Why are young journalists filled with self-doubt?

Campus journalism plays an invaluable role in local media, but some young reporters are feeling the effects of imposter syndrome.

“This is so weird.”

That’s the thought Raechel Huizinga had during an email exchange with Indigenous Services Canada’s media relations department in December of 2020.

Huizinga is the editor-in-chief of the Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Despite having worked as a student journalist for three years—she joined the paper as an assistant news editor in 2018—Huizinga wasn’t used to the response she received that day.

“Students of journalism completing projects for school or school newsletters are asked to contact [p]ublic [e]nquiries,” the response read.

Huizinga had contacted the ministry through its media contacts email to ask whether claims the federal government had not formally recognized Nov. 8 as Indigenous Veterans Day were true, despite an announcement that week that it had.

Since Queen’s does not have a journalism program—Huizinga is majoring in English—and she was certain the 148-year-old paper could not count as a newsletter, she responded that she wasn’t a student completing a project for school.

“I just want to confirm that you’re able to provide an answer?” she wrote.

The media relations employee responded that school publications must also use the public enquiries page, the route of inquiry used by members of the public who are not journalists.

The email exchange took place less than two years after the coverage firestorm on the Student Choice Initiative, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government’s policy which threatened to financially drain some student publications and potentially bankrupt others. The initiative was meant to give students the ability to “opt out” of the fees which kept many publications and other student groups afloat.

In many ways, student publications led the charge on this coverage, which dealt with their very existence and was unfolding on their own territory. The cooperation with that coverage is part of the reason Huizinga said such responses feel out of the norm for her.

“[The government] would treat us kind of like any other member of the media,” she said, “so I didn’t really anticipate any sort of problems.”

The importance of student media

Student publications often cover news that ends up receiving local or national attention from larger media outlets.

In October, several months prior and hours away, the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, broke the story about a professor’s use of the n-word in an art and gender studies class. The story was quickly picked up by the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, and the CBC.

On many campuses, student journalists are the only ones covering the activities of their student associations, many of which budget millions of dollars of revenue per year, creating a dynamic akin to local papers covering their city halls.

Many of Canada’s largest universities have student bodies larger than some small towns. Ryerson University in Toronto has a student body of over 47,000 graduate and undergraduate students. When you factor in the university’s 12,000 continuing education students, this number exceeds the population of Aurora, a nearby municipality.

Journalists at the Eyeopener, Ryerson’s student paper, broke the story in January 2019 that food, clothing, club and other purchases allegedly totalling $250,000 were made on the Ryerson’s student union’s credit cards, which were under the name of the union’s then-president. The story led to allegations of financial mismanagement by the union.

The CBC and local media outlets covered the fallout: the union asked Toronto police to investigate, and Ryerson University terminated its agreement with the union, which had been in place since 1986. Following an audit, the legitimacy of over $99,000 of expenses was found to be “unverified.”

Student papers are often ahead of legacy media companies when it comes to prioritizing equity. In 2020, campus media outlets were at the forefront of shifting their internal frameworks to better support Black readers and writers.

“Those student publications that are trying to reach out to these big organizations are asking about issues that affect young people, about equity issues that affect marginalized people [which] bigger organizations might not necessarily be looking at,” said Jacob Dubé, president of Canadian University Press and former editor-in-chief of the Eyeopener.

Campus newspapers across Canada report on events, share stories that readers care about, and investigate local governments. However, instead of paid reporters, campus papers are typically staffed by student volunteers.

Huizinga’s email interaction with Indigenous Services Canada prompted her to reflect on the contributions of student publications. It made her wonder: Is she being perceived as a “real journalist?”

 Imposter syndrome

Many journalists at student-run university publications say fears that they aren’t seen as “real journalists” can contribute to imposter syndrome. Some former student journalists say those feelings never go away, and that this early self-doubt as a beginner merely becomes a part of life in the industry.

Imposter syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis, but according to the American Psychological Association, psychologists acknowledge that it is “a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt.”

The phenomenon is generally characterized by feelings that one’s accomplishments are not valid or a result of one’s competence, and that others will soon discover the individual is a fraud.

Journalists of colour, particularly women of colour, often face fears of tokenism, or that their professional achievements are a result of an engineered effort to create the appearance of equity within the newsroom.

Huizinga said she sometimes wonders if the fact that she is a woman causes her colleagues to underestimate her skill.

“People will address your male counterpart instead of you, or you’re painted as mean, and too serious,” she said. “I feel like maybe some of the male journalists I’ve worked with haven’t really had that kind of energy directed at them.”

In Sydney Hildebrandt’s experience, imposter syndrome is common among all journalists, not just the young ones.

“[There’s] that looming feeling like you’re not good enough, you’re not doing the most that you can, and you’re not honing in on your skills as much as you can,” she told The Pigeon in an interview.

Hildebrandt is a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ont. At Carleton, she volunteered at CKCU-FM, a campus radio station, hosting a weekly roundup show for the university’s student newspaper, the Charlatan, called Charlatan Live.

Now she works at Canstar News’ The Times in Winnipeg.

She said there is a noticeable difference between how easily sources and interviews come to her now that she works at a newspaper compared to when she was reporting for a student publication or one of her classes.

“When I was a student, I rarely received responses,” she said. “Especially from people that I really wanted to interview, like organizations or government officials.”

She said she can only recall one instance similar to Huizinga’s, when she contacted a Green Party MP for a class assignment on plastic water bottle waste.

“He shamed me for not knowing certain things about the topic,” she said. “I don’t think that he would have been that way if I was working at CBC or something similar. I think it was because I was a student.”

Hildebrandt was working on the story for a class, not for the university’s student publication or the campus radio station, but, as in Huizinga’s case, being a student worked against her.

Even though the experience was rare and didn’t permanently damage Hildebrandt’s confidence in her abilities, the moment has stuck with her.

“That guy’s name is burned in my memory,” she said.

Huizinga said despite having experience working at the Kingston Whig-Standard, Kingston’s local paper, she continues to feel twinges of inadequacy from time to time.

“I have definitely struggled a ton with imposter syndrome. I still do,” she said.

She echoed Hildebrandt’s sentiment that having the rare experience with a source who questioned her “realness” or skill might not have created imposter syndrome but can certainly add to it.

“Things like this kind of exacerbated it,” she said of the experience with Indigenous Services Canada.

As for why journalism seems to attract self-doubters, Huizinga said having your work serve the public also means being under their scrutiny, too.

“We’re in the public eye, and we’re being held to account by the public and by the people that we interview,” she added.

Journalism is also a competitive industry.

As a November 2019 article in the Conversation noted, early data from the Canadian Media Guild in 2014 showed the Canadian media industry—mainly the print sector—lost 10,000 jobs in five years, while Statistics Canada’s labour survey reported that the number of journalists has risen to 11,700 in 2017 from 9,959 in 1987.

Since a key component of imposter syndrome is comparing oneself to others, it’s no wonder stiff competition seems to have created an industry that fosters it.

 Changing attitudes

The extent to which imposter syndrome affects young journalists and the frequency they run into experiences like Huizinga’s is not uniform.

Kate Korte, editor-in-chief of the Martlet at the University of Victoria, said she has never run into sources who belittled her or didn’t treat her as a real journalist. In an email, Caroline Fabre, editor-in-chief of La Rotonde at the University of Ottawa, said the same thing.

“We’ve got a pretty good relationship with a lot of politicians in the city of Victoria,” Korte said. “We do have a built-up reputation [and] professional relationships that I think [have] helped with that.”

When it comes to reaching sources such as provincial representatives, the political atmosphere could have an effect on a student publications’ reputation within that province, said Korte.

Huizinga pointed out she was surprised to receive the response she did because her publication had frequently interacted with politicians in their coverage of the Student Choice Initiative, although the relationship had become “rocky” due to the policy.

Hildebrandt pointed out that if you work for a publication with a reputation like the Eyeopener, which covered the student union financial mismanagement story, you may be more well-received.

“When you have a publication like Ryerson’s, which I think is a bit more elaborate and developed, then perhaps people will get back to the journalists there,” she said, whereas if the publication is smaller, that may not be the case.

“Obviously at the Eye, we love to think of ourselves as the underdogs but truly it’s one of the biggest student publications in the country,” Dubé added, reflecting on his time at the publication.

Dubé said one journalism professor of his advised him not to identify himself as a student journalist, but as a journalist who is pursuing an education, since he feels the term ‘student journalist’ had become a negative one.

“[I] just keep reminding myself that I was not just a student journalist. I’m a journalist, period.”

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