A research paper on The Daily Cougar

I was doing some research the other day to prepare an email for a reporter in regards to my education at UH when I came across my old research paper on UH’s student newspaper. No one ever saw this except me and my professor…until now.

The Daily Cougar

Competing roles of a university paper examined

Jansen, Brian


This paper will examine the quantity of criticism and sources of The Daily Cougar print edition, and also analyze the overall quality of the paper within the context of diverse research literature.
The Daily Cougar: Competing roles of a university paper examined.

The Daily Cougar (TDC) proclaims itself to be an “editorially independent and student-run” newspaper, serving the University of Houston (About Us.) Besides informing the UH community, the newspaper serves several other roles. It also must help teach students to be practicing journalists, remain financially stable and attempt to live up to even the more idealistic notions in its mission statement.
Student Publications, who oversees the paper, describes their mission as providing “accurate and relevant news…as frequently as possible” and encouraging “editorial focus upon the complex university community and its impact“(Mission statement.) “Further, our mission is to foster an open and objective environment among Student Publications staff members that provides a public forum for viewpoints and opinion; to teach that a news medium is a conduit for free speech and the clarification of public issues and ideas” (Ibid.)
TDC must balance these ideals of openness and objectivity with many contending forces. The primary force is likely the overwhelming financial control exercised by the University of Houston. Funding is provided through ads (about $500,000 in 2010) that are dominated by UH buyers, and through the school(about $300,000 in 2010) after the paper lobbies the Student Fees Advisory Committee, who then makes recommendations to the vice president for student affairs and the university president. This overwhelming financial control leads to the paper adopting an overwhelmingly positive tone towards the University, which leads the more iconoclastic or independent-minded journalism students (who must serve on the paper as part of their degree requirements) to many early professional and ethical dilemmas while facing the conflict between the newspapers’ investigative, educative, business and public relations roles.
By examining many aspects of the competing forces and roles in this newspaper, the author hopes to determine how close the newspaper is to living up to its goals. By examining findings in a broader context and from a novel perspective, the paper will also provide unique insights that will lead to a better understanding of college newspapers in general. Quantifying criticism of the school and doing qualitative assessments should help to improve TDC by helping to answer questions left unanswered by Matt Dulin’s (Daily Cougar adviser) content analysis regarding criticism and quality of stories.
To guide this research I will be asking questions such as:
What should the function of a school newspaper be? What should journalism education consist of? How much does TDC criticize the school? How good is the production quality of the paper? What forces effect the paper’s various roles? Most importantly, this paper will ask “how can the quality of the paper be improved?”
This paper, besides filling in gaps of knowledge in Dulin’s content analysis and providing unique insights into college newspaper issues, is also important in its practical approach, which should be realized by more journalism students. Doing journalism on journalism kills two birds with one stone by helping students understand their field while simultaneously gaining experience in it, and also hopefully helps to kill the sickness prevalent in journalism today by making better reporters.
This sickness in journalism education, and society in general, teaches deference to authority rather than “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” (Journalist’s Creed) and has contributed to America’s current polling indications of the lowest recorded levels of public trust in the media (Pew 2009.)
It is hard to find content critical of a school in the school’s paper, no matter where one looks. This is like the Houston Chronicle rarely criticizing the government (since “an institution of higher learning is actually its own city (and) like any incorporated municipality serviced by a local newspaper, the student press fulfills its inherent responsibilities of the Fourth Estate”) except in this case the government funds the Chronicle – which makes the lack of criticism much more unsurprising – but still just as bad in its effect (Kasijor 120.) Even regular newspapers face such pressures though – “the more the mass media criticize a country’s government, the more the government will try to control the media” so the self-interest of a paper as an excuse can only go so far (Bickham 20.)
Proximity and impact are two news values that journalism students learn about early in their education– journalism students should see the connection between their proximity to their school and their potential to have an impact by critically investigating important subjects, thereby restoring trust in the media and providing a diverse marketplace of ideas that engages the public in democratic discourse. First, though, “students must be taught to think about Journalism” in order to counter the “education that uncritically inculcates the objective method” which is “an education in how ‘not to think’” (Parisi 9.)
Students’ potential for having an impact should be fostered because “students are apt to be motivated when they view their work as meaningful,” and this can be fostered by allowing them to be focus on one story for “a more in-depth investigation” which would give them “an increased chance of publication, and a greater likelihood that change would result” (Elournoy 49.)
Currently, the Reporting class, which does nearly all of the News section stories for TDC, requires 8 bylines. Though there is a policy that Newslines (short, simple condensations of events) count as half of a byline, there is no similar allowance for investigative stories to count for more than 1 byline, and when something negative is found regarding the university – it would likely “fit better as an opinion piece” because “finding people to back you up and be quoted will be difficult” (McHam 2011.) This emphasis on quantity over quality as well as sheepish approach to critical issues makes it hard for UH students to have an impact, and, hence, hard for them to view their work as meaningful.
This paper will examine two randomly constructed news weeks comprised of 8 issues of TDC. The time range of issues is from 8/22/11 to 10/13/11. Digital images (pdf) of the original print publication were taken from an online archive in order to get a holistic view of the complete newspaper. The 8 issues contain 30 news stories and 23 opinion stories, 7 staff editorials and 13 “Newslines” – which together will form the bulk of analyzed content.
The news stories’ source quantity will be analyzed in order to help gauge paper quality. High numbers of sources are associated with diverse view points, context and research and “inclusion of a diversity of sources can help prevent…inaccuracies” (Carpenter 3.) The opinion section’s sources were not quantified due to a lack of UH-centricity.
Criticism directed at the school (which includes professors, administration and policies) will be closely examined in all content due its value as an indicator of editorial autonomy. Criticism, for the purpose of this study, is defined as the critical questioning of, or showing conflict regarding, a UH source or UH value (policies, diversity, Tier One, etc.) Staff editorials will be extra-closely inspected for criticism as they represent the combined intellects of the editorial staff of the newspaper. Besides criticism and quantities, quality will also be analyzed. Stories that seemed suspiciously written were moderately checked for plagiarism and heavy usage of press releases.
Also included in the sample are 1 correction, 1 letter to the editor, 1 guest commentary, 1 Online comment response, 1 editor survey, student surveys, This Week in History, Crime Log, Important Events, and Fun Trivia.
Literature review: History, Problems, and Solutions of Journalism Education
It has long been debated what the role of a college newspaper should be. In the infancy of journalism education, “reflecting the views of the student body” was “generally recognized as (a) secondary function” (Blackwell 243.) Not only that, but aggressive criticism of the university was seen as “likely to weaken public confidence in the college or university” – a concern that remains today, and which may be addressed by becoming an “institutional asset by co-operating with the public-relations or publicity officers” (Ibid.)
UH’s public relations department seems to agree with this, saying they seek “to maximize significant positive media coverage of the university, its people and programs by cultivating relationships with reporters and editors to improve acceptance of story ideas” (University Communication.)
“Exposing the truth about what really goes on within American academia severely damages the school’s expensive public relations campaigns that cost millions of dollars to create,” so it is no surprise that there are often many big ethical conflicts that honorable journalism students must face before even entering the job market (Kasijor 121.)
The craft of journalism is not for the faint of heart or weak of mind, as evinced by the perilous nature of simply learning about it. “Nowhere else in the university do so many fault lines converge, creating tensions based on professional outlook as well as on teaching and research philosophy” (Reese and Cohen.) The importance of learning a profession that has the most “vital relation to the welfare of society or to the success of democratic government’’ puts additional pressure on students (Mensing.)
Journalism education’s controversy isn’t just limited to its variations of practice – the usefulness of its existence is often the subject of much debate. “Harvard, for example, turned down an endowment from Joseph Pulitzer for establishing a journalism school; the money was accepted reluctantly by Columbia to launch the now-renowned Journalism School in 1912” (Volz and Lee.)
Rather than being born of scientific necessity, journalism education developed more “from strong lobbying efforts of state press associations and publishers who saw a university journalism curriculum as a way to enhance the occupational prestige of the trade” (Carey 14.)
To be fair, Pulitzer is said to have “endowed one of the first US journalism schools in response to the growing power of business monopolies, and the consequent polarization of American society” but Pulitzer’s “public service-oriented professional education…(was) compromised by the school’s close relationship with the newspaper industry and its sometimes-tense relationship with the university administration” (Mensing 747.) Jim Carey’s explanation that “Pulitzer probably felt ‘a university education might domesticate this unruly class, might turn them into disciplined workers and end their flirtation with socialism and trade unions’” makes more sense in light of the current prevalent obedience and lack of cohesion among journalists (Mensing 748.)
Things haven’t changed much since Pulitzer’s day – “there is still no consensus about what journalism education is or should be or even if it should exist at all,” (Ibid.) In the middle of all of this controversy and confusion are today’s journalism students.
One solution for university newspapers may be to achieve financial and instructional independence, but this option doesn’t seem likely. One scholar found “only two student newspapers among 3,000^ that “might” meet his definition of full instructional and financial independence” (Bodle 17.)
Students could also be more active in looking “for story angles pegged less tightly to external events and more to general problems, whether how their campus can seek better funding or where the homeless came from” (Parisi 9.)
The famous Commission of the Freedom of the Press insisted that the “over-emphasis on vocational training” should be replaced by preparing “future journalists to be competent judges of public affairs” (Mensing 750.)
Partnering with alternative papers could help create “a more real world environment and helped get the stories published” (Flournoy 50.) Students have had success with this model, publishing impactful stories such as how “police at many universities often failed to report violent crime to students in violation of federal law” (Ibid.) Another investigation “examined the nation’s largest private dormitory and revealed that for many students, life was a nightmare of substandard living conditions, poor maintenance, violent crime, and inadequate security (Ibid.) One professor “has had students investigate cases involving persons who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes…(which) helped free eight prisoners” (Ibid.)
These kinds of investigations can help create the previously mentioned impact that can have such a large and positive effect on students’ motivation and perceptions.
Quantitative analysis:
The use of sources was quantified in the news section to determine the quality of reporting. 80 sources were used in a total 30 news stories, which is an average of 2.66 sources per story. This number seems low, but only includes sources cited (some sources may not have been attributed.)
6 stories attributed only one source and 9 only attributed two, meaning half of the news stories had 2 or less sources. These low numbers seem discouraging in regards to students role in facilitating “community-based conversations rather than simply record(ing) and transmit(ing) top to bottom the conversations of elite groups” (Adam 163.)
13 Newslines, counting for 6.5 news stories in the Reporting class, were analyzed for criticism – none was found.
There was no criticism in the news 5 out of 8 days, with only 4 (out of 30) partly critical stories in the news section total. In other words, 13.3% of stories were shown to have any level of UH-criticism.
There was no criticism in the opinion (which includes staff editorials) section 4 out of 8 days, with a total of 4 (out of 30) critical pieces, which is a rate of 13.3% critical stories as well.
Qualitative analysis:
Now that there is a determination of the level of criticism and sources, specific stories will be chronologically examined in the context of competing roles – primarily public relations vs. investigative – and overall quality.
One front page story of this issue is about the new VP of Student Affairs written by news editor Julian Jiminez. The framing of this piece is clearly slanted towards UH. Jiminez says the new VP “stepped up” to his new position, has an “extensive” resume and “spearheaded” (changed from “oversaw” in press release – showing an eagerness to help the public relations department) many student-centric initiatives in his past job. (Bonnin 2011)
Not only is this framed with no negative criticism (aside from UH student government president saying he doubted the new VP initially), but most of the material is recycled from past articles and press releases (The Daily Cougar Staff, Bonnin 2011) – something the public relations’ authors surely don’t mind since “the intent of the original author… (is) ensuring that as much of the original copy, in as much of its original format, is retained in its final publication as news copy” (Parker 135.) Besides laziness and PR influence, this could also stem from students patching “together fragments from multiple texts or voices without attribution and consider it good Scholarship” due to “widespread uncertainty about what exactly constitutes plagiarism” (Fedler 25.)
“Poynter Institute found that most newspapers had no clear rules about plagiarism and that editors seemed loath to define it. Clark found no guidelines, no warnings, not even the word “plagiarism” in the indices of newspaper stylebooks and journalism textbooks on his shelves” (Fedler 25.)
To the author’s credit, the Student Government president of the VP’s former university was consulted for an opinion (which shows some investigative technique), which was completely positive.
Press release reliance was also seen in another story on page 7 of the same issue, by the same news editor who said:
“To help lessen the stress, the Parking and Transportation Services suggested that students avoid driving by utilizing the 50 percent discount for METRO tickets available for students, or carpooling with friends.
The department also said that on-campus residents can become members of the Connect by Hertz Car Sharing Program for free, which provides students with a rental car at the rate of $8 an hour, gas and insurance included.
Students that plan to park on campus should arrive at least one hour before classes start to find a spot.”
The entire quote (along with most of the rest of the story) came from a press release (that was previously mentioned) – some of it unchanged and all of it unattributed, which some might call plagiarism.
In this first-day-back issue, which is 3 to 4 times larger than normal TDC issues, there is only one criticism of anything related to UH – and it is aimed at the easiest target – UH students. Opinion writer David Haydon asks “When is the last time UH saw more than a dozen students protesting…?”
While this is a good question – since “students are … increasingly disengaged from politics, as the 1997 freshmen demonstrate the lowest levels of political interest in the history of the (30-year) survey,” this short question is also, unfortunately, 25% of 8 issues of the opinion section’s UH-themed criticism (Reese and Cohen 214.) And it also is also a question best posed to the Editor in Chief Jack Wehman, who asks (below the story) what the ongoing global protests have achieved besides driving up law enforcement costs? It likely is this kind of shallow intellect and lazy, defeatist attitude (where if something isn’t easily done or won, it isn’t worth doing) that can be seen throughout TDC and which is largely responsible for the passive, uncritical public relations nature of the newspaper.
Two stories provide some UH-criticism/conflict in this issue’s news section.
A story regarding a new law requiring book information be more readily available to students has some minor conflict between students who disagree about how useful the bill may be. Students also criticize book costs, albeit in a quick and shallow manner. Though UH is not mentioned, the book store, which is part of UH, is mentioned – with students saying that they would go somewhere else if they knew of a cheaper alternative.
A critical quote is also provided in a story which is almost entirely quotes from a professor about his new book that is “challenging man-made global warming beliefs.” The criticism takes up two paragraphs, but the professor gets the last paragraphs to “rebut such assertions.” By presenting a short, but strong, critical book review excerpt, this piece takes the prize as the most critical piece of the news section in the sample.
The opinion section also features a criticism of UH having “too many logins,” but the overall piece is still framed in the public relations context of UH not quite living up to its Tier One (mentioned twice in the story) status.
Interestingly, though not UH-related, the opinion section also features a story briefly endorsing communism – saying that Yugoslavia would only be happy if reunited under communism. This partly contradicts Chomsky’s 5th propaganda model news filter “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism” (Chomsky and Herman 2.)
The opinion section also features a letter to the editor from a frequent commenter – the head of the Women’s Resource Center, and a TDC advertiser. This conflict of interest is not mentioned, and has not been mentioned in her previous guest commentaries, etc. This is likely because of 3 more of Chomsky’s news filters – “advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media” (Chomsky and Herman 2.) If the paper refused to print this advertiser’s commentaries, they would lose advertising income, an expert source for future stories and likely receive ‘flak’ from various UH officials who are friendly with the advertiser.
The staff editorial in this issue features some criticism of UH, but like all other criticisms – it is shallow and within a public relations context (mentioning Tier One twice again.) The criticism is regarding the cleanliness of bathrooms around campus, which they don’t blame on workers due to budget cuts, but rather on students and administrators – saying it is administrators’ job to make sure there is enough staff and sanitary supplies. This mandate for action from the administration, though regarding a fairly small issue, wins the prize for the heaviest UH criticism in the opinion section.
This issue’s staff editorial compensates for the previous semi-critical one in its promotion of UH by focusing on one of its most famous alumni – Carl Lewis. A court ruled that he could be on ballot for State Senate in New Jersey, so TDC took it upon itself to congratulate him for his “self confidence” and offered generic advice about following your dreams.
In contrast to this, the opinion section features a criticism of UH smoking policy. The author questions the effectiveness of policies that allow smokers to linger near building doors, but avoids pointing fingers and evens out this criticism by mentioning UH’s “Tier one status.”
This issue features a critical story by myself which will be described in first person for brevity’s sake.
In the story “University given B+ on water usage” I examined water conservation efforts at UH.
In my examination, I discovered a quote from the university in an environmental survey saying that “University gave away thousands of multi-use bottles to students. University also have a number of water filling stations at key areas to encourage them to drink water and to use multi-use water bottles instead of single-use.”
Having never seen such a station, I looked into it and found that “The water stations are in office suites and centralized areas where A&F staff work.” These two statements seem to contradict each other, suggesting that the university lied on a survey where it implied it had a campus-wide water bottle ban, when in fact it was limited to one department, to achieve a higher rating.
This was not mentioned, however. Instead it was printed that it is “unclear where these stations are located” and the water bottle ban “shouldn’t be inferred to be a campus-wide ban.”
Doing a story that suggested the university lied would require more than just the critical outlook that seems to be lacking at TDC. It would also require “time and resources…to maintain their autonomy and independence”(Mensing 755.) Permission from the head of the Reporting class to perform FOI requests, which are currently prohibited, in the class’ news stories would also be beneficial to such investigations.
To be fair, my editor did print water conservation measures that were not indicated as being implemented at UH at the end of the story.
It should also be mentioned that the title of this story is wrong – the B+ was an overall rating for eco-friendly efforts on campus. This poor quality stems from reporters not being able to make their own headlines, and editors not checking stories with the reporter before publishing.
This issue also fortunately contains a critical story by the author that will help illustrate the obstacles faced by the university student newspaper investigator. “Talks tackle Texas troubles” was written about the Texas Tribune Festival and focused on president Khator’s talk with other education professionals.
In the talk, Khator said that she has taken a more “brutal role” than University of Texas-El Paso president Diane Natalicio in increasing the graduation rate and “last year they raised graduation rate by 10%.”
This number immediately caught my ear, and I looked it up later to confirm its falsity.
When I emailed my editor, regarding this error – she checked with the public relations department and responded: “It looks like 4 year graduation rates have increased by 7.8 percent, 5 year increased by 8.7 percent and 6 year have increased by 8.9 percent. It seems President Khator was off by 1 percent…The percentage has gone up by that amount. I did the math myself…40.8/45.7 = 8.9.”
According to UH’s 2010 graduation rate statistics (University of Houston 2010):
The 4 year rate went from 15.2 to 16.0 – not a “7.8%” increase
5 year – 36.3 to 36.6% – not an “8.7%” increase
6 year – 40.8 to 45.7% – not an “8.9%” increase
Never mind the tricky language – saying that a percent increase is actually a percent of a percent increase – 40.8/45.7 doesn’t equal the percent of the percent increase. 40.8 is 89% of 45.7.
The increase is actually 12%, which seems to indicate that the public relations department either is inexplicably selling the school short in its propaganda or they did not bother putting much effort into their contrived explanation to the student newspaper.
Also, this graduation rate increase pales in comparison to the 250% increase Natalicio’s UT-EP 4-year graduation rate had from 2001 to 2005, which she did not mention in response to Khator’s bragging. This was mentioned as a news angle to my editor, but was ignored.
Jack Wehman (EiC) quoted Khator’s same statistic without questioning it in 2010.
“In just one year, the results are spectacular. In 2010, we improved the graduation rate by 10 percent — 10 years of progress in just one year” (Wehman 2010.)
This could serve as a possible explanation of why there was so little speculation over the figure.
If even the Editor in Chief is so uncritical, and is on his third term, what hope is there for this newspaper?
The news section featured some minor conflict in another story. The conflict, between a childcare center director and Women’s Resource Center director/Daily Cougar advertiser, was minor in nature – involving concern over liability issues of leaving children at the daycare center, but also featured the WRC director suggesting women form a group and lobby the administration.
The editors’ previously shown support for Khator is further evinced in this same issue’s staff editorial, which reiterates her points in a recent college-ranking-magazine article (in which she shows her capitalist approach to education, saying that schools are in the “business of knowledge”) and then makes a generic supportive statement. The ending tells students to “rest assured” that Khator will be an innovator in “this area” – which pertains to “these changes” previously mentioned, suggesting that the editors aren’t very knowledgable about what they are talking about, but they are nevertheless sure that Khator is our savior.
Like the Editor in Chief, the author of the Khator’s newest fall address provides no negative criticism or substantial insight into anything she says. Instead, the author crams in as many talking points as she can – Princeton Review ranking, Carnegie designation, Chronicle of Higher Education’s “great colleges to work for”, and even comes up with her own – UH being “Texas’ third largest university.”
The story below Khator’s address basically transcribes the VP of Student Affairs talking with “student leaders” – even framing one response as the VP taking “on a personal responsibility to fix the problem.”
The last qualitative examination is focused on the quality of a staff editorial, which is basically a rewrite of a Houston Chronicle story regarding a noise-level ordinance (Moran 2011.) The editorial, which – again – is the combined work of all the primary editors at the paper, adds nothing to the Chronicle’s story and could be argued to be plagiarism. The poor quality of this editorial, as well as many others, is damning evidence of not only the quality of the paper, but the quality of the paper’s top staff.
This study has examined journalism education and the variety of roles facing university papers in general, and TDC in particular.
By quantifying the amount of sources, it was shown that half of the news stories only have 1 to 2 sources – likely meaning a lack of diversity of viewpoints and poor quality.
Quantifying criticism revealed 4/30 (13.3%) of articles in the news and opinion sections had any discernible amount of UH-criticism.
The qualitative analysis revealed that much of this criticism is minor and counterbalanced by public relations spin. It also revealed that much criticism is stifled by various forces – likely including lack of time and resources, reliance on experts and financial pressures. This stifling of criticism/censorship should come as no surprise in a journalism school named after one of the most prominent censurers in America – Jack Valenti.
Over-reliance on press releases and potential plagiarism were also analyzed and shown to be a considerable problem for TDC, who recently lost an editor due to blatant plagiarism.
This study, though not substantial in depth or scope, has provided novel insights, important findings, and a framework for future investigation of TDC, and possibly university newspapers in general.
Future investigations should utilize FOI requests of emails to show relationships between the PR department and school paper (which is currently being sought.) Interviews with all parties involved would also greatly benefit qualitative analysis.
Advertorials, which are “opportunities for overt promotion” should also be examined (Parker 136.) The Daily Cougar uses newsroom editors to produce these advertorials (Hot Spots, Health 411, etc.,) crossing what some might say is still a sacred line.
The study could also benefit from quantitative comparisons between other school papers – public and private, as well as non-student papers.
Quantifying the amount of UH advertising would be useful in determining financial control.
Website design and comment activity would be useful to analyze how much debate and discourse is resulting from TDC’s work, especially in approaching TDC from a public journalism viewpoint, which says “the primary political responsibility of journalists is to help increase civic commitment to, and citizen participation in, democratic processes” (Haas 27.)
Possible solutions:
1. More editors and writers to create more original and investigative content and rely less on uncreative filler and public relations’ publications such as Newslines, Astrology, Music Playlist, Fun Trivia, This week in History, and the Crime log.
2. More diverse funding sources – less financial control by the school.
3. An alternative newspaper that focuses on a diverse marketplace of ideas more than diverse racial cultures.
4. Move to online. This reduces pressure for filler, allows an easy link to the UH Crime Log, etc., eliminates printing costs (about 200,000$ per year.)
5. “Rather than assuming that everyone knows what plagiarism is, journalism professors and newspaper editors might intensify their efforts to teach everyone more about plagiarism, going beyond simplistic definitions” (Fedler 28.)


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