good news for me is ,I did come to realize that often others know more than I do and a better way to do things. I consider this a smart move on my part. Sadly many go through life never realizing this.

    1. SHG Post author

      When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

      –Mark Twain

  7. KP

    ” Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism,”
    Ah, that made me laugh, but then I realised that science these days can mean anything you want it to, and the days of writing being an art have been diluted into anything the writer desires.

    I’m sure those students will do just fine in mainstream media with those attitudes, the national newspapers of this country exhibit it every day. Its when they write their blogs that the world might point out some sad facts.

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