Interview by Rei Wolfsohn, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In our Behind the Story series, SPLC highlights examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists.
This week, SPLC spoke with juniors Ellie Lin and Shannon Worley from The Maneater. Worley, former MOVE Arts and Culture editor, and Lin, former multimedia editor, spoke about their experiences writing “Current Experiences of Racism in Panhellenic Association.”
Their story was the final part of a three-part series exploring racism in Greek life on campus and highlighted the voices of two students, Carleigh Boyd and Ruth Chi, and their experiences.
Check out past Q&As here.
RW: How did you initially come across this story?
SW: One of my roommates brought to my attention that the reveal of our panhellenic counselors were basically all white-appearing women. So I decided to look into that. That really opened the door for a lot more. The story kept building and building.
PHA [Panhellenic Association] shut all the houses down and told them not to communicate with us. They were trying to put up a lot of walls to make it hard for us to get sources and to tell stories. Girls who did interviews would come forward and were getting in trouble and were asking to revoke the quotes or remain anonymous.
EL: We’re dealing with this as a larger problem at the university right now, where PHA is kind of like a miniature version of our Public Information Office. So, they were trying to have all communications go through their public information officer who ended up just stonewalling you. No communication, would not return phone calls, would not return emails. It’s, like, ridiculously bureaucratic and so many different offices.
The PHA information officer would direct everything to Fraternity and Sorority Life, which is run through the university. And they would then, in turn, direct it to the university’s public information officer who, I’m sure you can imagine, did not have any of the specifics that we wanted to know. He was not the person that we wanted to talk to.
All things ended at this public information officer, so that was another really big challenge in verifying the information. We couldn’t really get any confirmation on anything from PHA because they didn’t talk to us, because they sent everything to this employee of the university who didn’t know, say, what the demographic breakdown of Panhellenic counselors was because he’s a public information officer for the university and not for the PHA.
RW: What other challenges did you face while working on this story?
EL: More than a few, I think. I was primarily involved in the video production. Shannon brought me on for the third part because [she] had two sources who wanted to go on the record, wanted to be videoed about their experiences. But right around that time, that’s when the story was kind of spreading through [PHA’s] ranks and through the ranks of their elected officials. There was some talk of “we may get sent a cease and desist. There may be some issues with what we’re allowed to say and how we’re allowed to say it.” We went through the most intense verification process that I’ve ever had to do for a story.
RW: Did you have pushback from the university?
SW: We didn’t really ask for a university statement or anything because PHA says that they are separate from the university. It was very interesting that they were continuing to send us to the university news bureau because they kept saying they were separate.
As far as working with the news bureau goes, they were very unprofessional, belittling, and were not respecting us as student journalists. Kind of just assuming that we didn’t know what we were doing and trying to tell us that we had to give them all of our sources and quotes that we had.
EL: The Maneater in general has a lot of interactions with the public information officer of the university that have been less than positive. It’s never a positive experience. But for this story, it was especially frustrating because they didn’t have the information that we wanted.
SW: We kept having to push back our publish date because of this.
EL: Shannon was called unprofessional, was called a bad reporter, because [she] wasn’t willing to give up the specifics of a source’s story.
RW: Were there any pieces of work that popped up that you didn’t expect?
SW: The entire third story we didn’t expect. We expected to just go in and do one article about recruitment and how identity plays a role in recruitment and changes the recruitment experience for different individuals. And then we met Ruth and Carleigh.
EL: We sat down and we had like a two and a half hour-long interview. On a Wednesday night.
SW: We’ll never forget it. We just walked away being like, “wow, this is something we want to give the appropriate attention to. We want to make sure this story is heard.”
RW: What is something you learned while you were working on this story?
SW: My biggest takeaway is stay true to your values. Along the way, we had a lot of people going against us. We had a lot of people tell us, “You need to think about the other girls in your sorority. Are you gonna hurt their feelings?” Like the other white girls who have the privilege to have a normal sorority experience. As a white girl, I was like, I’m not really worried about hurting their feelings. These are true, these stories need to be heard.
I actually was on the executive board of my sorority and was asked to step down from my position after the publishing of the first article. I was the vice president of External Affairs and one of the things I oversaw was our PR. I was asked to step down because they said it was a conflict of interest.
But originally the plan we had in place was that any potential questions relating to our article would just be fielded to the president or the advisor. Normally all questions would go through the advisor anyway, so it would just skip over me. So we took out that conflict of interest. And I made them aware of it months in advance of publishing. They waited until the first one was published and they said I either had to take it down or step down from my position. So I chose to step down from my position. But I didn’t really have a choice, you can’t take an article down.
EL: My neck was a little bit less on the line. I learned a lot of practical skills about how to present information, how to present it in context. We had a lot of hard talks about what we can safely talk about in regards to our sources, given that a lot of what they told us could be highly personal and damaging. A lot of my role was figuring out how to present our sources’ information in our video because their safety had previously been on the line while leaving their sorority. And also do it in a way that stays true to the people who gave it to us.
RW: What advice would you give to other student journalists who are looking to report on an important story like yours?
SW: Don’t give up. If people are trying to shut you down, then it probably needs to be published.
EL: If people start pushing back, it means you’re on the right track.
RW: Why is it important to tell stories about systemic racism?
EL: For so many reasons. Beyond the fact that this is something the University of Missouri, PHA has a very long very storied past of racism. Recruitment wasn’t open to Black women and women of color until 1978. Silence from journalists is historic and it’s important that we rectify that issue. It’s important to report on systemic racism so that members of these systems can ask informed questions and potentially start dismantling the systems that have enabled racism in the past and presently.
SW: And in a system that just continues to push down and silence these voices of people of color, we just wanted to make them be heard. We just wanted to give a space for them to share their stories and make other people aware. Carleigh and Ruth have been trying to voice their stories on social media and have been turning to their headquarters and have been turning to literally anyone that could help them and just haven’t received help. Resources that are supposedly there in this system aren’t really doing their job fully.
RW: Do you have anything else to add about your story or about student journalism in general?
EL: I think that student journalism is the future of journalism. It’s not just training wheels. It’s not just like a practice. It’s not just a fun campus activity. I learned more at this news outlet than I have in journalism school because you’re allowed to go out and just report on stories and really practice those skills. And also do it in a way that you’re learning every second. I learned so much from reporting on this issue, and working with Carleigh and Ruth.
The only other thing that I want to add is that Carleigh and Ruth, their bravery and hard work, should be valued as such. They had gone into the sorority. They tried to fix it within the system at first, then they went to PHA. Only when their voices were so undervalued did they turn to us.
I think if there’s any hero of this, if there’s any person to be getting accolades, it should be the two of them. They were enormously brave. They faced threats not only to their reputation but also to their physical safety. I think they should be properly acknowledged.
SW: They have continued to stick to their values too. It was so inspiring to learn from them and to hear their experiences and how gracious they still were through all of it. Despite everything they were going through, they still wanted things to be better. They weren’t just wanting to walk away from it. They were wanting to fight to improve it for other people, which was incredibly selfless.
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