As part of #StudentPressFreedom day on Feb. 23, Mark Witherspoon, retired editorial advisor for the Iowa State Daily, and Kylee Haueter, Daily editor-in-chief, spoke about their experiences fighting for student press freedom. Students in JLMC497D First Amendment seminar attended the discussion and wrote blogs reflecting on what they heard. One of those blogs is published below.
Connor Bahr is a student at Iowa State University studying anthropology, French, and journalism and mass communication.
To begin, Mr. Witherspoon said what is arguably the most important part of his presentation and the largest takeaway I had after listening to it: “Journalism is the greatest public service.” It’s a simple message, sure, but it is also so important for student journalists to hear. Journalism is a profession that has been romanticized and demonized through history, and having someone with a resumé like Mr. Witherspoon tell you that what you are doing is important is a great feeling.
He then jumped into a couple of stories from his time at TCU and SMU in Texas, each of which imparted a unique lesson about journalism. The first was a time when TCU refused to give him a tax form that would show the income of the university and the income of top employees. Eventually, they used the law to convince the university to give it to them, but they weren’t allowed to leave the room with it. So, naturally, they brought a large copier into the room and copied the tax form without ever leaving. This story, while humorous, showed the importance of knowing the law around journalism and also the kind of tenacity you may need to get the information that is required to write a story. He finished by saying “The attitude you need is: I’m gonna get the information I need, no matter what.”
Another story that came out of his time at TCU was about a young woman who had been sexually assaulted and who wanted Mr. Witherspoon not to run the story about it. He talked about how hard it was to listen to her recount the tale and how he essentially had to tell her that he was going to run the story because it was important for the community to know that those kinds of things were happening. This is, in my opinion, the core principle of journalism. Stories that need to be run must be run for the betterment of the people whom you serve. A journalist’s goal should be to directly change their reader’s life for the better by providing the knowledge they need to do so, and this story beautifully reflected how hard that can sometimes be.
Both of these stories show excellent examples of journalists using the First Amendment to the fullest. Freedom of the press was designed in order to allow journalists the freedom to hold people accountable, whether that be entire institutions like universities or individuals. The presentation effectively shared how important the First Amendment is but also how rewarding journalism as a profession is. Mr. Witherspoon was not only able to directly improve the lives of his readers and his community, but was also able to directly see tangible, positive changes in real-time.
This circles around nicely to that first quote. In essence, the stories highlighted the importance of journalism as a profession and the laws which make sure journalists can do that job. I hope Mr. Witherspoon a pleasant retirement and thank him for sharing his experiences with us.