The photography portion of a college journalism contest got 86’ed this week after the National Press Photographers Association pulled out, due in large part to Twitter outrage.
The contest was the brainchild of Michael Koretzky, who worked with NPPA, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Collegiate Press and the Society for News Design to launch the College Coronavirus Coverage awards. The goal of the contest was to reward college journalists who were doing quality reporting, writing and photography on the coronavirus epidemic.
Anthony Souffle, a photojournalist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tweeted his displeasure regarding this:
As with most things that happen on Twitter, others decided to hop on the bandwagon:
Shortly after this, NPPA announced it would be withdrawing its support for the contest. Souffle then tweeted his pleasure regarding the success he had in engaging in cancel culture:
For its part, the CCC killed the category after one week in operation, with Koretzky explaining why it was doing so and noting that the Twitter-gasm had no impact on the move.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve known Koretzky for almost two decades now and he’s guest blogged here. He has come up with some real hum-dingers when it comes to college journalism, ranging from the First Amendment Free Food Festival to the Interviewing the Undead event. He’s also had a few moments that left me shaking my head. I’d liken him to Reggie Jackson: He hits a lot of homers and those go a long, long way. He also strikes out more than a bit, but he gets his money’s worth out of the swing.)
I reached out to Souffle via Twitter to ask him about all this and he never got back to me. I figured if I asked, Koretzky would probably tell me a ton of stuff, as he’s always has before. However, instead of turning this into a point-counterpoint between these guys, I figured I’d take a different look at this.
First, based on his pinned tweet, it’s clear Anthony Souffle hates contests of all stripes:
I definitely agree with him on the point of doing the work for your audience and not for contests. I know I’ve said that at least a couple times on this blog. If you’re doing journalism for the awards, it’s like buying an airline because you like the little bags of snacks they give out during flights.
Second, I agree that putting yourself in harm’s way is never a great idea. The two rules I push when I lecture or present on crime and disaster coverage are simple: Stay calm and stay safe. Taking really stupid risks for the glory and the gold is, well… really stupid. (I live in a state where we’re having in-person voting today and I think THAT is really stupid, too…)
That said, I’m not a huge fan of Twitter’s ability to get a bandwagon of people together to rage at something and I’m even less of a fan of cancel culture. Instead of debating those points, however, here are the three underlying premises that seem present in Souffle’s argument that are extremely problematic:
COLLEGE JOURNALISTS ARE DUMBER THAN OTHER JOURNALISTS: The coronavirus is pretty much all every journalist is covering these days, so to call it newsworthy would be a massive understatement. It is the job of journalists to cover newsworthy stories and convey them to their audiences in ways that are relevant, useful and interesting. College journalists are journalists and thus are not immune to this concept.
I often tell students that when they graduate, they don’t get the “grownup brain” at commencement. In other words, the university doesn’t flip a switch and suddenly you somehow become someone better, smart, faster and cooler once you graduate. Some college journalists are less-equipped to handle certain things than some professionals. They also are less experienced than people who have worked in the field for decades.
However, they’re not idiots.
Many programs have quality advisers who help the students prepare for their work and then guide the students as they craft their stories and edit their photos. These people are experienced and can provide some safety measures when the occasional student goes off the rails. In addition, college students are living, breathing adults who have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else.
They have done amazing work covering floods, hurricanes and more. And to the folks who say, “Well, there’s a roadmap for covering those things…” well, there wasn’t a roadmap to covering mass shootings on college campuses in 2007 when the crew at Virginia Tech was pressed into service. There also wasn’t a roadmap in 2008, when the folks at Northern Illinois did it. Nor was there a roadmap for covering the “Unite the Right” rally, which the Cav Daily did amazingly well. All of these were dangerous stories and all of these could have led to serious harm.
In reviewing the entries that made the one photo contest the CCC did complete, Koretzky noted that most of the photos were similar because of the precautions students took in doing their work. In short, they knew what they were doing. Assuming that they’re going to wander out into traffic because they’re students is insulting to their work and their efforts.
COLLEGE JOURNALISTS WEREN’T ALREADY COVERING THIS: One of the key arguments against the CCC contest is that putting this out there would somehow inspire student journalists to run out and cover the COVID-19 crisis. Also, this assumes that student journalists closed up shop and gave up on being journalists when schools went to an online-only format.
Not even close.
College media folk have been exchanging messages and emails for more than a month, trying to figure out how best to do this as the crisis began to build. Even more, most student media outlets are doing what the pros are: Writing, editing, broadcasting and working from various locations while sheltering in place.
The Student Press Law Center has a list of more than 100 campus media outlets that are doing or have done coronavirus coverage during the outbreak, and that number has grown exponentially over the past few weeks. It’s also safe to assume that even more publications have done work but haven’t made the list yet.
The students are doing exactly what the Twitter-shamers are telling them to do: Serving their communities. The awards are tangential at best.
THIS WAS THE THING THAT MADE AWARD-SEEKERS GO GA-GA: Even if I were to grant the premise that awards drive students to do journalism, and in this case particularly risky journalism, I would still argue that Souffle is drastically overestimating the power of this particular contest.
Not to disparage the CCC in any way, but if students planned to put life and limb on the line for an award, it sure wouldn’t be this one. The ACP Pacemaker and the CSPA Gold Crown are pretty much the big dogs in college media, with the Hearst competition falling in there somewhere for accredited schools. In addition SPJ, NPPA and SND all have contests each year that carry some serious cache with award-seekers.
I somehow doubt students were thinking, “Man, there’s no way I’m going out to shoot photos of anything in this pandemic… wait… a contest I never heard of before is giving out CERTIFICATES? YEAH! Let’s go see if I can get a pic of an ICU patient coughing on me!”
Students who plan for awards the way my kid plans her birthday party (a year in advance and in great deal) were going after this anyway, so to get all in a lather about this one contest is spurious at best.