Taking Swarthmore Journalism to Task

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This column arose out of a discussion about another Gazette column. As with all columns, this piece represents the viewpoints of its authors alone and is not necessarily representative of the viewpoint of the Daily Gazette or any of its staff.

This Thursday, the normally quiet distribution of the Phoenix managed to solicit more groans than usual from many students. This time, the offending article was an editorial and accompanying cover which stated that, in the opinion of the Phoenix’s editorial staff, the “multitude” of dissenting voices has “diluted the power of protest,” both at a national level and here at Swarthmore. Activists have much to say in response to this criticism, especially since it stems from a crucial misunderstanding of what could be called the whole point of solidarity: activist coalition building is at its most effective when protesters acknowledge the interrelatedness of the injustices they protest. Activists send the message that there are no single issues or quick fixes, because the evils perpetrated by the unjust global order are systematic.

The editors make a flawed point about national dissent, but what they hint at towards the end of their article proves far more troubling: the Phoenix believes that at Swarthmore, we have cordoned ourselves off into rival groups that communicate poorly with one another and achieve no significant victories. If, indeed, the Swarthmore community seems politically splintered, the Phoenix ought to shoulder much of the blame itself, since it has proven chronically unable to foster an inclusive dialogue about the politicization of life at Swarthmore.

Flipping through this week’s issue of the Phoenix, we can find a fluff piece about the Cygnet—a book we all know about and use anyway, and frankly, isn’t that important—and a fashion advice column that condescends to men that they ought to take some advice from girls and care about their appearance. It’s almost half a page of print space wasted to perpetuate a boring stereotype of men as oafish slobs and women as in touch with how to look good. Judging by some of the crimes against fashion that we’ve witnessed during our time at Swarthmore, of which members of every gender have been implicated, this stereotype holds no water here.

Nowhere could you find any dissenting voice published in the Phoenix, which limits the scope of its political discussions to the occasional column or editorial piece weighing in on some national policy issue. For the most part, such journalism interests the author and the minority of the student body who cares deeply about that issue, but it gives no real life to a culture of discussion here, since most students get their perspectives on national issues from national journalistic outlets (which makes sense).

This leaves a vacuum for the kind of journalism that no one at Swarthmore seems interested in doing: committed political journalism that does not shrink from taking stands on issues related to our daily lives here at Swarthmore. Recent political coverage by both the Phoenix and the Daily Gazette betrays their failure to do this kind of journalism. We can look to coverage of two recent controversies, namely the NOTA campaign from last spring, and the return of Coke products to campus dining services facilities this year, as evidence of this fact.

In the case of the NOTA campaign, the Phoenix published an editorial that offered its opinion on the campaign and what it understood as the campaign’s goals, but complained that the “underground” nature of the campaign made gathering information about the goals of students supporting NOTA particularly difficult. There’s no excuse for this excuse: at a campus as small as Swarthmore’s, the people supporting NOTA weren’t limited to the unspecified members of “the IC and BCC communities,” but your friends, and people on your teams and in your classes. They’re not hard to find. Why did the Phoenix have such a hard time finding them?

This fall, coverage of the return of Coke products rushed to cast the event as a failure for activism at Swarthmore: the Daily Gazette contributed, publishing an article documenting The Unkicking of Coke and Peter Liebenson’s laugh rollercoaster called Yay, We Kicked Coke You Guys!. The Phoenix’s news coverage was similar. To us, campus journalists seemed to have colossally missed the point: the larger victory for student protest to emerge from the decision to bring Coke back to campus was the College’s commitment to drafting an ethical purchasing policy. The nonexistence of such a policy was a major obstacle for activists working on the original Kick Coke campaign. In the future, activists hoping to stage a similar campaign against an unethical company contracted by the College will have an institutional policy to which they can appeal. This crucial detail was treated in Swarthmore publications’ coverage as a minor note and buried far below the headlines.

In publishing shoddy pieces like these, or, more frequently, settling for dull regurgitations of institutional viewpoints and a seemingly endless parade of “opinion” pieces on such ubiquitous “Swattie” topics such as the quality of Sharples food, ambivalence about Pub Nite’s “beer-soaked” sing-alongs, and the “awkwardness” of Paces parties, journalism here misses a rare opportunity to engage broad swathes of the community in discussions about important issues that affect us all. We believe that this failure is a symptom of a larger problem within the student body: we have begun to take our journalism for granted. Few students derive much pleasure from reading the majority of the journalism produced on this campus (many students simply don’t read any of it), and even fewer take an active part in the production of journalism. In this state of disrepair, journalism stagnates. It’s time to ask what journalism can do better, and that begins with an examination of the criticisms we make of journalism here.

Since the Phoenix and the Gazette shouldn’t spill more ink on coverage of national issues that would be better left to national journalistic institutions, and since they are student-run publications, we expect the publications to take these factors into account in reviewing their journalistic practices: aware that the administration manages the information that it passes along to students, journalists at Swarthmore should focus on pushing the limits of what they can learn about the institutional workings of the college. The safest environment for investigative and critical journalism we will ever experience is at a setting like Swarthmore, where our needs are generally met and our intellectual pursuits supported.  Why, then, is such journalism so absent?

To those who say that Swarthmore does not produce enough news to provide content for truly interesting and, dare we say, exciting journalism, we challenge you: journalism at Swarthmore remains the province of relatively limited number of voices, meaning a limited number of experiences, and a limited number of perspectives. To that end, we hope, in writing this column, not only to draw attention to these concerns, but to put, so to speak, our money where our mouth is in terms of journalism at Swarthmore: as we offer our opinions on discussions and controversies that spring up throughout the semester, we hope, also, to cover or to expand coverage of some stories that other journalistic outlets here leave out. We welcome contributions of ideas, suggestions, and stories on that front.

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