Self-censorship a necessary step after student reporter’s actions

By Catherine Wallace

Horizon Advisor and Journalism Adjunct

Last quarter, for the first time in the five years since I’ve been advisor of the Horizon, we had to pull an issue from the racks. That’s a very serious step toward self-censorship and one I hope never to have to repeat.

But before I get into what happened, it’s important to note that my writing this column is also not normal. My role is to advise, not to interfere—unless or until something bad happens.

Well, something bad happened.

In today’s climate of vilifying the media, there is already less room for public tolerance of honest mistakes, but there is absolutely no room for intentionally deceiving.

That’s why you’re hearing from me.

The Nov. 28, 2017, issue—our last one for fall quarter—was on the stands about two days when I heard from a source that a front page story had some seriously wrong information.

After discussing it at length with the source and later with the student reporter, it was determined that this story could not be seen by the public because of potentially damaging content and the way in which it was obtained.

By the time the dust settled on that issue, I received an email at home about another wrong perpetrated by the same student on a different story. It was clear. Something drastic needed to be done.

But before I get too far ahead, it might be helpful to give some background.

The Horizon student newspaper was first printed in 1973 as the “Scope” for one quarter of a small journalism class. By 1977, the idea of a having student forum stuck and the Horizon was established. Because a voice for and by students was deemed important to the college community, the Horizon is also partially funded by student fees.

The Horizon is a class that also produces a product—much like a drama class that culminates in a play, a music class that holds a concert, or an art class that creates an exhibition. The Horizon produces a newspaper.

The Horizon is also a model of real-world journalism with a small but important caveat: it’s run by students. Completely and utterly. As such, and like the real-world example, mistakes will be made. Students, by nature, are still learning. Their mastery of a subject is emerging and will take time to perfect. The beauty of student newspapers is that they are “safe zones” for learning and for sometimes making mistakes, in a patient and (hopefully) forgiving academic environment.

Student reporters and editors learn by doing and they learn from each other with the advisor as a “guide on the side”—we don’t tell the students what to do, what to write about, or whom to interview. That’s on the students and they do a pretty damn good job.

As a classroom structure, there are in two sections of writing (beginning reporting and advanced reporting, which are repeatable three times each), and a separate production class for editors. The staff is led by a student editor and everyone works together in the newsroom during designated class time—and usually many hours beyond.

No prior experience is required. Each group passes their knowledge on to the next group; carry-overs help with transitioning newbies. Some students stay for up to six quarters; some leave after one. The staff is different every quarter—both a blessing and a curse.

Now back to why it was necessary to self-censor:

In the first story, because the student was unable to secure a one-on-one interview, they decided to use words and terms the source had either said in the past (from a computer search) or what the reporter thought the source might have potentially said. This does not constitute an interview and to write a story based on an interview that never happened using words that were not said is fabrication. This is not what journalists do.

The reporter further did not take time to understand or vet information that was given to them and therefore mistakenly wrote in such a way as to put a segment of Whatcom’s student community in a very vulnerable position. Misunderstanding information is not a crime, but not taking the time to understand it before putting it in print for the public to consume is, at the very least, irresponsible. This is not how journalists operate.

If this were the only instance of the reporter’s poor conduct, we might have simply retracted the story, apologized to the sources, and rewritten the information to correct the record, but because there was another story in the same issue with problems, we decided the only fair course of action was to confiscate the entire run.

On the second story, in order to gain access to the source, this student misrepresented their intentions and did not identify themselves as a reporter from the Horizon but instead as a student who needed help. As a consequence, the source felt ambushed and deceived. Journalists do not use subversion to talk to sources.

Further, in what amounts to bad practice, the student did not take notes, did not record the conversation, and did not actually listen to what the source was saying. When it came time to write, the student drew erroneous conclusions from memory that, in one specific instance, was actually hurtful.

It is not my intention to throw this student under the bus, but to right a wrong.

The fallout of an extreme action such as voluntarily pulling the issue is tremendous. When we stop 1,000 issues from hitting the stands, we deny students access to information; we deny advertisers their paid-for audience; we deny other student reporters and photographers who have taken the time to do a story right, spent hours talking to sources, attending events, and writing their stories from having their work seen and read; we deny sources having their stories told accurately and fairly; and, bottom line, it costs us money.

This reporter had very little experience—as most of our staff usually does—however, this student was well aware of journalistic tenets and expectations. They are outlined in our textbooks, my teachings as instructor of the news writing class (which this person also took), and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. The rules are clear: 1) seek the truth and report it; 2) minimize harm; 3) act independently; 4) be accountable and transparent.

(One of the wronged sources felt that they should have gone around campus and collected all the papers themselves, but that would actually be a form of censorship and is not tolerated in a free democracy. It’s one thing for a news organization to make the decision to retract a story or an issue, and quite another for a member of the public or a source to do so. It’s better that we took the proper action in this case.)

It is my sincere belief that this person is not a bad person, but just got in over their head, panicked, and in their desperation to survive the class, made a huge error in judgment.

There was no way the other staff and editors could have known what was about to happen when the stories were read by the sources. When the truth was revealed, the rest of the staff felt deceived by their colleague. They felt hurt by the actions of this person because everything they worked for in that issue was tossed in the bin.

The worst part was the loss of credibility.

Because this student did not adhere to the basic journalistic principles of accuracy, transparency, and integrity, they put the whole organization in a very bad light. It might be difficult for the next Horizon reporter to secure future interviews.

We sincerely apologize to those who have been hurt by the negligence of one panicked student. As part of righting the wrong, we are reprinting the articles and photographs that did meet journalistic standards and that are worth seeing and reading.

In the end, I’m sure this student did not consider the repercussions. I’m sure this student did not set out to intentionally hurt people, but the butterfly effect of what this does to the public’s trust of the media in general—and specifically the Horizon—is immeasurable.

Please accept our apology as we try to fix what was broken and m

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