A letter from the editor on responsible journalism

By Middlebury Campus

The Campus has taken a lot of heat in the last week over our coverage of hazing among members of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. As the editor-in-chief, I feel I should respond to misinformed readers who think we did not cover it at all, to readers who wanted coverage sooner and who continue to want more coverage, and to Maddie Kahn’s ’11 very important, if also slightly misleading, op-ed. More broadly, I think this is an issue of responsible journalism — what kind of responsibilities college media have, and to whom a student publication like The Campus is responsible. But first to answer a few questions about this gray area of news coverage, à la MiddBlog’s excellent exposition of its own reporting.

Why didn’t The Campus cover the hazing incident until our Feb. 17 issue, more than two weeks after the events?

The Campus is a student weekly — we rarely break news because of our unwieldy print schedule. We go to press two days before the paper comes out, so anything that happens in those two days generally waits until the next week’s issue. Instead of timeliness, we pride ourselves on accuracy. When Kahn approached a member of the editorial board about writing an article on the hazing incident, I admit that I acted conservatively in deciding to let the situation reach some sort of conclusion and to wait for the administration to release their official statement before reporting on it. The editor she approached did not, however, decline her offer to write the article because the issue is too controversial — The Campus does not have a history of killing controversial articles, and the problem in this case was not the subject’s scandal factor, but the lack of solid facts at press time. We did not want to jump the gun and print something about such a sensitive issue that later could have proven to be false. In hindsight, I realize we could have run our brief on the website much sooner than we ran it in the print edition, getting accurate information to the student body almost a week earlier, but we are a student-run organization learning just like the rest of the student body, and that is a lesson we will have to put into practice next time.

Why did The Campus’ coverage amount to nothing more than a brief in the sports section?

I made the decision, with the agreement of the sports and news sections, to put the article in sports because it is a sports issue, and I hope that people looking for information on a sports team would check the sports section first. The Campus has run articles on hazing in the news section in the past, including suspension of social houses and a cappella groups, but I believe our coverage of the most recent incident is comparable. Past articles have sometimes been longer, but only because the writer chose to interview multiple administration members about hazing generally. In all cases the groups charged with hazing declined to comment, as the swim team has, and I did not think platitudes about the harmful effects of hazing would add to our coverage this time around. When people clamor for a more “in-depth” story, they want to know exactly what transpired to merit the charge of hazing, but those are details we do not have access to and that I do not think the public should have access to. I think that if students wanted more open discussion of hazing at this school (as opposed to just the scandalous details in print), we would have seen op-eds about hazing and not about access to information.

Kahn asked The Campus in her op-ed to remind her what our role is as journalists. I won’t speak for the entire editorial board, but I can share what I believe my role as a journalist to be, and it is that role that guides my decisions as the “overseer of this publication.” As a journalist, it is my job to research, report on and print the truth, but it is equally my job to understand both the context for my publication and the consequences of what I write — I am committed to responsible (even compassionate) journalism as much as I am to the cold, hard truth. I write for a student newspaper both in the sense that it is primarily for students and entirely run by students; The Campus as a student publication is thus responsible to the student body and responsible for informing the student body, but those two responsibilities can conflict.

In the same way The Campus does not publish stories on individual honor code violations that go before the Academic Judicial Board, or sexual assault charges, or specific alcohol citations handed out on any given weekend, I do not think it is appropriate, or even ethical, to probe the specific details of this hazing case; the perpetrators and those hazed are all victims of the events at this point, and I will not exploit their shame to satisfy curious readers like a checkout line tabloid. I do think hazing, cheating, sexual assault and alcohol abuse are all extremely important topics on this campus, however, and broader investigative articles are exactly what The Campus owes the student body, if I am fulfilling my responsibilities as a journalist. I could have done a better job of informing the student body in a timelier manner this time, but I hope that The Campus can make up for one of our weaknesses with some of our strengths: accurate, careful and creative reporting, and an open forum for constructive discussion. Look for a comprehensive examination of initiation rites across the College soon.

Investigative journalism has been a goal for as long as I have written for The Campus, but if I have learned anything from this situation, it is that The Campus could always stand to publish more investigative articles, and personally I will do more to emphasize that kind of coverage. I am also grateful our readers and staff writers know that we listen to (and print) their opinions — The Campus is an outlet for the voice of the student body and as much as we strive to be a reliable source of information as well, we can always improve. Feedback (positive and negative) challenges us to stick to good journalistic principles, and maintaining transparency and open dialogue about who the student press are and what we do can only benefit the student body — and I maintain that what benefits the whole student body is what makes a good student newspaper. If you disagree, great! Write a letter to the editor.