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Big Brothers

Matt Nippert



When is the media officially not the media? When it’s student media of course. At a debate at Victoria University on Euthanasia featuring Lesley Martin, many reporters were present. (This was the day before Martin walked into the High Court to unsuccessfully defend charges of attempting to kill her elderly mother.) The chair, Chancellor Rosemary Barrington said “I understand the media is here. Obviously Salient as well.”
The attitude of condescension from university management is reflected, generally, in the attitude of the mainstream press. Student publications can’t break news as easily because of a longer turnaround between issues (they’re mostly weeklies), and less resourcing (not even one full-time reporter).
But occasionally, perhaps a half-dozen times a year, a story birthed on student paper will be picked up and carried on by Big Brother. Last year Salient stories about hostel slums and the pardoning of law school students accused of plagiarism made their way into the Dominion Post and beyond.
These stories were genuine news, and seen by the commercial media as such. (No credit of course, but flattery and imitation go hand in hand.) They were broken by student media because they happened on campus – where student media has home-field advantage. Even the best education reporter in a mainstream paper won’t be privy to the institutional knowledge and gossip that comes with being aware and on university soil.
One of these genuine news stories has broken recently, the legal wrangling over the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF). And with it, we have a chance to compare how our esteemed student publications fared in telling a real live story on their own terms.
Critic editor Hamish McKenzie broke the ice with a considered editorial on the rumor circulating that Otago had been ranked fourth behind Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury. “You can tell it’s true,” wrote McKenzie, “because Vice-Chancellor Fogelberg hasn’t been all over the media proclaiming Otago innocent of such charges. And now Otago is desperately scrabbling for excuses to explain their poor showing.”
Salient news editor Keith Ng filed a story in the satire section on the legal effort by Victoria and Auckland to suppress the results: “Two secondary school students, Stu McCrutcheon and John Heed, have filed an injunction against their school to stop their report cards from being sent home.”
The following weeks saw both magazines tackle the issue in their news pages. Critic had two stories on the PBRF “debacle” and Otago’s poor showing; one on the results being withheld, and another on the effects of the scheme on individual academics. Both stories made good use of local academics and AUS staff.
Salient filed a lengthy piece, focusing on Victoria’s involvement in the legal stoush. This included a telling quote (probably one that should have led) from Public Affairs spokesperson Jude Urlich on whether the legal fisticuffs would reflect badly on the university: Urlich: [after 8 second pause] “well, um… I think it will be neutral.”
I understand the two magazines are working on a collaborative news piece, and at least one feature is in the pipeline. While the New Zealand Herald had the legal injunction on the front page for a day, it has since dropped off the radar. Again, home-field advantage sees the developing story being told.
Other student publications ignored the issue, or rehashed mainstream dailies and missed the opportunity to participate in a story of genuine national interest. Budget time will provide their next chance to tell a genuine national story from a student media angle: who wins, who loses, and most importantly, who cares?
Salient and Critic: Solid coverage of the PBRF, excellent use of local stories, and fresh angles. Nothing recycled here.
http://fightingtalk.blogspot.com – a new blog staffed by former student media writers. I freely declare a conflict of interest.
Craccum: rehashing news from the Dominion Post on the legal action, and ignoring a likely story about why the University of Auckland was the best in the country – research wise at least. Meanwhile there were 12 pages on drugs, drinking and sex over the two most recent issues. I don’t object to titillating your readers, but what about balance?