Forum | Letter to the Editor
Letter to the editor: An alum’s plea: Student Life needs to change
Editor-in-Chief Matthew Friedman and Managing Editor Em McPhie have written letters from the editor in response to this letter. Read them here.
I extend my congratulations to Matthew Friedman on his appointment as Editor-in-Chief. I also extend a desperate plea for change. I have seen Student Life decay in my six years and counting at Wash. U. It is no longer a paper that holds the powerful accountable. Instead of hard hitting reporting, Student Life traffics more in self-help, bland staff writer opinions and op-eds that allow personal attacks on fellow students.
Ask any of my friends, and they will tell you I have long grumbled about Student Life. But I am generally content to let my criticisms pass without publicly commenting. No longer. A puzzling and outrageous statement concerning the responsibilities of our student newspaper has appeared in the digital pages of Student Life. Editor-in-Chief Friedman in his introductory message pledged, “Student Life exists for you—the people of Washington University, so my staff and I will strive to further campus conversations by holding those in power accountable, bringing new information to light and providing consistent, fair and accurate reporting.” All well and good. Except then News Editor and now Managing Editor Em McPhie stated in the Editors Note Podcast Episode 19:
“First and foremost, I don’t think it’s the news section’s responsibility to educate students about how they can get vaccinated. You know, in an ideal world, the state and local governments would be doing a much better job with this vaccine rollout and communicating when people are eligible, communicating how they can get the vaccine…This whole process has been very, very confusing. And, I think it’s very understandable the confusion that a lot of students are feeling right now…At the same time, as the news section, it’s our job to report about the facts, and the facts are that COVID is still a problem in the St. Louis community and within our campus community. And, while there certainly is a lot of optimism to be had—the end is in sight, right? But it’s not over yet, and it would be reckless to act like it.” (emphasis added)
So which is it? Is Student Life holding the powerful accountable or is it content to be the mouthpiece of the powerful? Based on recent history it is clearly the latter.
Certainly, the paper has had a few shining moments. The coverage in response to the 2018 anonymous op-ed, “Not a threat” produced campus advocacy that resulted in important, but not enough, reform of the Title IX process. Without Student Life, it is hard to see such a moment occurring. Still, those moments were far and few as student outrage and organizing eclipsed paper coverage.
Recent coverage has rammed home Student Life’s decay. In the most recent election, students voted on a new amendment. There was not a single word dedicated to discussing it in Student Life’s scant pre-election coverage. Student Life only mentioned the amendment after its passage, doing nothing to inform the campus community pre-voting. Further, while the paper frequently bemoans low turnout, there is no coverage of weekly Senate and Treasury meetings nor weekly reporting on Student Union to generate interest in elections or hold the powerful accountable.
Even powerful op-eds that hand the news team a great issue don’t earn further investigations and reporting. Student Life no longer has any reporting or investigating to offer. It never calls for comment beyond the standard statement. It never investigates further when there is clearly smoke in the air. Student Life doesn’t just “report about the facts,” it parrots the facts from the very powerful who gave its writers and editors a slick quote.
The Title IX policy changes concerning student groups announced earlier this year perfectly highlight my criticisms and plea for change. Editor-in-Chief Friedman wrote, “Often in my time on the Student Life Editorial Board, we have called on the administration to be more transparent, to give us their reasoning for decisions and to provide more adequate information about why they do what they do.” If so, Student Life failed when covering the Title IX student-group announcement. As a concerned alum and former student leader, I was outraged at the changes discussed by Campus Life at the townhall in February. A simple review of the documents shows Campus Life decided the student-group policy back in November 2020, and publicly posted the policy in December 2020. Why, then, did Student Life not provide earlier coverage of these changes in December? Why did the paper delay reporting for four months? Why did Campus Life not feel it necessary for more immediate discussion about this policy when it was decided in November 2020? If Campus Life posted the student group Title IX policy in December, why was there no immediate coverage of the changes in Student Life’s pages? Why did the University take so long to roll out the student group rules when Secretary DeVos announced the changes back in May 2020? Why did Student Life not inquire about other universities’ interpretations of the rules on student groups? Student Life reported on the DeVos changes, as did every major publication, but did no investigating of the specifics, like the student-group policy. Where in the rules announced by Secretary DeVos are student groups specifically regulated? Why is the University not actively using its significant political clout to lobby or litigate an end to these rules? Don’t turn to the pages of Student Life for answers. If it is truly the job of Student Life to hold the University’s powerful accountable and demand transparency, it has failed with the Title IX student group rules.
As COVID continues its rampage, Student Life’s has proven itself incapable of advancing the interests or meeting the needs of the student body. The now-Managing Editor does not see it as Student Life’s responsibility to report on how eligible students can get vaccinated. Instead of cutting through the confusion to clarify the vaccine rollout for students, Student Life is content to defer to state and local officials. It should report more than just COVID numbers and equity issues in distribution. It should report the facts of how to get vaccinated and do its civic duty to help end a health crisis that has claimed more American lives than World War II. Not reporting on vaccine instructions and relying on the statements of powerful officials, who are prone to bald faced lies, is simply dangerous. Certainly, Student Life has now reported on the Johnson & Johnson vaccination process through Wash. U., but at the time of the initial drafting of this op-ed, April 5th, no such reporting on how to get a vaccine had occurred.
I will candidly admit: this is a blistering indictment of current Student Life practices motivated by a questionable and outrageous statement from its new managing editor. A first draft of this op-ed yielded a series of thoughtful responses from Editor-in-Chief Friedman. I do sincerely appreciate his explanations. His response gives me hope that improvements can be made, and this plea won’t go unanswered. Still, I want to emphasize the point of my plea. I am not claiming Student Life does not report any news. I am instead pleading with them to report more news, to dig deeper into stories beyond just an emailed statement from a University official. Student Life has reported on Title IX and COVID but not nearly thoroughly enough and certainly not about how to get vaccinated. I also implore Student Life leadership to choose their words carefully. If Managing Editor McPhie really did misspeak about the news team’s proper role in the COVID crisis, Student Life should apologize and clarify or retract her remarks.
Wash. U. has its share of issues which deserve fair, tough and thorough reporting. As our sole independent publication on campus, effective news reporting is a must. New leadership is a time for change. I hope the new editor-in-chief realizes the decline of Student Life and works to reverse the dangerous statement by his now managing editor. Wash. U., its students and indeed the greater community deserve better.
Read Matthew Friedman’s response here.