For brand promotion, look elsewhere

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

SARAH FAGAN

A college newspaper is not a public relations office.

That, at least, is the point freelance writer Adam Willis makes in his Atlantic article, “Bureaucrats Put the Squeeze on College Newspapers.” We agree. When one of our editors sent Willis’ article around to Campus staff in August, we took the opportunity to reflect on our own responsibilities and experiences as student journalists at  Middlebury. 

To us, reporting is truth-telling. In each article that appears in our pages, we aim, above all else, to be honest and informative. While a PR office is concerned with promoting a flattering, marketable narrative, the Campus seeks to highlight a diverse range of Middlebury experiences, no matter how messy. To that end, we see ourselves as College Street’s own “watch-dogs.” We strive to embody the kind of newspaper envisioned by the Chicago Evening Post’s Mr. Dooley, who quipped that the “job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Still, as we write, college newspapers like the Campus confront growing, even existential threats. In his piece, Willis explains how student publications find themselves “imperiled by the same economic forces that have hollowed out local newspapers from coast to coast.” The Campus is fortunate to receive SGA funding to power its operations. This also means the Campus is dependent on the resources of the  college, which at times makes reporting on administrative decisions a complicated experience.

While we realize that this financial dependency is an unavoidable reality of journalism at a small college, we remain firmly committed to holding all members of the college accountable. Like the reporters in Willis’ piece, Campus reporters and editors have previously felt pressure from the administration to help promote a glossy image  of the college. Several months after the 2017 Charles Murray incident, two editors were called into an administrator’s office and asked to refrain from publishing negative coverage. In the weeks following, we published an editorial affirming our commitment to the truth. Many editors who helped craft that piece have since graduated, but those who remain on the board still see that sequence of events as seminal in our journalistic education. 

Reporting on Murray was a wake-up call for most: Facing an administration that was dealing with its own agenda not only drove the Campus to raise its own journalistic standards, but to also reaffirm its commitment to objective truth-telling. We needed to let Old Chapel know that on no occasion would we sacrifice accurate reporting in the name of optics or ostensible campus-wide unity. 

We are interested in revisiting those primary motivations, not in re-hashing the Murray episode. As we head into a new year, we simply ask administrators to consider how pressures like these complicate the already difficult role of a student journalist at Middlebury. In such a small and delicately interconnected community, balancing our desire to create a safe and cohesive community with our journalistic obligation to tell the truth is challenging enough. The people who populate our articles live in the next dorm over, teach our classes and work to prepare our food in the dining halls.

Regardless, we are firmly committed to what we see as the Campus’ chief mission: ensuring information is accurate and accessible for the Middlebury community at large.

Of course, we understand Old Chapel’s aversion to stories that paint the college in a bad light, and the desire across the school’s institutions — the Mahaney Arts Center, the Department of Athletics — to cast a positive sheen on their goings-on. Yet branding remains their job, not ours.

The 2019-2020 Campus editorial staff is not interested in antagonism for antagonism’s sake. Above all else, we believe that engaging in informed discussions about division and the college’s shortcomings is not simply the best, but the only way to achieve long-lasting and relevant change on campus. While difficult, the kinds of conversations that stem  from scrupulous truth-telling are usually the worthwhile ones — and we at the Campus are committed to having them.

Willis ends his piece poignantly. “The erosion of the student press threatens the integrity of the university in America,” he writes, “and the quality of its future.” 

We sincerely hope that the administration, student body and other community stakeholders share in this sentiment.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.