The following is a slightly edited email that was sent to an education reporter recently, detailing my problems at the University of Houston. The struggles herein illustrate some big and longstanding problems in journalism education.
I hope students with similar problems find this and feel less alone because I believe it was loneliness that played a big part in my lack of confidence and success in journalism.
I got into journalism when I became very interested in OER (open education resources) after seeing a TED talk by Richard Baraniuk of Connexions (one of the early pioneers of OER) on the subject. I talked to Dr. Baraniuk for an hour at Rice (after cramming for 6 hours for the interview outside of his office), got an endorsement from Noam Chomsky for OER through email (since he’s brilliant and teaches at MIT, where OCW/EdX is), dug through tons of lobbying reports and found that Pearson (biggest book publisher) was lobbying against TAACCCT/federal support of OER, found that the founder of Flat World Knowledge (OER Profiteer) was from Pearson, which -led me to an article/interview with the founder (Jeff Shelstad,) in which he spoke about Pearson’s interest in getting into OER (not the most shocking thing, but interesting,) I spoke to a couple of education professors about OER, I googled and read tons about OER, added TAACCCT to my Google Alerts, etc., and I put all of what I found together in a rough draft for my school paper.
Not long after I joined the school paper – in the middle of working on the OER story, they ended up unofficially firing me (they didn’t give me a reason/written notice as their code says they must) because my editor and I couldn’t agree on Noam Chomsky’s quote being a sentence fragment making it unquotable/unusable (even though the news editor for the Houston Chronicle later said it was a good quote.) The way they put it I “refused to make changes” after they explained things to me (they really didn’t.)
Later I found that an editor who I was working with blatantly plagiarized a website (she was fired) and I also found the editor I bickered about the Chomsky quote arguably plagiarized, as well as another editor – who the student paper never responded to me about once I told them.
Before I joined the school paper, I analyzed the summer’s news stories and found that over half were based on press releases by the school, some very strongly (plagiarism.)
Which brings me to something I really would like to see more attention given in the media – the fundamental flaw of teaching journalism at a university with a university owned paper. Asking journalism students to report on their owner is essentially ensuring they’re doing public relations/anti-journalism from the start (my school paper even had editors, etc. doing advertisement pamphlets, etc. to keep the paper afloat and also, I think I remember some reporters doing PR for the school as well – in a freshman indoctrination magazine.)
This PR mindset led to me being placed on the “environmental beat” (least popular) after showing the Reporting professor a list of story ideas I was working on, including investigating the school President because where she was provost is now 450 million$ in debt , she and a man she brought to UH helped build 9 buildings there, and I felt it deserved exploration and would be good practice investigating prestigious people.)
All of my problems with the school/paper are recorded pretty thoroughly – including a conversation with the school paper Editor in Chief, in which he tells me, before I go to my Reporting class, the beat that I will be assigned to: the least popular – environmental. I guess the Reporting professor and EiC had a meeting about me after they saw that I took journalism seriously and decided to discourage me. Not long after that, I was threatened with being removed from the Reporting class by the Editor in Chief (not the professor) for leaving critical/insightful comments about news stories on the paper’s website.
The Reporting professor equates 2 tiny UH press release rewrites, aka “Newslines”, with one news story in how he grades his class. He couldn’t emphasize the value of Total obedience enough (after I told him about my problems with my OER editor) and FOI requests are FORBIDDEN in his class because school lawyers were “getting too many” in a previous semester.
I asked him in front of the class while filling out the beats I wanted if the beats hadn’t already been chosen. He lied and said that they had not been assigned – though he later informs me after class, away from students, of the truth. Maybe this is kind of petty, but this is just one more thing coming to mind. And maybe it was silly to try to investigate my school, maybe I should have just done “nonschool stories for a while”, as one education reporter told me, but a quote from Noam Chomsky often gave me the resolve to continue with what I believed to be right (as well as become more cynical about school):
“If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience.”
I also drove to the Texas Tribune Festival and slept in my car 2 nights to report on it for my school and see some media/politician logrolling. I found and reported on my old editor in chief at my school paper making racist jokes, etc. on his Twitter account, which linked to the school paper on his Twitter homepage and said he was an editor (another rule broken.) I talked to several members of the Student Publication Committee about problems at the paper, only one was very receptive (the paper’s manager/advisor) though he soon got sick of me, which is understandable since he has to work with all the other people who were already sick of me.
I searched BoardEx and other places for connections between contractors working on the huge expansion of our campus (which is expanding since the new President came because, They say, prices will never be better due to the economy) and the Regents approving expansion, since it includes rich busienssmen/developers/people with shady backgrounds, and because I think they probably feel safe from investigation. I bought a new copy of the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook (hadn’t bought a book in ages) and joined IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors.)
I filed several FOI requests (before I got into my Reporting class) and learned how tricky lawyers can be. I obtained royalty data w/ the FOI requests from some big publishers for our school, and tried to follow up on the names on the forms to do a story about custom textbook publishing problems, but the school PR department has a very strong grip on employees. The PR department even has an “expert” index which seems fairly arbitrary in it’s selection of professors the media should talk to. I could never get a clear answer about what they base who is in the index on, but my guess is it’s professors who have been versed in PR.
I’ve found some lies in school PR statements and an environmental survey (this wasn’t allowed to be included in my environmental story) and sheer propaganda in the school’s health center “Marijuana 101” class, which a professor, who is an expert on drug war propaganda, debunked thoroughly (this was never published either, but partly due to me just being worn down from no encouragement, PR bullying, feeling alone, etc.)
I asked the school paper manager for the paper’s reader survey results and categorized the comments to find out what people liked, didn’t like about the paper, etc. (though this was never put to use due to my problems with the paper.)
I came up with long lists of ideas on how to improve the paper, which were dismissed and disregarded. I thought about journalism incessantly. Not to sound arrogant, but I really feel I was nearly an ideal student. And, again – no one else was doing anything even close to this level of critical/investigative reporting. The only other student I met who was investigating the school/doing FOI requests was a sociology major.
I also did a random sampling of the school paper for a project in another class and found almost no criticism of the school, as well as other things.
Of course this is only my side of the story and maybe this isn’t very compelling, but I feel like it hits on some big issues and it’s a good illustration of of big problems in journalism school.
I hope you at least see why I’m so cynical and spiteful towards my school now, when I started off quite optimistic (I stayed awake, elated, for 2 days straight in my 2nd to last semester when I finally found a journalism professor I liked – because she talked about problems in the media, the importance of debate, etc.)
I was extremely excited with the idea of being an investigative reporter and read/investigated feverishly. I read a few books on journalism throughout the summer – I hadn’t read books to a great extent in almost 10 years.
Now I’m depressed and feeling hopeless – especially about journalism. I’m surprised I typed this out so (I hope) coherently, to be honest. I’m not putting that all on the school, because I certainly could’ve done some things smarter, but if there had been just one student who seemed to be into doing Real reporting, or maybe one professor who really pushed me – I think I would’ve been a lot better off.
I think I had a lot of potential and it was squandered, and a lot of that is on the school. For the 20+ Thousand dollars I spent there, I think I could’ve got a lot better deal at a used book store or paying a newspaper to let me work for them. Or even just burning the money might have been better, because like I said – they really teach PR to a very great extent, which is very detrimental to j-students.
The professor I mentioned who taught the extremely easy class online was a PR professional and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more j-professors like him.
A UH alumni who I got to agree to ghostwrite a paper for me was also in PR. I was going to do a story on ghostwriting using the emails received from the many UH alumni, Ivy League Alumni, UH students, and even a Uni of Phoenix professor, who asked to write my 101 papers for 10-15$ a page after I posted an ad on craigslist, but that never came to fruition either.
I know this doesn’t flow well, and it’s really long, and I’m kind of egotistically trying to make myself the story but, again, I hope it helps lead to a good story. It helped me vent at least. And like Thoreau said, “I should not talk about myself so much if there were anyone else whom I knew as well.”
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
I just took a senior-level course final exam provided by the University of Houston’s Professor Dale Higginbotham while under the influence, with no studying done before hand (the whole semester), guessing most of the answers and googling the rest. The final score was 92% in about 24 minutes.
Drinking during a final exam might seem outrageous since alcohol so greatly impairs cognition, and it was indeed left unattempted until this exam, but after taking the mid-term with similar preparation and results, I decided I would try to make the final a little more challenging, and film it and put it on the internet for the world to see.
It’s not likely that many people will find this outrageous, though – least of all the students or the school.
The school, after all, uses My Edu to organize online school data for students – such as registration, enrollment, financial aid, and other data, apparently in exchange for MyEdu using this data to make money…by telling students which classes are easiest.
As you can see, the default view for courses on MyEdu is mainly comprised of a list of professors with a grade chart next to their names. The chart changes as you move your mouse over the names so you can quickly find the professor who gives the nicest grades. Profiting off of helping students get through school uneducated might seem incidental next to all of the other services it provides, but considering MyEdu’s shady history it wouldn’t surprise me if this wasn’t designed to be one of the site’s main selling points.
Ratemyprofessors is another site students use to find easy classes – or even “hot” professors.
My Edu shows that one of Higginbotham’s courses has a 4.0 Average – meaning all students got As. One course has 3.7, and the other has 3.0. He emailed our class the statistics for my course – the median final grade was 93. Ratemyprofessors rates his easiness as 4.7/5.0.
It’s easy to see why professors don’t want to give bad grades. Bad grades not only hurt students- they hurt the school – through rankings and students dropping out, but what does giving so many students good grades do?
What happens when an employer at a big company has a UH graduate in, looks at their 4.0 GPA and sees that they are completely uneducated and unprepared for life?
What value will UH degrees have as this happens more and more as a result of the business-like/capitalist nature of the school to get as much money and grow as big as it can, exchanging short term gains for long term losses.
Poor and mediocre students subsidize the rest of the school for now, but this short term thinking will eventually end up costing the university much of the prestige it constantly tries to bestow on, and buy for, itself (nevermind that it’s instructional costs are about as much as most local community colleges.)
If Mr. Higginbotham’s grade distribution and ratings aren’t enough, there are alse these very telling (in more than one way) student comments on Ratemyprofessors and MyEdu to consider:
“I was a little worried since it was a Sr. course and because it was only online, but I ended up loving it…. It’s too easy.”
” Tests are EXTREMELY easy. I cannot emphasize that enough!! Read the powerpoints ONE hour before the test and you will make an A. “
“TAKE HIM!! Easy A! “
“You would have to be absolutely comatose not to get an A+. “
“you can get an A on if you put forth any effort at all. Take this class!”
“Want an easy A just take this class. Very happy when it was recommended to me.”
“One of the easiest online classes I’ve ever taken”
” I’ve gotten 100’s on everything, I think he might just grade on whether you participate and submit something.”
“he gives you the answer… but as a counselour he’s not very helpful at all. i dont think he knows what hes doing.”
“Take this class if you need an easy A.”
It’s amazing how many students love easy courses at UH – unless you’ve ever been in one of the many degree factory classes the university provides. Legendary comedian Bill Hicks noticed this problem from the start when he attended UH.
Also of note in this particular course – many of the courses, which came in the form of weekly blogposts, were plagiarized from various websites.
Here are some of the blogposts that contain plagiarized readings:
65 students paid for this course, so that’s about $65,000 in tuition and fees that the school makes for what amounts to almost no work on their behalf. The tests are graded automatically, there’s no lecture – there’s not even much work put into plagiarizing from many different sites/mixing it up a little when putting together the plagiarized course readings.
The students can and do easily and happily learn nothing from the classes – at least probably not much more than they could learn from reading one short decent book (instead of skimming it for answers.)
In short, this is a pretty good deal for all involved – the many students who enjoy the easiness of this and other classes, the professors who don’t have to do much teaching/grading, and the school who can justify their paying approximately 3000$ per course (for adjunct professors, such as Mr. Higginbotham) to the professors who do little, and 650,000$ a year to the school president who facilitates such clever business practices.
I challenge the school to take the students from this class and retest them on this material without any advanced warning and see just how much they remember or what skills they felt they learned aside from obedience. I would be willing to bet whatever amount that it’s close to nothing. Of course this will never happen. Not at UH, and probably not at any of the many other schools who must secretly know deep down that they aren’t really educating students, no matter how loosely they try to define education.
I also challenge them to handle this professor, who I will soon be reporting to the school, accordingly (they didn’t.)
More importantly, I challenge the school to look at the deeper problems in our university and be honest about them instead of obsessing over public relations, image and rankings. I have almost never heard anything about education in the many speeches I’ve heard at this school by administrators – it’s clear they’ve taken it for granted that students will learn and professors will teach, and the only thing really left to discuss is the fine art of reaching “Tier One” – aka more financial assistance from the state.
Until we change the administration’s emphasis from fundraising, expansion and adorning the school with various rankings from the ever growing amount of prestige salesman, back to education – UH will continue to decline. It will continue to offer more and more easy classes, and it will get older and older with no especially notable intellectual alumni (unless you count Randy Quaid or Master P) to show for it’s many years, and then no amount of “Tier One” billboards or free promotion on taxpayer funded radio will be able to fix UH’s brand/image/PR/what admins care most about.
1. I got a text recently from Reesha saying good job and that she had been fired from the daily cougar. I had mixed feelings about it – knowing that it wasn’t just her fault, but the overall system that puts a lot of pressure on journalists. Not to mention the overall merging of advertising/marketing/public relations – where this kind of incident would probably help a resume rather than hurt it – and journalism. PR and journalism students go to the same college and even take some of the same classes together.
Either way – my blog was successful in helping to achieve what I told Dr. Camaj I wanted to do on day one – “get some bad editors and reporters in trouble.” By fighting bad journalism with good journalism, I have not only honed my skills, but had a real impact. Good job, me.
Sidenote: Besides Reesha, Matt Dulin, Mohammed, and myself – no one has said thanks for helping the newspaper by going beyond my duties as an unpaid reporter. When I recently caught a burglar breaking into my neighbor’s apartment, my landlord gave me 100$ and a card signed by his whole family. The snotty college kids whose laptops, etc. I saved and [I think] went to UH – didn’t even say thanks. This ties into my obsession regarding our education system being a joke and so called professionals really being no more honest or decent than your average person. Would you thank someone who informed you of their boss/your employee plagiarizing or doing a bad job – essentially doing your job? Or would you unofficially fire them like Jack Wehman did with me last semester when I told him he should fire a previous editor (his friend) for poor performance?
2. The election for the daily cougar editor in chief is up. Do you want to keep jack wehman, who has very little substantial journalism to show for his salary, choice of staff, and expensive training trip? Apparently they can’t even pull down a plagiarized story or run a correction. I emailed them about this Nov. 6th and this most obvious example is still up, along with however many I didn’t find (not being a high paid employee who has the will to dedicate himself completely to this task.) I guess I was right in my original post when I said “I doubt they will even run a retraction/correction.”
Oh and their website says it’s Nov 17 right now. They can’t even get the date right! How many students didn’t go to school today because they looked at the date on there? How many didn’t go pick up their grandparents from the airport, leaving them to be beaten and robbed while traversing to a hotel? Too many if you ask me.
3. I have had zero emails for the contest. I didn’t think I was asking that much – paying for local media criticism…from journalism students, but oh well! Contest ends Dec. 1st. 2 more weeks!
This post will focus on the most prominent content from the online City and State section of the Houston Chronicle’s website. The timing of the analysis is completely random. All analysis stems from a saved webpage from Nov. 13th at around 5:15 pm.
The Chronicle is the monopoly daily newspaper for Houston and, combined with chron.com, reaches 2.3 million people per week.
As the sole daily newspaper for Houston, it has a great responsibility to keep Houstonians informed about local issues that affect their lives, as well as a responsibility to provide in depth analysis that newspapers are known for.
The local section design consists primarily of 3 columns – the left and middle being news content – and the right being a mix of ads, slideshows and links to sports and entertainment stories.
The ad column seems to be mostly ads. I imagine the Chronicle wishes it was all ads – it seems to be using sports and entertainment slideshows and links as filler – or maybe it’s best to keep a little Chron content mixed in so that people will still look at this column?
The left news column has featured stories and the middle column is a compilation of various blogs and comments from those blogs. Kudos to chron.com for letting readers be heard.
At the top of the left column is the Feature story “Perry jokes about his forgetfulness at GOP debate” with a picture on top of the Republican candidates smiling and Perry smiling awkwardly and in the middle of opening his hand for a wave (suggesting the Chronicle isn’t going out of its way to make him look normal or intelligent.)
This story, which is the feature for the local section, is about a national political debate. This has relatively little to do with Houston, or even Texas politics, but is the feature story because Perry is from Texas, prominent and full of political entertainment.
Next to this feature is the Perry Presidential blog, which focuses on the presidential race – not just Perry specifically. The Texas governor is a position of infamously small power, yet his unlikely election to the presidency, and all of the other tidbits from the campaign trail, are apparently major local news. How much did George W. Bush being kind-of-elected president change things for Texas or Houston?
By focusing on national politics, even putting it in the City and State section, the Chronicle does a disservice to the many local issues that Houstonians are facing. They probably do this to save money – it’s cheaper to homogenize content by having a reporter working for Hearst do stories for many of the Hearst papers and to put similar content in various sections. If you look at Hearst employee Richard Dunham’s Linkedin, you will see that he was Washington Bureau Chief for Houston Chronicle starting in 2007, but in 2009 he also became chief for Hearst Newspapers. This is the kind of consolidation that is killing journalism by delocalizing content and overburdening journalists for higher profits, or, for many papers, to just stay afloat.
Besides consolidation of responsibilities, it is also cheaper to follow the political circus – which, to be fair, is probably more popular with many readers (who probably feel powerless to change anything in politics and so just entertain themselves with the news instead) – than investigate local issues that no one else is reporting on in depth.
As unimportant as these stories might be to Houston, they can’t compare to what is the prominent topic of the Newswatch blog, which is at the top of the middle column. Instead of watching a horror movie or driving around many places in the city, readers can get their thrills by reading about the worst the city has to offer in this blog.
The 3 stories featured on Newswatch at the time of this random sampling are:
Fort Bend woman stabbed to death
Three men stabbed outside a south Houston bar
Man shot through window of his pickup truck
It is understandable if you think WW3 has come or we are in the midst of the apocalypse, but this is actually just the Chron’s horror section. I’m not sure how to make any use of this section, except to respond by grabbing a gun and locking the doors.
A keyword search of the Newswatch blog gives further evidence of this trend.
“Kill” gives 33 pages of results. “Help” = 23 pages.
“Charity” = 1 Page, “Murder” = 8 pages
“Rape” = 5 pages, “Marriage” = 2 pages
“If it bleeds, it leads” indeed.
Houston Chronicle has a long way to go if it ever hopes to live up to its mission statement to – never mind, it doesn’t have one. Neither does Hearst Corp.
I guess it’s hard to be a hypocrite if you don’t stand for anything but making money.
To leave on a positive note, here’s a mission statement from a site that cared enough to make one.
FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.
Media Watchdog Contest
I said in my Intro post that part of the mission of this blog is to create a community of media critics who will help improve our local media. I want to incentivize this by offering a prize of 20$ the first 2 people who provide an analysis of a serious problem in the local media – whether it be plagiarism, poor analysis, incorrect facts, or anything else you feel is indicative of a big problem. If it’s a minor problem – such as bad spelling and grammar, I still encourage you to post for the sake of helping these deficiencies come to light.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant, but I can only look at so many things. That’s why I encourage everyone who feels they have found a significant problem in the media to come here and share about it. Anyone who thinks they have a good story for the 20$ Journalism Watchdog contest prize should email me to negotiate the prize value – which is adjustable based on how much effort you put into analysis and how well written it is.
There is a 5$ bonus prize if you and/or your piece has a demonstrable, positive impact on the problem it addresses.
The Daily Cougar and other school publications should be the easiest place to find big problems, so they won’t receive as much prize money. The larger the audience of the publication(s) that is/are analyzed, the higher the reward will be.
Also remember this is just for Houston media.
So that’s 50$ up for grabs out of my broke-college-student-wallet!
I look forward to your emails.
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.