Student journalism has a long, rich history of on-the-ground reporting of university-related issues. McGill’s first newspaper, The McGill Gazette, began in 1874, and today’s vibrant publications maintain this legacy. In light of recent violence in Israel and Palestine, rising tensions on campuses have illuminated the division and bias that mainstream media coverage perpetuates. Now more than ever, student journalism is needed to produce fair and honest coverage of events occurring globally and on campus.
University campuses are unique in that they provide an environment for young people to gather and share ideas. Students come to university to open their minds and learn from other cultures—especially at McGill, which is composed of over 30 per cent international students. As such, times of crisis prompt mainstream media to hone in on university campuses to engage with youth perspectives and analyze the complexity and vitality of student activism.
Historically, campuses function as the beating heart of activism around the world. Time and time again, students show up as drivers of change, especially in Quebec. The 1969 Sir George Williams Affair, the 2002 Concordia riots against Benjamin Netanyahu, , and the 2012 Quebec student strike protests are just a few examples. Despite this, student activism––and by extension student journalism––receives scorn by virtue of the fact that it is exclusively student-led. For many, this idea is associated with incompetence, thoughtlessness, and triviality. This false perception of student activism purposefully stifles some of the world’s most outspoken progressive voices and must be resisted.
With campuses becoming a key site of protest in recent weeks, mainstream media has employed an array of sensationalist, harmful, and extractive tactics. Media reporting and administrative responses alike must be mindful to avoid a disproportionate focus on violence, which perpetuates harm against victims and overshadows students’ positive efforts to bring people together and facilitate productive, peaceful discussion. Depicting Palestinian students as violent contributes to dangerous Islamophobic rhetoric and reinforces a pro-carceral, pro-punishment agenda, justifying increased police presence on university campuses and ramping up opportunities for antisemitism. Many parties are guilty of sensationalizing confrontations and events on campuses, refusing to recognize the interconnectedness of antisemitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy. The Link’s coverage of the heated encounter on Nov. 8 between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students at Concordia University illuminated this problematic phenomenon: The Montreal Gazette cherry-picked students and relied on non-eye witnesses as primary sources, ultimately falsely attributing this confrontation to a narrative that pro-Palestine movements inherently endorse antisemitism.
In their coverage, The Montreal Gazette exemplifies a greater problem within mainstream media. The New York Times and a slew of other legacy media sources target students at protests knowing that they lack media training and are speaking in moments of heightened emotion, allowing their words and feelings to be manipulated. This exploitative approach is not only employed by the media. The weaponization of fear in order to suppress student movements is all too familiar to the McGill administration, with Principal and Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini levying Jewish students’ real fears of antisemitism against pro-Palestine movements in his Nov. 9 email as just the most recent example.
The link between media coverage and polarization amongst readers requires accessible, antioppressive journalistic practices on campus. If the coverage of an event is at all skewed, it can have drastic effects on the reader’s understanding as well as what sources they engage with in the future. When readers heed these organizations’ mistakes and do not engage in reading news coverage, it diminishes trust in independent news sources.
Student journalists are significantly more integrated into the communities they are reporting on then legacy media outlets, not just coming into communities for a day or two to conduct interviews as is typical for mainstream reporters. Unfortunately, despite the importance of reporting, student journalists are often constrained by very limited resources that create barriers to credible reporting. This speaks to the urgency of funding not only student journalism, but local journalism in all forms.
Mainstream media coverage must go back to its roots and focus on the importance of connecting with sources and representing them authentically. In moments of polarization, terror, and violence, journalism cannot fall into sensationalism, rather, it must focus on being truthful and empathetic. On campus and in the newsroom, journalists must commit to compassionate and well-informed coverage, taking their cues from whoever is doing it best, especially when it is student papers.