Student Editors Speak

Written by Jackie Bischof
August 24, 2007

Critics of student media and the role it plays on campus did not attend a seminar on the responsibilities of student media last Tuesday.

The editors of three student newspapers formed a panel entitled: Students newspapers: Whose watchdog? Whose lapdog? The discussion focused on student media and their responsibilities to readers. The audience was made up mostly of Journalism and Media Studies students.

Members of the current SRC, who have criticised Vuvuzela in the past for being a “lapdog” of management, did not attend the talk. The event was advertised widely on campus, but did coincide with a talk by the Wits Democracy Debate on the South African Communist Party.

Carl Willemse, editor of Perdeby newspaper (University of Pretoria) and Belinda Weyer, editor of the UJ Observer (University of Johannesburg), joined Phakamisa Ndzamela of Vuvuzela and Professor Anton Harber on the panel.

Each speaker briefly discussed their experiences working on student newspapers, and the responsibilities they felt the newspapers had to their readers.

Ndzamela tackled past criticisms leveled at Vuvuzela, and added: “It’s a pity that the people who raised such allegations are not here”. He mentioned that Vuvuzela had been accused of “favouring management” and failing to “report on any misconduct done by the Wits Management”.

Ndzamela cited three articles that he felt illustrated its attempts to “provide a channel of communication between the student leadership (SRC), the Wits University management and the general student population”.

Weyer, who was part of the focus group that wrote the constitution of the UJ Observer, said it was important for student newspapers to be completely independent and run by students.

She said she preferred the newspaper not to be affiliated to any department at the university so that “no-one could point fingers at the possibility of influence in our articles”.

However, having students as the final editorial filter did mean quality control was a problem at times.

Willemse described Perdeby as a “student newspaper, by students, for students”. He stressed the importance of the newspaper remaining independent. Although the newspaper was a “community mouthpiece” and “representative of the student voice”, he said the newspaper was not afraid to cover “issues that might reflect negatively on the student population”.

The panel and the audience debated the merits of politically-affiliated SRC candidates, as well as the importance of reader response and student participation in the construction of the newspaper.

Competition by other media on campus was also welcomed. Professor Anton Harber of Wits Journalism added: “I’d be much happier if the SRC [still] produced the Wits Student. Our students would be working in a more competitive environment, which would be much better.”

The panel on the role and responsibility of student media was the first in the Wits Journalism Seminar Series. The next seminar, entitled: Journalism in a Democracy: a perspective from India, will host esteemed editor, Tarun Tejpal. It will take place on August 24 at 3pm in the Graduate School Seminar Room.

Snippets of Ndzamela’s speech:

“…student newspapers should never cease to be watchdogs, watchdogs of both student leadership and university management.”
“…student newspapers out to balance their watchdog role with a role of educating and informing both students, and management on issues affecting the lives of students… It should also ultimately provide entertainment, which students – our readers – want.”
“Our student newspaper Vuvuzela has been tasked with the duty to provide a channel of communication between the student leadership (SRC), the Wits University management and the general student population.”
“…in some cases Vuvuzela has had to absorb criticism from both sides. Some people accuse Vuvuzela of favouring management and others of favouring student leadership. This means we are actually doing our job properly.”
“[some] believe that Vuvuzela loses its watchdog status because it is run through the influence of the department of Journalism…”
“Equally it must be acknowledged that the Wits Vuvuzela has had its own limitations in terms of playing an informative role to the student population. Amongst other things it has not sufficiently produced content that educates students on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”

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2 Responses to “Student Editors Speak”

  1. Mafled August 2, 2008 at 9:25 pm #

    i am a Honours student of media studies at University of Limpopo- Turfloop campus, the problem of independence of students publications is also visible here whereby almost all official University newspapers are run and owned by people who are appointed by the management and they are not publishing stories reflecting the problems facd by students. stories are written by professors and they take the side of the management and they don’t reflect the interest of the students and as a result students end up not reading them. students from media studies department have started their newspaper which is sponsored by the department and also edoted by a lecturer, so u can see that this paper cannot report the negative side of the department or even the university management. such newspapers end up with no readers because they don’t deal with the issues which affects student daily, rather such newspapers act as PR tool for the university. i think student media will never be independent as long as they operate within the university, and lastly u can’t bite the hand that feed you
    Mafled

  2. jax August 5, 2008 at 10:02 pm #

    Dear Mafled – I’m glad you found my blog! Thanks for your comment … you’re absolutely right, it is a very difficult line to tow, the one between your own independence and neutrality, and your need for support and resources from the university. But in a way, it is also good practise for the day when you have to fight between what your audiences need – and what you as a journalist would like to say; and what advertising demands.

    It is possible to find a balance, but I think that first the two sides have to respect each other. I think that in a situation like this, it is possible to sit down with management and say, look, we’re proud of our university and we’re happy with the resources you provide us, but we value our indepence as a critical training tool, and you need to know that we cannot act as your mouthpiece … and then see how they respond to that! I’m sure everyone at Vuvuzela would love to hear your thoughts!

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