Lighting it up — Journalism as a conversation at the private university
By Matthew Salzano
and Joanne Lisosky
Pacific Lutheran University
Abstract — Student journalists at private universities do the hard work of turning the lights on in the darkened, pseudo-public spheres on their campus. Without a clear idea of who is obligated to be the teller of unsavory truths on the private university’s campus, student media must often take up the torch. Building on Jurgen Habermas’s and Alexander Kluge’s work on the “public sphere” and Doreen Marchionni’s “journalism as a conversation,” student media publications can be examined for their coorientation, informality, and interactivity. Using two stories from the student media of Pacific Lutheran University as a case study illustrates how a robust student journalism outlet is a vital component of initiating important conversations in the public sphere of the private university. This investigation includes suggestions for implementing these strategies at other private universities.
The lights are off. The room is dark. There are a few dormant iMacs sitting in a cluster of desks. On those desks are discarded drafts of articles, empty coffee mugs, candy wrappers, remnants of food, all hidden in the darkness of the room. A student journalist walks into her office and turns the light on.
She walks to her desk and checks her notifications: there is, once again, an absolute landslide of feedback via email, mentions on Twitter, and debating commenters on Facebook. The newspaper published another big story Friday morning, and her private university campus cannot stop talking about it.
The authors tell this fictional story because they think it is representative of the role played by student journalists at private universities: under the right circumstances and using standard journalistic tools, they turn the lights on to what might be hiding in a darkened room. Private universities do not have the mandate of transparency found at state universities. Without the courage and tenacity of student journalists, a private university can leave the lights off and choose not to discuss the difficult issues.
Exploring Habermas’ idea of the public sphere and expanding on Doreen Marchionni’s work with journalism as a conversation, this research delves into two recent events in the student newsroom at Pacific Lutheran University. The authors explore how the student journalists prepared for the events and how the university administration and the community reacted—and continue to react. Through this, the authors conclude that a robust student journalism outlet is a vital component of initiating important conversations in the public sphere of the private university.
The Public Sphere
The idea of the public sphere comes from sociologist Jurgen Habermas’s foundational work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989). In this, he conceptualizes the public sphere as the “sphere of private people [that] come together as a public.” He further explains this a few years later, describing it as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed,” adding the qualification that “access is guaranteed to all citizens” (27).
At a private university, the reality of the public sphere is that it is a pseudo-public sphere. The university acts in its own interests and is only obligated to reveal information that is in its best interest to students, faculty, and staff. While the private liberal arts university may claim that its core tenets include transparency, diversity, social justice, or a number of other of progressive paradigms, these tenets are only investigated by the university in ways that make sure the brand or image of the university is preserved. As an example, an honest public sphere at a private university would recognize that its student body is not diverse because students of color are tokenized oddities; the pseudo-public sphere, which the university facilitates, over-represents the opinion that the university is diverse due to the statistics of its student body, regardless of lived experience.
Habermas posits that a public sphere is where rational dialogue and debate happen about the lifeworld experienced by the private citizens. As citizens discuss and shape ideas that create public opinion in this sphere, they shape democratic society. The public sphere is the meeting of private citizens and the power of the state; the debate that takes place in the public sphere inevitably shapes both how people behave individually and how the state represents these individuals (1989). The private university, of course, is not a democracy or a “state”—it operates independent of much of the governmental oversight at a public institution. This does not change the idea, however, that the public sphere of the private university that faculty, students, administrators, and staff all inevitably participate in has great effect on what happens in the university. It is held to the opinions of the faculty and the students that constitute its presence. The student journalist is vital in instituting the access to information that facilitates the ability of “streams of communication” in the public sphere to “coalesce into bundles of topically specified public opinions” at the private university (Habermas 1992, 360).
Alexander Kluge describes an oppositional, or alternative, public sphere as “a type of public sphere which is increasing and changing, increasing the possibilities for a public articulation of experience” (Kluge, Levin, & Hansen 1981, 211). This alternative public sphere stands in contrast to the pseudo-public sphere that claims to be representative but actually excludes. A pseudo-public sphere only shows “parts of reality, selectively and according to certain value systems,” seemingly, but not actually, representative of a universal experience (212). The creation of alternative public spheres counters this presentation and begins to produce a more representative public sphere. This is important to creating effective civil discourse.
Kluge argues that the public sphere can only be produced when one accepts “the degree of abstraction which is involved in carrying one piece of information to another place in society”; he believes this is the “only way we can create an oppositional public sphere and thus expand the existing public sphere” (Kluge et al. 1981, 212). The student media of a private university, then, by taking information from a non-public sphere into an alternative public sphere, helps expand the public sphere of the university. The authors postulate that, in this private university context, discussion moves from the alternative—where only students, even in mass, are in the conversation—and enters the public sphere when the university and student governing bodies begin to enter the stream of conversation.
The work of student journalists at the private university is particularly important because it is unclear at their universities who would disseminate honest information about important issues. In contrast to public universities, the private university is not held accountable in the same way by the state, public record requests, and local journalists. Student journalism at a private university serves as the primary agent that brings potentially unsavory information from non-public spheres and, by employing the alternative public sphere, turns on the light.
Journalism as a Conversation
Journalism is no longer just a lecture. It’s more like a seminar: a conversation among equals exploring something together. When well-practiced, journalism becomes the impetus for vital community conversations. Student media at private schools offers students an ideal opportunity to practice journalism as a conversation—a new, proactive model developed for 21st century journalism. The community at a private university tends to be small and these enterprising student journalists often work in close proximity with people, both students and administrators, who engage in the challenging issues facing the campus community.
In practicing journalism as conversation, student journalists no longer just think of a story, write the story, publish the story, and move on to the next story. They think of a story idea that has the potential to start a discussion in the community, publish the story, and remain involved in the conversation once the story ignites. They participate in what John Dewey (1927) suggested as the public method: face-to-face conversation that feeds into the public discussion and renews people’s ability to evaluate and discriminate the contents of public discussion and what is best for them.
In this evolutionary model, student journalists supply the light—the facts—but the community fills in the story as the issue is discussed and negotiated.
A pioneer in the theoretical aspects of journalism as a conversation is Doreen Marchionni (2013) who examined this notion in “Journalism-as-a-Conversation: A Concept Explication.” Marchionni remarked that this notion of journalism as a conversation began as public journalism, which was closely tied to the notion of public sphere proposed by Jurgen Habermas (1989).
Marchionni (2013) explained her variable of coorientation as one of the key elements in journalism as a conversation. She added that this aspect was declared in 2012 as one of the biggest ideas in journalism during the last 100 years by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Marchionni suggested that coorientation, which is the perceived similarity of journalists and readers, represents the collaborative nature of the evolutionary journalism model or “bringing citizens directly into the reporting process” (142) She added that coorientation works best when journalists “are more like the citizens they are supposed to serve” (2015, 221). Coorientation can be easily attained for student journalists at a private university because the audience tends to be easily drawn into stories produced by colleagues in student media and the audience is mostly comprised of similar demographic citizens.
Another variable Marchionni addressed was the tone or voice of the journalist’s storytelling, which she described as informality. She suggested that in order for news to be less lecture and more conversational, the journalist needed to more personal and slightly less professional (2013, 140). While this notion may cause seasoned journalists to quake, it offers the student journalists an attractive way to dive into a story and even add a first-person perspective they often find appealing due to its democratizing, personal nature.
The modern framing of journalism as a conversation becomes most apt when one applies the variable of interactivity as mentioned by Marchionni (2013, 142). Today’s university students rely heavily on electronic conversations, from email to social media. They have no compunction about responding virtually and vociferously to material that their colleagues publish for student media. Thus, interactivity can be assessed on a private school campus.
At the conclusion of her foundational piece on journalism as a conversation, Marchionni proffered that experimentation of this evolutionary practice needed to be conducted.
The authors suggest that student media at a private university presents an outstanding opportunity to explore the reach of journalism as a conversation. The population is compact and focused. The administration’s goals may differ from the population’s goals, but the administrators may be open to allowing the student journalists the opportunity to begin the discussion. The media have the unique opportunity to bring to the masses the challenges and conflicts otherwise divulged only to a few stakeholders, thus shedding light on the situation in a way the administrative leadership may not.
Two examples of a journalism as a communication experiment occurred at Pacific Lutheran University in the past 18 months. These issues focused on challenges found at many universities: student alcohol abuse and student athletes’ group-think.
- “Get drunk, make mistakes:” This publication in October 2015 asked difficult questions of various populations on campus. The story demonstrated a unique narrative story-telling method that came under attack. Publication resulted in many meetings on campus among various groups that formerly did not engage, but were brought together to discuss the issue of alcohol at off-campus parties.
- “Every Man a Lute.” The publication of this team-written story in student newspaper The Mast sought information from a variety of sources on campus and resulted in social media conversations and swift action from administration to promote the elimination of long-standing misogynistic slogan.
Both of these stories will be assessed with regards to three variables from Marchionni’s work: interactivity, informality, and coorientation. This assessment looks at the stories in question, social media posts from Facebook and Twitter concerning the stories, and interviews with student reporters and administrators. The authors then, based on these analyses, suggest that these stories fit the criteria of journalism as a conversation and thus demonstrate a significant role for student media at a private university.
Fig. 1. Cover of student publication, Mast Magazine, on October 30, 2015.
Get Drunk, Make Mistakes
“How do we get here and how does this all get started?” The question was asked by the editor of the Pacific Lutheran University newspaper and magazine in a 2015 story known as “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes.” In a seven-section, first-person narrative, she compiled the stories of multiple partiers and multiple parties; she explained in a disclaimer that she created this composite for the sake of anonymity, in hopes of keeping students out of trouble but still be able to “cover this sensitive topic” (Lund 2015).
The students reacted to this suddenly public conversation in a way that showed it truly was a “sensitive topic.” Taking to Twitter, many were offended that the article did not clearly state its purpose. One such commenter was student Arika Matoba: “What is this Get Drunk Make Mistakes article? That normalizes judging people and over drinking?? THAT is the feature?????” (Matoba 2015). Matoba was particularly upset with the agenda-setting she read into the magazine’s choice of cover photo, which opted for “Get Drunk Make Mistakes” instead of a story about an autistic man continuing his family’s legacy at the university, writing that the publication “uplifts party culture and unsafe drinking over stories of overcoming adversity simply to make some noise” (Matoba 2015). Another student remarked that it lacked any sense of “activism” or “morality,” having “no overall message,” instead “endorsing a negative culture” (Anderson 2015). In response, the publication encouraged its Twitter users to send their thoughts in as a letter to the editor. It also clarified why the story made the cover (Mast Media 2015).
Tweets, Facebook posts, and Snapchat interactions after the story was published showed how capable the student media organization was at creating conversation. Journalism as a conversation situates stories not as a lecture to the audience, but as interactive with the audience. Contemporary private universities are particularly well-situated to showcase this interaction due to the prevalence and narrowness of scope in both digital and real life social networks of students. Conversations about hot topics brought up by student media easily spread through the community because it is well-linked together and only needs to travel a short distance.
In the case of “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes,” the story quickly made palpable impressions on the social space of the university, as evidenced by the interactions on social media. To translate into terms of the public sphere, the private university’s pseudo-public sphere showed it was fragile because a neglected topic was easily brought up by student journalists.
In response to this student story, the university’s student government hosted an event to talk about drinking culture on campus. The event hosted about 50 people and included the Vice President of Student Life, Joanna Royce-Davis. A sphere concerning a profoundly important yet difficult issue to address was broken into as a result of the work of student media, showcasing how journalism as a conversation functions on campus.
“Get Drunk, Make Mistakes” shows the desire to flip on the light switch in a darkened pseudo-public sphere. Seeing journalism as a conversation, the story sought to highlight issues that people should be talking about in the ways students talked about it. The disclaimer said the author wanted to talk about “smoking, drinking, partying and hooking up at” her university; throughout the article, she documents experiences of being busted by police, the “party creepers” who live in the impoverished area surrounding the university but show up at the parties, and how these gatherings differ from those at nearby public universities (Lund 2015). This informal diction showed that this was not a lecture, but a shared experience by students and for students.
While the informality increased the coorientation of the piece, the story needed to have a marked purpose to contribute (or create) meaningful conversation. It was as if the student media organization had turned the lights on and rudely awoken a peacefully resting student body, but offered no explanation for its perceived impoliteness. The piece adequately began conversation but was not clear as to why it was doing so, so the conversation sparked was more about the agenda-setting of the publication, rather than the issues about party culture it intended to explore.
Seeing the potential damage to credibility due to this miscommunication, the staff decided to release an apology letter that clearly articulated the organization’s dedication to journalism as a conversation that takes active care in cultivating an active public sphere. The letter began by establishing coorientation: noting that the student journalists loved being students at the university. Then they clearly stated the purpose of creating conversation: “to shed light on a little-talked about issue, hoping to spark conversations about how party culture works and what it means for our community” and, adding later in the piece, “Most importantly, we wish to use [the publication] and the stories in it to point campus conversation toward productive discourse” (“Regarding Mast Magazine” 2015).
This article, in effect, accomplished two things: first, it showed the purpose of journalism as being a conversation; second, it helped reinforce the student journalists’ orientation and role at the private university as stewards of a public sphere who were not just capable of, but responsible to, journalism as a conversation.
This story also illustrates that on-campus journalism could not just develop an alternative public sphere but that the alternative space created can directly lead to a break into the public sphere of the university. Vice President Royce-Davis said in an interview that the article served as a “catalyst” to start a conversation that people were ready to respond to because the conversation thus far had taken place in a non-public sphere she described as its own “segmented, silo-ed place.” The story is now used as a “common reference” when talking in athletics about drinking culture (Royce-Davis, personal communication, March 27, 2017).
“When the article came out,” she said, “what it invited and provided was instead a response from the entire community to say: ‘This isn’t so silo-ed. This is bigger and has greater impact and influence across many students” (Royce-Davis, personal communication, March 27, 2017).
In conclusion, “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes” and its following apology shows how, with careful engagement in the production of journalism as a conversation in an alternative public sphere—with engagement of students with students, online and in person—the student journalist can be the impetus for conversation at Pacific Lutheran University.
Fig. 2. Cover of student newspaper, The Mast, on November 4, 2016.
“Every Man A Lute”
The next example from the student media organization, almost exactly a full year later, started with a tweet. The university’s sports Twitter account, @golutes, had posted a picture containing a traditional football team slogan known as Every Man a Lute, also known as EMAL, had been blurred out and obscured on a football practice jersey. Player Parker Smith responded on Twitter: “Why is the EMAL blurred out?” and his tweet garnered more than 30 retweets and 80 likes (Smith 2015). This began a quiet murmur among student athletes on campus about what may be happening to the slogan.
In the student newsroom, the staff, which included the new editor and approximately four other staffers had been around for the “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes” story, was alerted to this new conversation via the popular tweet. The conversation was much bigger than just about what the university had decided about the slogan: it was also about the history of the team, the history of the university, the nature of patriarchy in language, and the meaning of inclusion as the university moved forward. The story was covered by a diverse group of people—some knew plenty about EMAL, some knew almost nothing. That helped orient the story in the language and ideology of the student body: due to the explanatory nature of the piece, it was clear this was not a lecture where the journalist knew it all. This was an exploration being conducted together, as a community.
The story was published as a cover story in the Nov. 4, 2016, print issue of the newspaper. It was divided into sections titled “The Legacy,” “Exclusionary Language,” “In Response,” “On the Books,” and “Put Into Practice” (Thames et al. 2016). It methodically provided information as to inform the conversations that constitute the public sphere: the history of the term, based on archival research; information from communication faculty about semantic asymmetry; student, faculty, staff, and alumni input; stated marketing practices at the university; and information on how the team and administration planned to move forward, respectively.
The story is framed with an especially long headline in large text, underneath a “Every Man a Lute” title: “PLU marketing shies away from the legendary slogan: is EMAL an important legacy or exclusionary language?” This extraordinarily long headline is not a symbol of novice journalists; rather it was a way of denoting the exact goal of the story. This strategy appears to follow the goal of journalism as a conversation: it broke the traditional, formal rules of journalism, which may have led to an impersonal headline due to its untraditional length. Instead, it is motivated to provide facts to a situation and, with the lessons from “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes,” a clear structure to guide the conversation forward in a way that is suited to its community. Another option could have been a straightforward 600-word story about the logo being blurred out, opting to do little history or explanation on the terms; instead, this 1,800 word story with a long headline gives facts and a guiding question. It turns on the lights in the darkened room and says “OK, everyone, the reason we’re disturbing you is…”
So, what had existed in the non-public sphere (i.e., only among athletes, with little-to-no divergent opinions) was now brought into the alternative public sphere (i.e., of student journalism) in hopes of bringing this conversation into the public sphere. Much like with “Get Drunk, Make Mistakes,” this quickly happened—and on a much larger scale. According to Vice President Royce-Davis, the story had provided “an opportunity for multiple perspectives to be in the same space in a way they hadn’t been before.” This led to the reactions all over campus and beyond. The vice president shared that she hears conversations about EMAL on a “regular basis” (Royce-Davis, personal communication, March 27, 2017).
Perhaps the primary drivers of post-publication conversation were alumni. The conversation was continued by alumni who found the story on the student media website. Troy Brost, in a post containing a photoshopped title—“The Legacy That Will Live Forever”—over an image from the story, wrote that a “handful of administrators and students… considers EMAL (Every Man A Lute), a football term and tradition created 30+ years ago, not inclusive enough to be politically correct” (Brost, 2016). Others included: “This is disheartening,” “The level of sensitivity is too much nowadays,” and “This is getting a little absurd” (Hatton 2016; Song 2016; and Brown 2016).
The university decided to hold a “PLU Football Community Meeting” about EMAL aimed at alumni: when the university posted on its Facebook page, the invite was for a “peaceful, grace-filled conversation.” The conversation was live-tweeted by the student media that originally covered the story.
This conversation on campus—as evidenced by that first unanswered question on Twitter—would not have made it to the public sphere without the work of student journalists. The commitment and awareness to journalism as conversation is apparent in the structure of the story, and such commitment meant that the conversation extended past the story in print, to social media, and into formal conversations of the university. Vice President Royce-Davis ended up grateful that the story had made it so the “door had been opened” for this “necessary conversation that probably needed to have occurred some time ago” (Royce-Davis, personal communication, March 27, 2017).
She noted that “it’s been super healthy—not easy!” This was a clear example of how careful stewardship of stories, which keeps the public sphere and conversation in mind, can have powerful effects on the private university campus.
Clearly, when student media experiments with journalism as a conversation at a private university, there can be real effects of eroding its pseudo-public sphere. This is easily said, however, and not as easily accomplished; it requires the existence of willing administrators, students, and readers. In addition, practicing journalism as a conversation offers journalism educators a broad spectrum of additional skills to add to student journalists’ tool boxes.
One of the most important ingredients needed to make this experiment work at a private school are supportive administrators. These administrators need to recognize that the possibility exists for unsavory exposure to unsubstantiated material when dealing with controversial subject in the hands of student journalists. Vice President Royce-Davis recognized that “student media does not present a ‘problem’ to us,” recognizing that as a “troublesome” narrative; instead, student media is a vital contributor “to shared shaping and understanding of community,” as it “brings forward information that may be under the surface or not visible otherwise” (Royce-Davis, personal communication, March 27, 2017).
The authors believe that a first step in building a good relationship with administration is to be clear about pedagogy. That may include showing them this paper as evidence that a driven student staff paired with supportive administrators can help make the university a better place. When administrators trust that the student journalists are the best arbiters and curators for examining and collating challenging issues on campus, journalism as a conversation has the best opportunity to exist and flourish.
Brooke Thames, the current editor-in-chief of The Mast, recalled that stories were being approached with the idea of journalism as conversation; this meant it was not difficult to get staffers involved—they already cared about the story. They already had a stake in it, curiosities about it, and feelings toward it (Thames, personal communication, March 28, 2017). Participants were more than willing, because it wasn’t that they were being asked to do it; it came out of their desire to know more.
Journalism as a conversation offers journalism educators an array of new tools to use when approaching serious campus stories. Student journalists can be encouraged to consider journalism as the beginning of a difficult discussion, not a one-and-done lecture. This broadens students’ notion of the importance of journalism on their campus. Journalism as a conversation reminds students that they are not simply there to tell the stories but to engage fully in the issue after publication because they are now an integral part of the solution.
The readers follow suit. If the student media staff is situated as a part of the community, if it is properly orientated, its community will care deeply about the stories being told. Students will welcome the new participant in the pre-existing conversation that was aching for a more public venue. At the university of the case studies, print newspapers had to be ordered in larger quantities because they were flying off the racks.
This research represents how one small community can engage in the practice of journalism as a conversation. With that in mind, further research could develop programs for educating students and advisers on these theories and how to employ them. The theoretical basis for this paper could be applied to other private university publications to expand literature on the contemporary functions of journalism as a conversation and the public sphere.
The student journalist from the beginning of the essay sits at her desk, engaging each notification she’s received with the same investment she had when her team began reporting on the story. She’s busy, tired, and she really needs to clean up her office, but she’s deeply satisfied that her team found another issue hiding in the darkness—and turned the lights on.
- Anderson, Elise. [ERuthAnderson]. 2015. “@gavjacks @PLUMast I (& others) felt it lacked any form of morality or activism. It endorses a negative culture with no overall message.” Tweet, October 30. https://twitter.com/eruthanderson/status/659999450404814848
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- Brost, Troy. 2016. “The word EMAL is under attack by a handful of Administration and Students at Pacific Lutheran University; the use of EMAL is proposed to be retired. This minority considers EMAL (Every Man A Lute), a football term and tradition created” Photograph, November 17. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10211467819037277&set=a.2349840431583.2136701.1417264738&type=3&theater
- Brown, Kyle. 2016. “Fellow EMALs. This is getting a little absurd.” Facebook status update, November 7. https://www.facebook.com/kyle.brown.39948/posts/1301107569933401
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- Mast Media [PLUMast]. 2015. “@arikamatoba We love your feedback, and we tried, but getting a picture of Nathan wasn’t going to happen and we wanted an image on it.” Tweet, October 30. https://twitter.com/PLUMast/status/660164610842955776
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- Pacific Lutheran University. 2016. “PLU alumni, students, staff and faculty members are invited to participate in the PLU Football Community Meeting. Join us for a peaceful, grace-filled conversation about EMAL on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m.” Photograph, December 2. https://www.facebook.com/Pacific.Lutheran.University/photos/a.10150268120521891.329882.84508271890/10153907721776891/?type=3&theater
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- Thames, Brooke, Rhiannon Berg, Courtney Miranda, Matthew Salzano, Paris Franklin, Christian Bond, Morgan Stark, Breanna Wiersma and Hannah Soltis. 2016. “PLU marketing shies away from the legendary slogan: is EMAL an important legacy or exclusionary language?” Mast Media, November 3. http://mastmedia.plu.edu/2016/11/plu-marketing-shies-away-from-the-legendary-slogan-is-emal-an-important-legacy-or-exclusionary-language/
Joanne M. Lisosky, Ph.D. has been teaching journalism and advising student media at Pacific Lutheran University for more than 20 years. She received a Presidential Citation from CMA for her work in 2016 on the First Amendment Advocacy Committee. Lisosky co-authored a book with a former student in 2011, “War on Words: Who Should Protect Journalists?” and was the recipient of the CMA Ken Nordin Award for research in 2010. She served as a freelance journalist for the UN in Geneva and other organizations, and has completed two Fulbright teaching assignments and is preparing for her third later this year.