Last week at Concordia, students who planned to vote in the student union elections got their information from the candidates making the rounds of classes or from the student press. Neither is a perfect vehicle.
However, it is generally agreed that newspapers, even at the student level, have a responsibility to hold to journalistic standards and to present the information the political electorate needs to know.
To the best of a newspaper’s abilities, it should be honest, fair and balanced.
But what are the guidelines in covering student elections? Are there any rules to determine fairness in student media?
After surveying student publications across Canada, for the most part it was found that none have specific guidelines for electoral coverage. The rule seems to be that following precedence, rather than set guidelines, is enough to curb bias in reporting.
Is this enough?
The Varsity’s News Editor, Mike Ghenu, (University of Toronto), said covering student elections is a “touch and go” process. He said it should be treated like any other news story, but it requires the journalist to “always keep your feelers out [to not] get spun one way or another by the different slates.”
Ghenu said papers should be cautious when promoting or bashing a slate. “It can be fun if it’s done intelligently, if it’s good journalism, but you really have to be careful about where the writer’s allegiances lie and who they happen to know. You really have to be careful that you’re not being nakedly political and endorsing someone or bashing someone because you think that you want these guys to win,” he said.
Another student publication, The Charlatan (Carleton University), recently became entangled in student politics when their former Editor-in-Chief ran for student president the year after he quit the newspaper. Students were quick to pinpoint the potential for bias.
Kristy Nease, Editor-in-Chief of The Charlatan, said that although they had just passed an ethical policy that covered the “ins and outs of what journalism is supposed to be,” it didn’t touch on politics.
Instead, they’ve adopted their own system. “We just get a bunch of first-year volunteers to do the profiles, people who have no engagement in student politics, aren’t members of any clubs or societies and who come into the university really green so they don’t really know anyone.”
When the former editor-in-chief ran for president, Nease wrote an opinion piece saying the newspaper was going to be as objective as possible and that supporting the former editor “would obviously not be a good idea and that we’re here to be fair,”
Nease said The Charlatan refused to endorse candidates. When they attempted to, the year she was an Arts Editor, she protested by removing her name from the paper’s masthead.
“I didn’t think it was very ethical,” said Nease, “I think it’s inappropriate, especially at a student level, to wash away ethics like that.”
“If you are training to be a journalist, you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve, and while it’s perfectly fine in your editorial page to take a stance on issues, endorsing a political candidate is just not acceptable,” said Nease.
The McGill Daily follows no specific guidelines during elections, but has always used endorsement as well as candidate profiles. “So while we try to cover debates and campaigns as critically and fairly as possible, we do at the same time permit ourselves to endorse candidates,” said Sarah Colgrove, co-ordinating News Editor.
To ensure equal coverage they interview each candidate. “We [then] take the same questions and their most representative answers and print those for each candidate,” said Colgrove.
The McGill Daily has also used articles they term “news analysis” to criticize university policies. “We’ve never used it to endorse or slam a particular candidate or party, we usually just slam administration policies once in a while . . . because it’s not something that can get out there by quoting people, but needs to be teased in,” said Colgrove.
Colgrove believes that all student newspapers are accountable to someone: the students, because each of them pays for a percentage of the paper with their tuition. They believe this makes the paper “both financially [and morally] responsible to students.”