Last month, The Washington Post ran a terrific story about student reporters as the “journalism heroes of the pandemic era”.
With many of America’s coronavirus hotspots occurring at colleges or in university towns, the Post reported “student journalists have been kept busy breaking news of campus outbreaks, pushing for transparency from administrators and publishing scathing editorials about controversial reopening plans”.
As many mainstream media outlets struggle with declining advertising revenues, an uncertain online business model and layoffs of full-time staff, student journalists have stepped in to fill the void, producing top-notch reporting and helping keep communities informed. Some student-run outlets are the only daily newspapers in their towns, like my alma mater The Michigan Daily, which this year is celebrating 130 years of continuous publication.
Also, as the number of online media sites has proliferated, many of those sites are hungry for stories, pictures and video—now called “content”—and the key providers are students and freelancers. And many freelancers are fresh graduates of journalism schools still looking for that elusive first staff job.
The entire media ecosystem has shifted. When I graduated from The Michigan Daily, after occasionally dropping in on a few classes at the University of Michigan, the typical path was to get an internship that hopefully led to a full-time staff job with all the perks and benefits. Some stayed at the same publication for many years, or decades. Others maybe had one, two or three job switches over a career. But that career trajectory is now about as common as a Detroit factory worker staying in the same assembly job for 40 years before retiring with a full pension
That new media ecosystem applies to Hong Kong. And that is why it was so disheartening to see the Hong Kong Police Force in September unilaterally impose new restrictions that will adversely affect student reporters and freelancers, who are the journalism heroes of the past 16 months of protests.
It was HKU Student Union’s Campus TV that captured the dramatic moment on October 1 last year when a protester became the first to be shot with a live police round. Freelancers and students were on the front lines to witness the stabbing of a police officer last July, the police beating and pepper spraying of commuters at Prince Edward MTR station on August 31 last year, and the July 27 police assault on protesters at Yuen Long. Last month, when police violently tackled a 12-year-old girl buying art supplies, a student journalist team was on the scene.
HKU Journalism joined with six other university and college journalism programmes in Hong Kong to denounce the restrictive new police policy, which amounts to a de facto registration system for reporters—something that Hong Kong, with its long free press tradition, has never had before.
The police claim this new policy—recognising only reporters registered with the government or “renowned” international media—is aimed at eliminating so-called “fake journalists,” who they allege, without any evidence, are obstructing their operations. But the police have no more ability or right to determine who is a “real” or “fake” journalist based on the government registration system than I have to decide who is a “real” or “fake” police officer who doesn’t display a warrant card.
In today’s media world, dominated by student reporters, freelancers and citizen journalists, anyone with a smartphone might be at the scene and has every right to record what’s happening. For example, we know that a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck and killed him because concerned bystanders—acting in the moment as citizen journalists—recorded the scene and released the video to the media.
Police who behave professionally and responsibly, following their own guidelines and using minimum force when necessary, should welcome more media to record their actions. They should have nothing to fear from the media spotlight.