Eric Douglas Published

Student Journalists Have Extra Protection With New State Law

A studio microphone and an on-air sign in the background.
Student journalists now have protection from interference with a new state law.
Avdyachenko/Adobe Stock

West Virginia recently became the 17th state in the nation to pass a law protecting student journalists. It is known as the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act.

News Director Eric Douglas, a Marshall Journalism School alumnus, spoke with Chuck Bailey, the faculty adviser to WMUL and Makaylah Wheeler, the student news director, to discuss how it will affect their reporting. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Was this something that, in the back of your mind you were concerned about? Did it actually affect your day-to-day decisions about broadcasting?

Bailey: The answer on the broad scope is no. Administrations change and administration’s understanding of journalism change widely based on their interactions and their perceived pressures they get from boards of governors to community, if something is done that they do not like. But routinely, I think the administration’s at most higher ed institutions realize they deal with journalists all the time, they can’t control the message.

Douglas: Tell me about some of the issues that you’ve covered that might have come to the attention of the administration.

Wheeler: One of my reporters covered when we had protests on campus over the potential abortion ban. At the time, we had some pretty heated protests happening, and that could have very easily been a point in time where the administration had stepped in. But it wasn’t. Our reporters were able to go out and they were able to cover these protests and interview whoever they wanted with no pushback. That happens pretty much anytime. I wouldn’t say that we have a whole lot of issues on campus where it’s something that potentially the administration feels like they would need to step in because they’re worried about bad press. 

Even in times that we have had things that may be a little bit iffy. Even covering, like the campus politics, people that are running our debates for student government, those can get pretty intense. Those are very easily points in times where the administration could step in, and they could say something about it. But they don’t. They kind of respect the work that we’re doing, and they trust that we’re going to be unbiased in what we’re releasing and just reporting on what’s happening.

Douglas: That’s actually really gratifying to hear that the administration has mostly taken a hands-off attitude, which is what you want to hear with student journalists. I mean, that’s the point of the professional advisers in the first place.

Bailey: I was just thinking there was one instance where we did truly cooperate with the administration, one of those clickbait stories, the most unsafe campus, that type thing. And one got out with Marshall being just really wretched. There were no sources or anything to it, it was just a claim. I asked Makaylah [Wheeler] to contact the university administration to get some feedback. And I’ll let her tell you about that, because we didn’t want to run something that absolutely had zero credibility.

Wheeler: A lot of the time, I do get redirected to their communications department. Depending on where I contact on campus, I don’t always get the go ahead to talk to the higher ups. Sometimes I do just because I’m a little bit pushy. We talked to the communications department, and they had actually already done their research on this trying to cover just in case of the press. We do have to do our research in those circumstances. But obviously, as a news director, I’m not going to run something that I’m not 100 percent positive. 

That’s one thing we’re lucky about here is not only do they trust that we’re going to be doing that. But sometimes they do kind of leak into the territory of either they trust us enough that they think that they can be comfortable enough to tell us a little more than they usually would. 

Or that it becomes kind of businessy and you have to worry about that inter-department relationship if they’re going to work with you in the future. That was good to have that line of communication that they were at least willing to respond and that circumstance.

Makaylah Wheeler and Chuck Bailey. Courtesy

Douglas: West Virginia is actually one of the first 17 in the country to pass this law. But it doesn’t sound like it at least is overwhelmingly needed. It’s good to have as a backup, but it’s not been a pressing issue.

Bailey: It’s good that it takes it off the plate because a lot of administrators think the adviser should have prior restraint, that you should go in and say don’t do this. If Makayla has a question and wants to ask me, I will give her my advice, but I’m not going to tell her to or not to do that. 

I think this will have more impact on high school journalism teachers and I believe they need it. I think there will be instances in higher ed where somebody will need this protection, and it will probably be a new adviser more so than a veteran adviser.

For more information, see a story from the Student Press Law Center