Investigation at The Daily Cougar

When trying to understand a newspaper, it is important to focus on the investigative role and what factors effect it.  The watchdog/investigative role of a newspaper may be the most important aspect of a newspaper.  They are one of the few institutions that have the budget and technical resources to do thorough independent examinations of important subjects

When I came to Reporting (for print media) Professor McHam with 2 pages of story ideas before the semester began, he was dismissive of some, but told me I would be the class investigative reporter.  He oddly suggested I do a project a previous student had done.  This idea strangely stemmed from his simply remembering someone who I reminded him of who had followed a UH Recycling vehicle around and discovered they weren’t really recycling.

Then, in the first week of class I found out I was actually assigned to the environmental beat, the least popular of beats according to McHam – likely to keep me away from upper level administrators. The Daily Cougar Editor in Chief Jack Wehman smugly told me this during a heated discussion earlier that day, before Professor McHam mentioned it. When McHam had us fill out what we wanted to cover in class later that day, I asked if we hadn’t already been assigned beats. He assured me that we hadn’t, and then came up to me after class to tell me that I had been assigned to this least popular of beats.

On top of dealing with such deceptive and frustrating behavior, there were other obstacles to overcome.

When emailed recently, Professor McHam refused to allow a lower quantity of stories for higher quality, although he allows two very easy/quick press-release rewrites called “Newslines” to count as one news story. In depth reporting is not valued in McHam’s class if it cannot be done quickly.

Also, the school controls the paper’s funding, which it is more and more in need of. Advertising sales are declining rapidly and they need as much sympathy as they can get. The more UH News propaganda they can rewrite, the better chance they have of getting another 100,000$ bail out. Investigating the school would likely have the opposite effect.

For those who think this isn’t the case, there are currently 362 articles with “Khator” in them on The Daily Cougar website.

I challenge anyone to find how many articles they must dig through before they find one that portrays Khator in a critical light, such as a real newspaper would look at a politician (who controls his constituency much like a school president governs her students.)  That is – mentioning the bad with the good.  I can think of at least one, and there are probably others, but not many.

In the news section, there likely are none.  Not only because many to most of the stories come from press releases, as previously mentioned, but because students are inundated with propaganda to have “Cougar Pride” and love the school administration, and opinion is better for burying negative facts in due to much lower readership and the facts have the title “opinion” casting a shadow over them.

Students also aren’t trained to be critical. Academically Adrift recently substantiated this with its findings of no significant critical thinking for most Bachelor’s degree holders.
Many students also don’t have enough time to do in depth investigating.  They must pay bills and the (for some reason?) increasingly high university costs, which means part time jobs for many students on top of their class work and everything else that life throws at them.

Public relations is merging with journalism. Not just in the newspaper, but in the classrooms. The Nation’s Michael Tracey said in a great 2008 article “you really can’t teach journalism. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised when extraneous bunk like marketing becomes a prominent feature of journalism education.”

Students interested in investigating must also contend with the ego of those involved in the status quo. In a meeting with journalism professor Dr. Schiff, in which I came in with pages of notes typed up on various topics to discuss – including an investigative story I was working on that he ignored – almost the entire time was dedicated to talking about what classes I had taken.

Dr. Schiff, despite being critical of mainstream journalism, corporations, the government and every other large institution – seemed to have a strong faith in the UH system. Even after I mentioned that editors who are running plagiarized press releases have taken the classes he felt were important, he only shrugged and suggested that the program was important  and I couldn’t just learn these things from a book and he didn’t have time to teach me the many things I would learn in these classes that seemed to have taught others little to nothing.

When I mentioned my Khator investigation his response was that “many professors like her.”  To his credit, he also said the amount of debt Khator’s last university (where she was in control of finances via her Provost position) is in seemed high. USF is about $450-$500 million in debt. “USF has seen a tremendous growth in new construction during Carlucci’s tenure. He managed the financing of nine new buildings” according to USF.

“”We’re already losing top faculty and it’s going to get worse” said one USF official in this article, which also mentions that “pension cuts pose additional problems in light of the University’s reduced budget for the 2011-12 academic year.”
So USF’s financial administrators (Khator and Carlucci – who currently control much of UH) had several buildings built, and now USF won’t have any good faculty to teach in these buildings, and few students to go to the courses, unless the economy makes a strong recovery – which isn’t likely for students, whose student loan debt is surpassing credit card debt and expected to be the next big bubble.

This is the same story I mentioned to McHam before the semester started, and probably the reason I’m on the environmental beat. Rather than disagree with any of my points or guide my investigating them, McHam dismissed this as “the kinds of things people talk about in bars.”
In conclusion, it’s not easy being an investigator at UH.

Every day I am reminded of Mark Twain’s quote “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Readers are encouraged to comment on how school interferes with their education, as well as how they feel it has benefited them, but especially the former.

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