Pieter Garicano, Cherwell Editor-in-Chief:
A feature of student journalism is the lack of distance between the journalist and their subject. The media in London get derided for being too chummy with those they’re reporting on, but that dynamic doesn’t start there. In Oxford, subject and object can live in the same staircase. One way it manifests itself, of course, is through favourable coverage. Many pieces which we’ll get will be flattering to the author’s favoured student society, play, or hack.
While not inherently undesirable — we rely on the unpaid labour of the people willing to write, and people like to write on things they like — it can lead to certain voices and biases been further amplified, whilst neglecting others. The writing of student journalists reflects their specific, broadly similar interests, rather than a representative sample of the broader University. Self-selection, and a perceived lack of accessibility, plays a large role in the composition of the staff at the student papers — that, in turn, affects the output.
But, worse, and much more common than when chumminess leads to favourable coverage, is when it leads to its suppression. Pieces about groups and colleges in Oxford will sometimes be scrapped out of an author’s fear of retaliation. Many students who profess to value free speech and the truth feel entirely comfortable harassing fellow students who write pieces they dislike. Living in the same staircase or sharing the same community can make it all too easy. Anonymous platforms such as Oxfess lower the threshold further, whilst reaching a much wider audience. JCRs are some of the most hostile organisations when they receive negative coverage — worse than the oligarchs, dodgy dons’ greenwashers, and other nefarious types Cherwell reports on. Many of these problems are structural; the intimacy between student-author and others students is definitional. But another part of it is learned — both excessively narrow coverage from authors and outright hostility from subjects does not need to be the case. A little understanding goes a long way.
Leah Mitchell, Cherwell Editor-in-Chief:
Last week, Pieter and I sat down to write a document with some guidelines for whoever Cherwell’s Editors-in-Chief next term may be. At the start of the document, we decided to include a distillation of what we believe Cherwell’s key values to be. Writing this down felt daunting – who are we to decide, or even to know, the values of an institution over a hundred years old? – but also slightly thrilling, akin to writing a manifesto or pledge. Components which fizzed to the surface immediately included editorial independence, transparency, free speech, abhorrence of bigotry, and ascription of goodwill apart from in cases of overwhelming evidence to contrary – lofty principles indeed, perhaps, but I think worthwhile ones.
Does this mean that our deeply well-intentioned but probably half-baked Google Docs notes should become some sort of binding canonical text for future editors? Of course not – our opinion holds no greater weight than theirs, and I think it is good for beliefs and practices to be constantly re-evaluated and recalibrated for an ever-changing environment. But the act of consolidating one’s principles – or at least, taking the time to think about doing so – is in my view of great importance in itself, despite how intimidating or impossible it might feel. It is also something that all of us can do, every day, even if only in the backs of our own minds.
In a world which sometimes feels like it increasingly values aesthetics over action, polish over principles, it seems to me perhaps more important than ever to stand for something. I for one would rather discover that I am wrong in good faith and have to modify my stance than be so afraid of disagreement, error, and even embarrassment that I do not dare to use my voice at all. So, this week, I urge you to adopt what we have determined to be the Cherwell spirit and do the same – write your own manifesto, if you will. What do you have to lose?