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

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

Thibodeaux, editor in chief of The Nicholls Worth, the bi-monthly student newspaper at Nicholls State University, and Falterman, the online editor, initially thought the news that one 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 they were shocked to learn that their writer, freshman Preston Stock, was facing serious charges.

According to university police, Stock created a fake Facebook account and used it to send threatening messages to students and faculty members – including those he interviewed as a reporter. Stock profiled two of the victims, and was working on a profile of a third that would have run in the following edition of the paper.

Stock allegedly began sending sexually harassing messages to his math professor. After the professor blocked the account, the newspaper reported, Stock created another account and wrote to the professor, “For every week 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, in addition 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 story that hit close to home, Thibodeaux said there was never any question about whether to cover it.

“We never debated on whether we should run the story, but how do we run the story. We knew it was something we had to cover,” Thibodeaux said.

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

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

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

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

The Nicholls Worth is far from the only student media outlet to face ethical dilemmas when the story turns to people inside the newsroom.

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 quickly the story would turn on him.

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

Burnett later told the Red & Black he had been 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 news editor and current editor in chief, said the incident happened so fast that decisions about the coverage had to be made on the fly.

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

The editor in chief position is just like any other campus leader, 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,’” Ensley said.

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

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

Full disclosure

Kevin Smith, ethics committee chairman at the Society of Professional Journalists, said transparency is the watchword for student journalists reporting on internal issues.

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

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

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

Morales also gave advice for other publications facing issues involving their newspapers.

“I think you need to detach whoever’s covering it as much as you can from the person that they’re covering,” Morales said. “You have to make sure that your feelings about that person don’t come into play. That has to be the same attitude if it’s someone in your office. You have to make sure that everything you would do for someone you don’t know, you would do for someone you 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 they were happy that we covered it the way that we did with a matter of full disclosure,” Morales said, “because clearly the whole situation is a bit of an embarrassment for the Red & Black, in the sense that someone who is leading your organization... their actions were not what they should have been. It wasn’t a best representation of the paper itself in front of a lot of the really powerful people on campus.”

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

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

Focus on the j-school

There are other forms of “self coverage” conflicts, as David Teeghman, a journalism student at the University of Missouri, recently discovered.

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

“I’ve always thought that blogs can be really useful in communicating information to really small niche audiences. I thought specifically that the journalism school was well-positioned for this sort of blog because we’re always so interested in what’s going on with the journalism school, any piece of news, no matter how insignificant, is shared around the journalism school on Facebook and Twitter. And it’s the source of many conversations 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 a really small event, it was just a vending machine being added to a computer lab here,” he said. “It was a vending machine filled with like pens and pencils and different things that journalism students would need. I tweeted out a picture of it on my personal account and it was retweeted four or five times and the photo got more than 100 views and people were talking to me about it, and I realized ‘Wow, people really have an interest in this sort of stuff.’”

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

“We’ve never tried to be objective,” Teeghman said. “I’ve just been very frustrated with how objectivity has been warped into the notion that 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 at the journalism school literally came to blows. An argument between a student and a professor turned into a physical altercation in the computer lab where Teeghman himself happened to be working.

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

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

The coverage was not without its critics. One online commenter 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 cover the story.

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

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

“It erodes the credibility of the media to the point that when someone’s watching you on television or reading your copy of the paper they have to start second guessing whether your interest is for the public information and the good of the citizenry or if it’s for your client or where your allegiance lies,” he said.

By Nathan Hardin, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011