Melissa Gomez on the job

Student journalists don’t have full First Amendment rights, and New Voices is working to change that.

A national movement, the law has been passed in a number of states and SPJ Florida is working with the Student Press Law Center to help pass it in the Sunshine State. Just this week, Frank LoMonte wrote a column in the Tampa Bay Times to urging for students to not be swept under the rug.

Melissa Gomez, a senior student journalist at University of Florida who is reporting full-time for the Tampa Bay Times, is one of this year’s Active Voice fellows. The fellowship was created by the SPLC to fight the censorship of student journalists, especially young women.

Gomez, who also has held posts at the Naples Daily News, the Las Vegas Review Journal, recently fielded some questions from SPJ Florida about her experience as a student journalist and why she got involved with Active Voice:

 

Having been a reporter/editor at a school newspaper and in traditional newsrooms, what issues within the journalism industry made you pursue the Active Voice fellowship?

Ever since I learned about the Student Press Law Center, I knew it was something I wanted to support in any way I could. Once I learned about the Active Voice fellowship, I knew it was a good way to get involved, and I was excited about the possibility of being a positive influence for young women who want to go into the world of journalism.

In high school, I never gave much thought to the lack of women in the field. But now, having interned in professional newsrooms. I’ve been fortunate enough to find strong female role models in every newsroom. It’s a lot easier to envision your dream job when someone who looks like you is living it.

 

Talk about the importance of student reporters/editors to the campus they serve. How does censorship in college newsrooms do a disservice to students who consume news about their campus, as well as students who report on campus issues?

On college campuses, student journalists serve an important role because they are in the unique position to report on an institution the are intimately familiar with. They also have the perspective of being a student on a college campus with the eye of a reporter or editor. Student journalists also play an important role as watchdogs to their universities and surrounding city as a source of news as smaller newspapers struggle to survive.

I’m fortunate enough to go to a university where the main campus newspaper is independent from the university. But the story behind the Alligator’s independence from the University of Florida stems from an attempt at censorship. In 1973, the paper became independent after former UF President Stephen O. Connell disagreed with student editors about printing information about abortion clinics, which was outlawed at the time. It was then that the paper broke away and no longer had to worry about how the administration felt about what was printed in their paper. Censorship creates a fear among students, who can still be at the mercy of their administration.

If I had to compare it to a physical feeling, it’s like a looming cloud that weighs on you. That weight can feel heavy at times of self-doubt. But college journalists proved that their work matters, and continue to prove that point. They shouldn’t be discounted or restricted because they are students.

 

You will be joining the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices campaign to protect student reporters’ rights. Can you tell us about the campaign and its push for anti-censorship legislation?

The New Voices campaign is an attempt to promote legislation that will protect high school and college journalists from repercussions by asking that states extend First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press to students. In sum: “These freedoms provide all citizens, including students, with the right to engage in robust and uninhibited discussion of issues.” That line is from New Voices legislation that passed in Vermont. Thirteen states have approved it. It seems fairly simple, but right now, there is nothing protecting these students. Here in Florida, freedom of the press held in high regard; I think the Sunshine Laws are proof of that. We think it’s time we bring New Voices to Florida.

 

How can SPJ members, or anyone for that matter, lend their support to the campaign as well?

There are a couple of things anyone can do to support the New Voices campaign. The first is the easiest: by spreading the word. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press should be a cause anyone can get behind, because they are both freedoms we all enjoy. Talk about New Voices to people you know, and they will tell people they know. Here in Florida, we have a strong presence of the press. Anyone can write a letter to the editor or an op-ed and submit it to their local paper. Florida newspapers can also promote the cause through editorials.

Another thing anyone can do is reach out to me if you are a student and feel like this legislation could help you and/or the publication you work for. I’m working with students and advisers to hear them out on how New Voices would benefit them. You can email me at melissagomez004@gmail.com.

This last one is a cliche, but would have a positive impact: write to your legislator. If you’re an adviser and want them for your students, I can send you a template. If you’re a working journalist, you know better than I do on how to track down your local representatives.

Let’s get the conversation going about New Voices. Let’s reach out to those who can make a difference.

 

In our previous conversation, you touched briefly on self-censorship. Can you talk to me a little more about how you would define self-censorship, and the reasons reporters might find themselves doing so?

Self-censorship is when an individual stops themselves from writing about something or omitting information for fear of repercussions or to avoid conflict, per my own dictionary. And I think self-censorship can happen without reporters meaning to.

For student journalists, self-censorship can happen when there is external pressure to report a certain way. Honestly, there have been times where I have hesitated about including certain pieces of information to avoid conflict with a source. But then I remember that as a journalist, you write for your readers. If the information is something they need to know, then it should be in there.

 

You’ve said you ultimately want to focus on court trials in your reporting. What made you feel passionate about reporting on the court system?

The short answer to this that it’s absolutely fascinating to see how legislation can be impacted by decisions made in the judicial branch. The U.S. criminal justice system is so complicated with legal jargon, but impacts everyone. The idea of understanding it and breaking it down for someone who doesn’t live in the legal sphere is something that I’m passionate about.

 

You have experienced sexism in the newsroom as an editor. What can newsrooms do to combat a culture of sexism, and how did you personally move forward constructively following your experience?

I think most women can agree that microaggressions come in many forms, both from those you work with and sources. On how a newsroom can combat sexism, have an open dialogue about it. I’ve found that as journalists, despite being excellent writers and communicators, we struggle sometimes to talk to each other. The more we talk about uncomfortable topics, the more they become familiar.

 

Learn more about the New Voices initiative here.

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