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Student Journalists Are Not 'Subhuman'

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A month ago, a prominent journalism educator lightly scolded me for using the phrase "student journalist" to describe an undergraduate reporter who produced a high-profile story as part of a capstone journalism course.

In his words: "I think it is important to press for equality between 'student' journalists and others. Somehow 'student' denigrates the work as some species of subhuman work."

The comment is intriguing -- and continues to gnaw at me. As a campus press scholar, I have repeatedly argued that collegians should not run from their student status, but actually wear the "journalism student" label as a badge of honor and embrace its many advantages.

Among these advantages, in my opinion:

  • Student journalists' access to, and intimate knowledge of, the many people, places, and trends impacting modern higher education.
  • The continual on-the-job training provided by classes and mentoring-on-demand provided by profs.
  • The time and impetus they have to produce feature-length, investigative reports (especially in advanced courses or via senior theses).
  • Their potentially fresh perspectives and idealism, not yet tainted by world-weariness or routine.
  • And of course the potential they now have to share their work with a massive audience ASAP -- internships, degrees, years of climbing the ladder not required.

It is this last point that makes the distinction between student and professional journalist more blurry than ever.

After all, the online empowerment era has made youth or inexperience all but irrelevant if the reporting legwork is sound. Acceptance by an established media outlet is also no longer the sole path to publication.

In schools worldwide, journalism students' "class assignments" are now frequently submitted to campus media or posted on a class blog or students' independent sites, enabling even Reporting 101 write-ups to be potential discussion starters or full-blown journalism blockbusters. Students' outside blogging and reporting efforts are also at times accepted and celebrated prior to conferral of a degree, as iconic individuals such as Alana Taylor and Brian Stelter have proven.

Simply put, student journalists are now able to compete on almost equal footing with almost all professional journalists. Should a distinction between the two no longer exist? And in a related sense, does calling someone a student journalist nowadays somehow lessen their work, make it sound "subhuman" or categorize it as inferior to a "true" journalist?

I personally think it is a matter of perspective. The belief that a student journalist is a second-class citizen (journalist) does not reveal a problem with the term "student journalist." It reveals a problem with that belief.

This is a generational divide -- not between old and young but between old and new media. Conventions have long dictated that a certain amount of training and degrees are required before an individual is considered part of a specific profession. The journalism profession has traditionally relied on the classes-then-internships-then-cub-reporter convention (although certainly with lots of exceptions). Students have of course been encouraged to produce work along the way, but it was all seen as a means to an end, not an end to itself.

Now it can be its own end, and offer its own rewards. And this end is the beginning... of a new set of conventions. Student journalism is no longer just an embryonic stage in a journalist's life. It is not "subhuman." It is fully formed. It is making waves NOW. I see no need to run from the term. I say celebrate it.

I also say that it is a distinction that does not have to stop being used after one's college commencement. I am a journalism student. My friend at the Washington Post told me today she still considers herself a journalism student. In many ways, all of us involved in and passionate about journalism are students of the craft, for life.