Private Michigan college halts student publication following concerns about article on student’s death

MICHIGAN — Officials at Albion College halted publication of its student news organization, The Albion Pleiad, in response to complaints about a news article published last Friday.

Vice President for Student Affairs Sally Walker imposed the moratorium on Sunday, and it remains in effect pending the completion of a review, school spokeswoman Sarah Briggs said in an email.

Administrators’ concerns stem from a story published last week about a student death at another Michigan college. The story originally included a reference to unverified “rumors” surrounding the student’s actions the night of his disappearance, Editor-in-Chief Nick Diamond said. In the days since, administrators have expressed concern with a quote being taken out of context, he said.

Members of the Pleiad staff met with the private college’s Media Board this afternoon to review the outlet’s fact-checking process but weren’t given a clear answer on what to expect moving forward, Diamond said. The Pleiad typically publishes three times a week online, he said, and typically operates without editorial interference from the college. Walker’s decision to impose a moratorium was “unprecedented,” he said.

Diamond said both he and his news adviser saw the original article before publication. He asked for the reference to the rumor to be removed, and the adviser also suggested double-checking the reporter’s notes on a quotation about drinking, but because of a miscommunication, the instructions weren’t followed.

Typically, Diamond said, stories go through a fact-checking process in which reporters turn over notes and other records to a “fact-checking partner,” who will then call sources to verify information and refer any necessary changes back to the staff writer. Ultimately, the staff writer is responsible for making those changes.

The original story was published Jan. 31, and Diamond was notified that day that someone had complained to the college about the story. He moved quickly to rework the story on the website and added an editor’s note at the bottom of the story explaining the changes, he said.

On Sunday, he said, he received an email from Walker informing him that the story had been taken down by the school and that the university was suspending the Pleiad’s publication rights.

John Thompson II, the school’s associate vice president for marketing, emailed Diamond and Pleiad adviser Glenn Deutsch Friday with a list of questions to answer as part of the review. Thompson asked them to describe their plans for implementing “more effective instruction and training” and new procedures for processing complaints, among other things. He also asked Diamond and Deutsch to explain how they plan to “solve the negative impact of ‘rushing to publish’, e.g., the rush to quickly revise and re-post the original article.”

Walker could not be reached directly for comment, and staff in her office said she was deferring questions to the school’s spokeswoman. Briggs said the issues raised with the article “were related to the following of journalistic standards for content verification and were not related to editorial opinions.”

The Albion Pleiad is a student media organization funded by the student activity fee, and Albion College acts as its publisher, Briggs said. She declined to specify what policies would apply to the college’s decision to interfere in this situation.

A media board oversees the Pleiad, but Briggs said the board ultimately reports to Walker. The board includes an administrative staff member as chair, two voting faculty members, two voting administrative staff members, Briggs said. Representatives from student media organizations and their advisers also sit on the board in a non-voting capacity.

“Pending the review results, the Pleiad will not be publishing, but our goal is to resolve this matter as soon as possible and have them online again quickly,” Briggs wrote in an email.

Private schools aren’t obligated to uphold the First Amendment, unlike their public counterparts. At private schools, though, a college or university would be obligated to follow any contract outlining its relationship with a student publication.

The Pleiad posted a brief update on the moratorium on its Twitter and Facebook pages, eliciting concern from some alumni about a potential overreaction on the part of the administration.

One of those alumnae, Holly Huber, said it was wrong of the college to respond by stopping publication.

“Mistakes are made at big city newspapers, and the New York Times has made some real doozies,” Huber said. “In most cases, they’ve admitted their mistakes, explored them, and they have learned from them — and so has the public.”

Huber, who worked for the paper from 1983 to 1987 and served as editor-in-chief, said she never encountered this kind of administrative response as a student journalist.

Diamond contacted the Student Press Law Center earlier this week for guidance on the situation. He reached out to the president and other officials Thursday morning to express concerns about how the situation was handled, and the Pleiad followed up with an additional apology and explanation on the situation after the Media Board meeting Friday afternoon.

“We apologize for these errors and have now since put in place another step in our system to make sure something like this never happens again,” the statement reads. “We are taking additional steps to make our existing fact-checking policies as failsafe as humanly possible.”

At this point, Diamond said he is unsure what additional steps, if any, the Pleiad plans to take while the review is being completed.

By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.