Opinion: Chicago adjunct strike provides student journalists with an invaluable reporting lesson

Cierra Lemott (far right) of the Columbia Chronicle reports on a rally during the part-time union strike at Columbia College Chicago in November 2023. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

By Jackie Spinner

The part-time faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where I teach journalism, was on strike for seven weeks, protesting cost-cutting decisions that will result in fewer teaching opportunities for instructors. It was the longest adjunct strike in US history before a tentative deal was reached on Dec. 18.

The student newspaper, the Columbia Chronicle, has been thorough in its coverage of the strike, which started Oct. 30. The students broke the news in November that the adjunct walkout had gone longer than a three-week-long strike in 2022 at the New School in New York, the previous record-holder.

It has checked claims, sought out sources, provided thoughtful explainers and talked to dozens and dozens of students in the murky middle of the conflict over course cuts.

Many of the local media outlets have simply taken the union’s word as fact, citing their numbers and using their hand-picked sources to tell a very complicated story of what is happening in higher education, particularly for tuition-dependent institutions like Columbia College.

In a reporting class I’m teaching, I had the students examine the sources and reporting from two local strike stories, one written by the Chicago Tribune and one written by Block Club Chicago. The students found factual inaccuracies in both, as well as missing viewpoints.

Nonetheless, the union praised and shared both of these articles on social media. In fact, they’ve shared nearly every story written or broadcast about the strike, including one in the Chicago Crusader that was actually a press release from the Columbia Faculty Union’s affiliate, the Illinois Federation of Teachers. They haven’t cited a single article or social media post from the student paper.

That’s because the Chronicle has taken nothing at face value. They have refused to quote claims from the union or from the college administration without attempting to verify them, not easy to do on deadline for students who are only working about 10 hours a week while also carrying a full course load and holding other part-time jobs.

When the union repeatedly touted Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s support – and offer to mediate the strike – a student reporter called the mayor’s office and learned that the mayor never made that offer.

They also broke down the bonuses that administrators had received, exclusively reporting that the college’s president and five others received a one-time payout from the Board of Trustees for weathering the pandemic. 

They’ve done data reporting to understand which course sections were actually being cut, looked at which classes would see the biggest increases, analyzed a $20 million financial deficit and explained how federal mediation works. They delivered this reporting in Spanish and English.

This kind of business reporting is hard even for professional journalists. These are students.

For their efforts, union leaders – who are their teachers – have wrongly accused the student journalists of bias because the Chronicle is funded by the college. (Proceeds from any ad sales go back into the college’s general fund, which supports most student salaries but not all of them because some students are on federal work study.)

Like most student media outlets, the Chronicle is financially dependent but editorially independent. As a full-time professor and the paper’s faculty advisor, I’m not part of the union, which is not to say I am anti-union. I am simply not part of the part-time bargaining unit. I’m also not an administrator, a baseless claim that unfortunately has been used to discredit the students. I don’t rewrite their stories or censor them, another false claim.

I do guide and teach them as a working journalist and a teacher.

Throughout its 50 years of existence, celebrated this fall, the Chronicle and its advisors have had a sometimes difficult relationship with the administration; it comes with the territory. Student journalists are rarely bedfellows with administrators. I know because I, too, was once a student journalist, suspicious of power and power brokers, eager to hold my institution accountable.  

The union has repeatedly claimed that the Chronicle is run by the administration and has used this to counter accurate reporting about the actual impact of the cuts. On a Dec. 10 Zoom call with students that was hosted by the part-time union, a participant noted in the chat that according to the Chronicle’s reporting, the majority of courses seeing cap increases were already fairly large lecture courses and not more intimate studio courses.

The union replied in the chat, “The Columbia Chronicle is headed by the administration.”

This is false, and it’s a terrible insult to the hard-working student leaders who have directed the paper’s strike coverage. 

Much of the local reporting has relied heavily on social media, which has some of the angriest and loudest voices taking part in the conversation. But these voices have not necessarily been representative, which means the easy story gets told by local media and not the more complicated one about how most students have returned to class with replacement teachers or about how nearly half of the striking part-time instructors were teaching as the semester came to an end. 

The exception in the local media coverage was a recent commentary in the Chicago Reader that not only cited the Chronicle’s reporting, it also provided the appropriate context for the strike, noting Columbia’s long history with using (and some would argue exploiting) adjunct instructors. It was sympathetic to the union but also accurate. I plan to point to it as an example of good opinion writing when I teach next spring. 

Throughout the past seven weeks, I constantly have reminded the students that our job as journalists is to pursue the truth, even if people don’t like it, to do everything in our power to get the story right. 

For the past seven weeks, the student journalists have done exactly that, even if many of their peers in the profession have not. They’ve done it in spite of the criticism and the misinformation about their role as independent journalists.

It’s been a tough but invaluable lesson.

Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review and a professor at Columbia College Chicago. She became the faculty advisor of the Columbia Chronicle in January 2023. 

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