Student journalist Cameron Burns was recently manhandled by police, handcuffed, tossed to the ground, and bussed off to jail. But he got the story. Late last week, the eighteen-year-old multimedia producer for The Daily Californian at the University of California, Berkeley, joined a large group of anarchists marching roughly eight miles from Berkeley to Oakland to protest public education funding cuts. His mission: capture video and eyewitness observations for a Daily Cal report.
At one point, without warning, a splinter faction of protesters veered onto an interstate highway, suddenly enmeshing Burns in the mother of all journalistic dilemmas: covering a riot without getting caught up in it. He did not have his press pass with him. He did not know what the group had planned. He had no assurances of personal safety. He hesitated only a split second. As his editor shouted into his cell phone, "Go get the story -- go get it!"
A few minutes later, he was under arrest. He spent 20 hours in jail, worried his parents and editors, and now faces a fight to clear his name from a criminal record. But he got the story -- no less than what student journalists across the country are accomplishing daily, often without fear, for little to no pay, and at times in between classes.
The tale of Burns's dogged reporting has ironically arrived at the same time as a new Chronicle of Higher Education report bemoaning the lack of higher education coverage in the professional press- especially among the old standbys, local newspapers. "Faced with declining advertising revenues and circulation, many newspapers are combining higher education and schools into a single beat, or even eliminating the education beat altogether," the article states. "In a report released in December, the Brookings Institution found that articles about education made up only about 1 percent of all national news over the past few years."
The article touts that the only way this humongous void is currently being filled is through university public relations offices, which are cutting out the news media middlemen and simply "reporting" on their own news and publishing it themselves. My jaw dropped at the piece's failure to touch on one other major relevant higher education news source: college journalists!
As the professional press compresses and its original content wanes, student news media are rising to a place of uber-importance, specifically with respect to higher education reporting. Even with the hurdles of a learning curve, competing academic and extracurricular commitments, lack of resources, and occasional censorship or pressure from their host institutions, student journalists are providing coverage that greatly expands upon the deplorable 1 percent quota the professional press is currently churning out. And they are using their student status to their advantage -- including their close proximity to campus news events and newsmakers and their inbred new media know-how -- to grab exclusives and report with extra innovation.
I showed the finding about the professional news media's 1 percent education coverage to a campus newspaper editor just now and she laughed, loudly. Student journalists' only exposure to 1 percent is the milk they drink. Education news is not 1 percent of the student journalism beat. It is 100 percent.
In that sense, UC Berkeley's Cameron Burns should be applauded for his bravery and upbeat attitude under duress, but he is not a hero. He is simply a student journalist who got the story, a story that deserves telling, and apparently a story that is going to have to rely on the college news media to be told.