Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Connecting with Student Journalists: Help Them, Help Your Library.

Connecting with Student Journalists: Help Them, Help Your Library.

by | Mar 27, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Steven J. Bell , Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

When it comes to working with aspiring student journalists, the traditional way in which academic librarians make this connection is in the classroom. Students in various communications majors benefit from exposure to the library’s information sources, along with strategies for the critical evaluation of information sources. In our age of mis- and dis-information, these students, in particular, need to learn and master these skills before entering the job market. Librarians reinforce what students learn in the classroom with information literacy and research consulting support. 

There is another way in which academic librarians may find themselves working with student journalists – when they seek us out in their role as reporters or editorialists. They may be working for the campus student paper, if there is one, or for a student television or podcast program. Occasionally, the campus library is the subject of a developing story. The student journalist may wish to cover a new service or program offering. It may be something more controversial, such as the removal of collections, the cancellation of a popular resource or a cut in library hours. Alternately, librarians or library administrators may seek out a student journalist to share an idea for an article about the library. Among our various outreach and engagement channels, student newspaper articles that speak to the value of the campus library can create the exact sort of positive buzz we desire.

Recently, I experienced both situations. I was eager to see the results of our 2023 institutional and statewide student course materials survey shared with students. Library staff did publish a detailed account of those results on our library blog, along with a social media push in support of it, but we do realistically acknowledge that those channels attract less student attention? 

I reached out to a student reporter that I’d recently assisted with a feature about AI and how the Library was developing new resources, such as research guides and workshops, to aid the campus community to learn this new technology. I asked if they might be interested in a piece about the ways in which expensive textbook costs impact students learning, academic decisions and non-educational living costs. After an expression of interest, I pointed our student journalist to the Library blog post and a few other press release type documents produced by our statewide open education community group. 

Soon after, we met for an initial interview. I provided more details, and encouraged the journalist to interview students and faculty, both those who do and don’t engage in open education practices. When published, I was so impressed by how well the reporter covered the survey and captured multiple perspectives from the campus community.

The following week, things went the other way. On occasion, a student journalist will pick up on their fellow students’ complaints about the campus library and will want to investigate it. I received an email from another student reporter who writes opinion pieces for the school newspaper. They asked to meet with me to discuss a topic that comes up every few years – library hours. We met a few days later to talk about the Library’s operating schedule. As anticipated, the student wanted to know why the main library is open until 2:00 am Sunday through Thursday, but not on Friday or Saturday. I explained how we collect building usage data, such as card swipes and head counts, throughout the year. We then apply data-driven decision making, I continued, to arrive at an optimal building schedule that balances student demand, staffing challenges and budgetary constraints.

 I also pointed out how the availability of our building’s 24/7 space provided access for students with late night or early riser study habits. This enables us to efficiently keep a smaller but adequate portion open without needing to staff, secure and maintain a 200,000 square foot building. It was a productive discussion. The student journalist came away with a new, unexpected knowledge of the detail and level of effort the library staff puts into developing a finely tuned, responsive operating schedule. I have yet to see this one published, so only time will tell how this opinion piece will inform students about the scheduling of our library hours – and how they will react.

Establishing good relationships with student journalists is driven by a desire to both support their education and craft,  and provide transparency about library services knowing full well their articles may be critical of our services and resources. When that happens, we need to regard it as feedback we can use to fix what’s broken and do a better job. Here are some thoughts, based on my own experience, along with tips I’ve picked up from campus administrators and library colleagues:

  • Before responding to a cold e-email request from a student journalist, reach out to your library colleagues to see if they’ve received the same request. If a student journalist is unaware of the best library staff member with whom to connect for a particular story, they are apt to contact multiple library staff with separate messages.
  • In the absence of a concrete policy for handling requests from student journalists, with your colleagues, decide who should respond. Is it best to have the dean or director do that or is someone else best positioned to reply. Whoever takes the lead should consider inviting other colleagues to speak with the student journalist as appropriate during the information gathering stage.
  • In advance of an interview with a student journalist, take time to prepare. Consider what are the likely questions you’ll be asked. Think through how you want to respond. Student journalists, understandably, are unfamiliar with academic library operations. When responding to their questions, aim to help them understand in a way that is neither condescending nor patronizing.
  • Temper your expectations with respect to how your interview responses might appear in the published article. Your student journalist is an aspiring, budding journalist and far from a seasoned pro – and even the pros can get it wrong. Here is where preparation can help. Have the language that best communicates the library position or policy on what’s being discussed. When appropriate, for accuracy’s sake, repeat it and ask if they are clear on it, but in a way that’s not condescending.
  • Remember to follow up after the story is published. Show your appreciation and emphasize the importance of their work in supporting the mission of the library. Should you point out inaccuracies or reporting errors? That’s up to you. It may depend on the nature of the error or oversight. I’d ignore anything minor or incidental in nature. If the error or misstatement is egregious, that may be a case to request a correction.
  • It’s generally good practice for all library staff to know how to respond if contacted by a journalist, student or otherwise. It will typically require a referral to a library communications specialist. In the absence of a library specialist, the referral would likely involve an institutional communications specialist. It is best for staff to be prepared, rather than being taken by surprise and responding in ways inconsistent with library or institutional policy.

Working with student journalists may present challenges. It might be time consuming. Inaccurate reporting concerns are legitimate. Explaining library policy may seem tedious. My own experiences with student journalists have been mostly rewarding, but occasionally frustrating. Either way, it’s always worthwhile to get to know a student better. Knowing you have played a part in this student’s education, helping them to gain necessary skills for academic and career success, and the joy in an article that communicates the value of library services are just some of the benefits of engaging with student journalists. 

What are your tips for working with student journalists? What are your experiences working with them? I hope you’ll share them as a comment.

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