Introspective: Student journalists respond when the news hits close to home

For Katelyn Thibodeaux and Ashley Falterman, April 7 beganas a slow news day. It ended with word that one their own had been accused ofsomething neither could believe.

Thibodeaux, editor in chief of The NichollsWorth, the bi-monthly student newspaper at Nicholls StateUniversity, and Falterman, the online editor, initially thought the news thatone of their staff writers had been suspended was a misunderstanding.

“Then we got a copy of the police reports,” Thibodeaux said.“He was trying to hide everything.”

Over the next few days, Thibodeaux and Falterman said theywere shocked to learn that their writer, freshman Preston Stock, was facingserious charges.

According to university police, Stock created a fakeFacebook account and used it to send threatening messages to students andfaculty members – including those he interviewed as a reporter. Stock profiledtwo of the victims, and was working on a profile of a third that would have runin the following edition of the paper.

Stock allegedly began sending sexually harassing messages tohis math professor. After the professor blocked the account, the newspaperreported, Stock created another account and wrote to the professor, “For everyweek and a half you do not contact me, one of your Facebook friends will die,starting with your perfect little students. Let the games begin.”

According to police, Stock admitted to sending the messages.He was charged with multiple misdemeanor counts of criminal cyberstalking, inaddition to the university’s disciplinary process.

Nicholls Worth editors had a decision to make:How – and whether – to break the news to their readers. Though it was a storythat hit close to home, Thibodeaux said there was never any question aboutwhether to cover it.

“We never debated on whether we should run the story, buthow do we run the story. We knew it was something we had to cover,” Thibodeauxsaid.

But Stock quickly became angry when contacted by his formeremployer, editors said.

“We called him and told him it was just like any otherstory,” Thibodeaux said. “We told him we had to do a story on it.”

Thibodeaux said hiding Stock’s involvement with the NichollsWorth would have made the paper look worse than if they reported it.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said. “You can’t alwayshide everything. There comes a time where it might hurt your image but you haveto face the facts.”

The Nicholls Worth is far from the only studentmedia outlet to face ethical dilemmas when the story turns to people inside thenewsroom.

When Daniel Burnett, former editor in chief of the Red& Black, was asked to watch the University of Georgia Bulldogs’Nov. 27 home football game from the president’s box, he had no idea how quicklythe story would turn on him.

Burnett would resign from the top editor position just twodays later, following an alcohol-related incident in which he was escorted fromthe Sanford Stadium box.

Burnett later told the Red & Black he hadbeen drinking before the game and spoke to university president Michael Adams,Georgia governor-elect Nathan Deal and Gov. Sonny Perdue inside the box.

Mimi Ensley, former Red & Black newseditor and current editor in chief, said the incident happened so fast thatdecisions about the coverage had to be made on the fly.

“It wasn’t that formal just because it was happening soquickly, but those [coverage] conversations were had,” Ensley said.

The editor in chief position is just like any other campusleader, Ensley said, and that’s the message she conveyed to her staff.

“We just had to think in that case—we kept asking ourselves,‘if this was the president of [student government] that had done something,would we write the story,’ and the answer was always ‘yes we would,’” Ensleysaid.

Ensley has no regrets about the way the Red& Black covered the episode, and said the publication continuesto maintain a commitment to “full transparency.” She said the transition wastough on members of the organization, but they insisted on fair reporting.

“It was definitely a difficult time for people on staff, butwe had to act as a source of news on the issue because it was campus news andwe’re a campus paper,” Ensley said. “We just had to put aside our personalfeelings about the situation and do the reporting as best we could.”

Full disclosure

Kevin Smith, ethics committee chairman at the Society ofProfessional Journalists, said transparency is the watchword for studentjournalists reporting on internal issues.

“The first thing I would recommend to them is the same thingI would recommend to any professional organization and that is making sure youprovide full disclosure, and I think that’s really important whenever you’redealing with subject matter that is that close to home,” Smith said. “One ofthe things you have an obligation that you owe to your readership or yourviewers is to make sure you’re up front and honest about every aspect of that.”

Ed Morales, adviser to the Red & Black, said thenewspaper also took steps to lessen the inherent conflict of interest thatcomes with a publication reporting on itself.

“The reporter that we chose to write it really didn’t haveany connection with the person in charge,” Morales said. “He was the editor inchief, obviously, but the reporter that we had covering the editor in chiefdidn’t really deal with them as much and therefore there was no sense ofpersonal involvement there and I think you need that as much as you can.”

Morales also gave advice for other publications facingissues involving their newspapers.

“I think you need to detach whoever’s covering it as much asyou can from the person that they’re covering,” Morales said. “You have to makesure that your feelings about that person don’t come into play. That has to bethe same attitude if it’s someone in your office. You have to make sure thateverything you would do for someone you don’t know, you would do for someoneyou do know.”

He said despite the embarrassment brought on by Burnett’s actions,he did receive praise for the newspaper’s coverage.

“I heard from some other people at other papers that theywere happy that we covered it the way that we did with a matter of fulldisclosure,” Morales said, “because clearly the whole situation is a bit of anembarrassment for the Red & Black, in thesense that someone who is leading your organization… their actions were notwhat they should have been. It wasn’t a best representation of the paper itselfin front of a lot of the really powerful people on campus.”

Morales said the incident provided an opportunity for youngstaff members to learn about the position they hold at the newspaper, and thecoverage that can be expected if they act improperly.

“A lot of people were like ‘Hey, good for you for coveringthis person in that way and not holding back and trying to hide the truth ortrying to shield for that,’” Morales said. “The Red & Black isvery good about making sure the people that work here know that they are goingto be—if they do something wrong or improper—that they’re going to be coveredwith the same zeal that we cover other things and maybe even more so being assuch we have to have full transparency.”

Focus on the j-school

There are other forms of “self coverage” conflicts, as DavidTeeghman, a journalism student at the University of Missouri, recentlydiscovered.

Teeghman recently launched the blog “J-School Buzz,” whichserves as a source of news and discussion about Missouri’s journalism school.

“I’ve always thought that blogs can be really useful incommunicating information to really small niche audiences. I thoughtspecifically that the journalism school was well-positioned for this sort ofblog because we’re always so interested in what’s going on with the journalismschool, any piece of news, no matter how insignificant, is shared around thejournalism school on Facebook and Twitter. And it’s the source of manyconversations and there was no one way to unify all of those conversations,there was no one place to start those conversations,” Teeghman said.

For Teeghman, it started with a vending machine.

“When I realized there was really a need for this was areally small event, it was just a vending machine being added to a computer labhere,” he said. “It was a vending machine filled with like pens and pencils anddifferent things that journalism students would need. I tweeted out a pictureof it on my personal account and it was retweeted four or five times and thephoto got more than 100 views and people were talking to me about it, and Irealized ‘Wow, people really have an interest in this sort of stuff.’”

When it comes to ethical principles for a group ofjournalism students covering their own journalism school, J-School Buzz haspushed aside a strict adherence to objectivity.

“We’ve never tried to be objective,” Teeghman said. “I’vejust been very frustrated with how objectivity has been warped into the notionthat two opinions are—as long as they’re on opposite sides—are treated equally.I feel like that’s what objectivity has become.”

Teeghman’s ethics faced their biggest test when things atthe journalism school literally came to blows. An argument between a studentand a professor turned into a physical altercation in the computer lab where Teeghmanhimself happened to be working.

Teeghman tried to intervene and found himself in a headlock– according to surveillance camera footage of the incident later posted onJ-School Buzz.

“It came under a lot of scrutiny because I was the onereporting it because I was involved,” he said. “I just did that because I coulddo it quicker because the other editors weren’t there and also, in a mediasaturated town like ours, I had something interesting to add to the story.”

The coverage was not without its critics. One onlinecommenter called Teeghman’s posts a “monologue of emotionally charged crap.”Another said the incident was being used as “vehicle for ardent narcissism.”Others praised the editors for being transparent about why they chose to coverthe story.

The unique environment of a college campus means youngjournalists often have to take into account special ethical concerns. And whiledecisions on exactly how to cover your own newsroom may vary, the consensusseems to be, above all, not to ignore stories because they hit close to home.

When publications exhibit bias in choosing which informationgets published, it hurts the credibility of the news organization, Smith said.

“It erodes the credibility of the media to the point thatwhen someone’s watching you on television or reading your copy of the paperthey have to start second guessing whether your interest is for the publicinformation and the good of the citizenry or if it’s for your client or whereyour allegiance lies,” he said.

By Nathan Hardin, SPLC staff writer