Evaluating decisions

Two schools look into ethics training after papers publish controversial material

Student editors and administrators clashed over the decision to publish “controversial” material at two colleges last spring, raising a debate over whether or not school officials can enforce their definitions of ethical guidelines on campus newspapers. 

Some college officials argue that student journalists need more faculty guidance to ensure that offensive material is not published in the campus newspaper. But student media experts say administrators should not force their judgments upon students.  

Clifford Rowe, a communications professor and adviser at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., has served on the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists for 30 years. He said that ethical guidelines are important for student journalists to follow. But the decision to publish something that some might find unethical must be left up to the student editors, not to the administrators, he said.  

When a student editor at Santa Rosa Junior College in California decided to publish a commentary piece many college faculty and staff members called anti-Semitic, she incurred more than criticism and a call for ethical standards.

In reaction to the commentary titled “Is Anti-Semitism Ever The Result Of Jewish Behavior?” Oak Leaf Editor Kristinae Toomians was mailed four death threats. A poster of a swastika with the words “Nazi supporter” was left on her car. 

For safety reasons, student journalists were prohibited from working in the newsroom without faculty supervision, and Toomians was offered a police escort.

College President Robert Agrella criticized the Oak Leaf’s decision to run the opinion piece, saying that “they ought to know something about professional ethics.” The newspaper has the right to publish whatever it wants, he said, but some articles are not worth printing, even if they are not defamatory or libelous. 

The commentary written by student Kevin McGuire accused the United States of providing foreign aid to Israel for what the writer called “the Zionist Jews’…genocidal war against the Arab world.”

Religious groups and Jewish faculty members also condemned the commentary. The Hate Free Task Force, a college group that promotes ethnic understanding, called on the Oak Leaf to apologize and promise not to run any more “hateful” material. 

Some faculty also requested that Toomians and the newspaper adviser, adjunct faculty professor Rich Mellott, resign from their posts and that prior review of the newspaper’s editorial content be implemented. 

As a result of the commentary, the academic senate, which oversees college curriculum, issued a resolution for the communications department to review its curriculum to determine how the faculty teaches ethics.

Senate President Greg Granderson said the communications department should be more involved in the day-to- day operation of the newspaper. 

“I don’t think that for one second that 19-year-olds know everything about the field of journalism,” he said. 

Toomians said she stands behind her decision to run the piece.

“I think it is important to cover a wide range of opinions,” she said. “The reason why I published the thing in the first place is I thought it would promote a serious discussion.”

She said the newspaper staff decided there was no reason to apologize for the commentary because it appeared in the op-ed section of the paper under the heading, “opposing views.” The piece was rebutted by a staff writer in the next issue. 

“As an individual, I was sorry for the hurt this article might have caused, but I wasn’t sorry for printing it because it was protected speech,” she said. 

Adviser Rich Mellott said the textbooks already include codes of ethics, but one thing the students need to do is start interpreting those codes for how they apply to certain stories.

Rowe, the Pacific Lutheran professor, said the commentary at Santa Rosa was controversial. But, he argued, that does not make it unethical. 

“Sure it is offensive to some people,” he said. “But you have to be embarrassed or offended sometimes in order to accommodate freedom of speech.”

Rowe said an article is not necessarily unethical when it is embarrassing, invasive or sensational. He said most ethical dilemmas can be answered by asking the question “What is the journalistic purpose?” 

Officials at Spokane Falls Community College, in Washington decided to revise the handbook for The Communicator after the students published two identical thumbnail photographs of a couple having sex. One of the possible revisions could be a requirement for students to consult the adviser prior to publication of “controversial” material. 

The inch-size photographs, which editors doctored with black bars to cover genitalia and breasts, bookended the headline of a section titled “Reader Stimulation” published in the May 16 edition. 

College officials considered firing Editor in Chief Dennis Machart and the editorial page editor, Nathan Brand, because they did not first consult with their adviser before publishing the pictures. 

James Minkler, dean of instruction for humanities and social sciences, said the students violated the job descriptions in the current newspaper handbook, which state that the editor must “stress maturity” and the editorial page editor is required to consult the adviser before publishing anything “controversial.” 

However, there is no mention in the handbook about sanctions, Minkler said, so college officials determined they could not fire the student editors. 

As a result of the conflict, Mark Stimpfle, who teaches the journalism class that produces the paper, said he will revise the handbook with the students. 

The new handbook, which should be finished by the start of the fall semester, could allow Stimpfle to lower grades or even fire student journalists if they publish “controversial material” without consulting him. It also could require the student editors to follow the college’s code of values. 

 “These are students,” Stimpfle said. “It is not a professional newspaper. When they are not sure about something, they need to consult with me. They need the adviser’s input. That is what I am here for.”

Jenny Tenpenny Crouch, president of College Media Advisers, said that a newspaper handbook that requires prior review by the adviser is unconstitutional. 

“I don’t think you can require [college] students to consult with anyone about anything,” she said. “It is not in the framework of a free press for students. They can suggest that [the students] consult but to mandate is wrong.”

Crouch said she also has a problem with the school requiring that students seek advice about “controversial material” when it is difficult to define the term.

On Stimpfle’s advice, Brand and Machart wrote apologies for publishing the photograph.

“The apology felt like I was going against what I believed in,” Brand said. “I am relieved that I wasn’t punished, and I don’t think that I did anything wrong because the handbook didn’t prohibit it.”

Rowe said administrators often cannot define if something is “unethical” because there are so many gray areas. 

“When you talk about ethics you are dealing with controversial material and non-controversial material,” he said. “I don’t know an administrator that would be on solid ground to say you can only run ethical material.”

Rowe said it is up to the adviser and professors to discuss ethical dilemmas with student journalists before they arise. Students need to have a foundation of ethics, he said. 

“They need to have the freedom to make mistakes because that is how they learn,” he said.

Fall 2003, Oak Leaf, reports, Santa Rosa Junior College, Spokane Falls Community College, the Communicator