JACK RIVLIN discusses the identity crisis facing Cambridge student journalism.
Cambridge is a serious University. It’s no surprise that journalism among Cambridge students would be taken seriously. Unfortunately, reporting is too often caught between a desire to attract readers and a belief that what is being written should live up to some predetermined ideal of what a ‘proper’ newspaper looks like. Because we are going to write for proper papers, we try to be like one. This outlook too often results in boring news coverage. The result is that student journalists try to tart up their stories with misplaced sensationalism.
The classic example is the survey, a device employed to try to create news out of thin air. This week’s depressingly titled TCS survey, “Freshers’ Week: Behind the Smiles” offered a good example. The survey made such exciting discoveries as the fact that “half of students received work in the first three days” and the most popular event was (wait for it) a “college party.” There are only two words for this sort of journalism: Cutting. Edge.
Not to be too down on TCS. Life's not easy when your essential purpose is acting as a tissue for CUSU to jizz into. At least they’re trying to compete with their oh-so-serious neighbour. Varsity’s ridiculously flawed, status-anxiety-inducing ‘sex drugs and rock n’ roll’ surveys have long been derided. They offer a rare opportunity for those students who want to give the chip on their shoulder a work-out by forcing their college to the top of the parental income list. What? Your college has the highest proportion of undergrads taking taxis to supervisions? Congratulations, your Pitt card’s in the post. Now how about a VK or 50?
It’s disappointing that TCS chose to emulate this approach: “One third of students who thought that they wouldn’t fit in thought Cambridge would be too posh.” This is reporting at its lazy worst – let’s flog a horse more dead than Red Rum by bringing up Cambridge’s posh image! Keeping this sort of outdated view of the University on the agenda only serves to reinforce it. The point about these surveys is that they are either boring, or so inaccurate and hyperbolic that they actually tell us nothing.
And this tension between seriousness and sensationalism is at the heart of an identity crisis facing Cambridge’s student papers, one which leads TCS and Varsity to oscillate between the dull and the farcical. Given that our audience spend a large proportion of their time consuming boring information; it’s advisable that the student press offer something entertaining. It’s what they want: I’ve yet to see a message on someone’s Facebook announcing their OMGs at the fact that Cambridge will now be including A*s in their offers to applicants. But I do know that 2,361 of you wanted to know what really happened at Gardies.
All the same, attempting to offer an intellectually stimulating product is a perfectly acceptable cause. There should always be room for this type of journalism. And equally there should be room for journalism which aims to entertain. But to portray your paper as a serious and intellectual product and then to adopt the very tabloid tactics which you sneer at is rank hypocrisy. Both Varsity and TCS are guilty of this.
Flawed surveys are one example of how student papers rely on the tactics they pour scorn on when used elsewhere. So too are photos of scantily clad women. And what of the status-obsessed tabloid celebrity coverage we all revile? Our answer is The Varsity 100 – surely the nadir of Cambridge journalism – a yearly list of student celebrities that is so sycophantic it would make Tatler blush. It’s all about striking the right balance between seriousness and sensationalism.
Papers don’t have to follow one or the other, but let’s not pretend they don’t indulge in a little bit of attention-seeking when they plainly do. Equally, the suggestion that The Tab is simply an idiot’s wankrag is not true, and people who disagree with the tabloid format should offer reasonable arguments rather than looking down on it as ‘low-brow,’ when they regularly indulge in the same material, packaged differently.
It might seem strange that it’s The Tab questioning the use of tabloid tactics in student papers. Clearly, I value tabloid journalism. And I don’t deny the large amount of intelligent and enjoyable material in Cambridge’s student papers. But I fail to see how the sort of news reporting found in TCS and Varsity is somehow more valid than coverage which unashamedly admits its own sensationalism.