There for the Grace of College Journalists Go You (Hopefully)
I should begin by saying that I absolutely believe that student journalists are at least as respectable as their “professional” counterparts and, considering the state of media in America, often more so. They are often the only students on campus who take the time to understand university culture, challenging or bringing to light issues that effect their fellow students. In fact, most administrators I know are concerned (if not downright frightened) that their actions are going to negatively draw the paper’s attention, and that the student reaction to it will be so strong that they will have to retract, rescind, or otherwise respond to the criticism in a way that will haunt them. (I, in fact, know some Dean of Students that are so terrified of negative publicity that they do everything in their power to limit staff contact with student media, and will completely change their positions to preempt any critical stories.) That is not to say that administration is shady or trying to get away with anything. On the contrary, almost everything that any administrator does is done transparently, and the theoretical, developmental, and pedagogical reasons for those actions easily given. But different students have different needs and values, so any action taken and placed under a microscope will please some, enrage some, and bore others. (For example, I tend to be pro-Greek life which some might construe as being “anti-GDI” or “anti-administration.” I don’t see it that way, but trust me-for every person that thinks CJC is serving a crucial need and advocating for students, there is someone who thinks we are trying to ruin judicial systems.) Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion administrators, faculty, and other professionals on a college campus are always fair game. It is what they do for a living and as long as the criticism is factual, it is fair. After all, on college campuses these people are the “public figures” and should always be ready to face the spotlight.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of college journalists feel that as long as what they write is “true” then it is completely fair to write, and do not consider the impact that it may have outside of the article itself. I am taking in particular about including the names of students or student groups in who do something “newsworthy” without thinking about the impact that article will have on their subject for the predictable future. Students are not pubic figures, and in the “Google age,” student papers become a “permanent record” that every other office, system, and policy avoid creating. That means that when someone is 40 and they apply for anything or meet someone new, the first record that will likely show up about them is the thing they did when they were 18. Let’s face it. Most of us don’t do that much that makes the papers. Even if including names or identifying information is ethical and it makes the story “better,” I do not think that people realize the social and professional cost for the subject of their article. What’s worse is that many times the names of these people or organizations are printed before all the facts come to light or a situation is resolved so that what follows a person is potentially a baseless accusation, or at the very least a half-truth.
I had one case that really brought this home for me. [Note: I am going to change the names and facts to protect the people involved (and to keep confidentiality,) but hopefully the point will not be lost.] A student, “Steve,” was accused of making hateful and racist remarks against black people in an email. Charges were brought against the student and, as the process was happening, the student paper wrote about the racist threats, printed excerpts from his email, and included his full name. It quoted some students affected by the email that were, understandably, hurt and outraged by the email. The paper contacted me, but I was not even able to confirm that a case was happening, much less what was happening in the case because of privacy concerns. Steve did not respond to the journalist because he has a pending hearing and didn’t want to do anything to make the situation worse. So the journalist wrote the article with the information she had—the email, the opinions of the injured parties, and a “no comment” from me and from the accused student. There were then editorials and follow up articles on the topic for the next several weeks as the case went forward. At the end of the case the student had whatever sanction was given, but he was not suspended or expelled. The paper went on to say how “nothing was done” to the student because he was still on campus, and asked numerous students how they felt about “nothing happening” to Steve. Understandably there was a lot of outrage because the people asked had no idea what Steve’s actual sanction was, and neither I nor anyone else associated with the case would tell them.
By the time the whole thing was over there were 8-10 articles/editorials about the situation with Steve’s name appearing in most of them, and those articles were cited or referenced by various people across the country (blogs, Facebook, etc.) So to the world, Steve was a potentially violent racist, and my office and the university didn’t care enough to do anything about it. While much of what was written was factually incorrect, the journalist and other contributors worked with the information they had and wrote what they believed to be true. Nobody did anything that was against the rules or even professionally unethical, but that isn’t the point. Steve’s name is out there and linked to “violent racism” without any ability to correct it, remove it, show another side, or even go into what happened. To anyone who Google’s Steve’s name, from now until the end of time, Steve is a violent racist who got away with horrible things while in school. That’s not something that a future employer wants to deal with, and if they are even willing to give him a chance, its not something he can explain because the actual facts are different than what is searchable, and why would anyone believe his version? Long after the official and confidential record of his actions is destroyed according to law and policy, the “unofficial” searchable record will exist. In other words, at some point it will literally be impossible for Steve to prove anything other than what was written in the article.
Including Steve’s name did nothing to help the story or highlight the issues. I am not saying that the journalists didn’t have the right to print it, or that readers might not have been more intrigued because they could Facebook Steve and put a face on the story. I am saying that journalists have the opportunity to defend all students if they remember that the people outlive the story, and that their fellow students should be allowed to atone for and move past the mistakes they made when they were in college. They cannot do any of that fully if their name remains engraved in stone. A journalist could still print the story, get the resulting outrage, accuse the system and school of refusing to act, and talk about the racial climate at the university without associating an identifiable person with the issue.
Student journalists should take it upon themselves collectively to refrain from using names of students or student organizations that get into trouble while at school. Doing so will not interfere with the freedom to write about the incident, the reactions to the incident, and every other component of the story. News is news, and I for one will never tell someone to hide the truth. However, the truth and a journalist’s dedication to truth should be tempered by a moral obligation to the good of each member of their society. In the case of college journalists this means doing everything they can to protect their fellow students up until the point where doing so interferes with the facts of a story. This is especially crucial when the matter is being handled within the school’s system (as opposed to the courts) so unless they included a name, the student’s identity would be protected by those systems. Protecting your fellow students should be as important as getting the story out. The truth does not require a person’s future be sacrificed, or that an organization’s reputation be tarnished. It requires understanding the big picture and how the events fall within that picture, and hopefully keeping in mind that the picture is always bigger than it first seems.