Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

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On objectivity: a commitment to coverage in context

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

 

In journalism, we are tasked with maintaining objectivity — with communicating truth, with presenting the facts, with providing the necessary information for readers to decide themselves what the right answer is to a situation. At the Phoenix, we recognize that the notion of objectivity is loaded, so our commitment to objectivity is a specific one that seeks to preserve journalistic integrity and accurately report on the Swarthmore community.

There is no such thing as true, complete objectivity. Every person has their own set of biases that arise from vastly different experiences and positionalities. No matter who covers a story or how many times we read over and edit a piece, the story will always be written by a person who chooses the story’s angle, collects the quotes, and decides what information should be included.

These biases are impossible to completely eliminate. But while absolute objectivity might be unattainable, journalistic objectivity is not. By holding strong to methodologies and procedures that prioritize specificity and context, we at the Phoenix do our best to convey information to readers in a way that is both accurate and responsible.

We do this through our policies and practices. For example, writers cannot cover news regarding the students groups of which they are members. This policy makes it so the coverage of events does not serve the purpose of promoting a student group, but rather discussing the group’s role on campus and the community’s reaction to that role.  

We report the facts, so we will not legitimize factually incorrect statements. In collecting quotes and viewpoints, we make an effort to accurately represent the breadth of opinion on issues on campus, in terms of both personal views and positionality within the institution. In an article about any given action, we seek comment from representatives of the college, from students involved in an action, and students not involved in said action. This is to better situate our coverage within the framework of the college.  

As part of this necessary situation, we recognize the imbalances that are present in power structures on campus — especially regarding students’ interactions with the administration. We consider the accurate understanding of these power imbalances to be crucial for maintaining journalistic objectivity.

The notion of ‘dialogue,’ a much-used term on this campus, cannot be used as a tool to present power imbalances as discussions between equal sides. It cannot be used to create false equivalencies. Especially as students fight for more support and agency within the institution, we at the Phoenix recognize it would be irresponsible journalism to not cover these stories by prioritizing the student-activists’ perspectives, which are not lifted up through official channels of communication.

Some current movements calling for more support from the institution include Students for Justice in Palestine’s petition for a Sabra hummus ban, Swarthmore Sunrise’s call for divestment from fossil fuels and removal of the Board of Managers’ social justice ban, and Organizing for Survivors’ list of demands to improve Title IX policies on campus. In these situations, responsible and objective journalism is reporting these movements in the context of the unbalanced power dynamics between administration and students. Our view of objectivity in this context is to emphasize how these social issues are important to the student body, and must be addressed by the campus community.

As our semester reaches an end, we at the Phoenix look forward to continuing to work to provide students with responsible, fair news. We will also remain committed to building relationships and understanding the context of the institution as a whole, because these are some of the most fundamental principles for reporting the truth.

 

On our op-ed section

in Columns/Opinions/Staff Editorials by

A dialogue has opened up on campus and around the nation about the role of journalism. As the nation becomes more and more polarized, so too do news organizations and publications. Publications are easily labeled “conservative” or “liberal,” and their readers often exclusively fit into those categories.

As a publication, the ideas of free speech and the first amendment are always on our minds. As student journalists, we recognize the responsibility we have to the campus to report accurate stories, represent the community, and be a space for people to express their opinions.

The Student Press Law Center offers guides and tips for student publications across the country. The SPLC lays out four key goals to which every student journalist should adhere. We quote the goals below, and these and later quotes can be found on the SPLC’s website.

  1. Produce media based upon professional standards of accuracy, objectivity and fairness;
    2. Review material to improve sentence structure, grammar, spelling and punctuation;
    3. Reasonably check and verify all facts and the accuracy [of] quotations; and
    4. In the case of editorials or letters to the editor concerning controversial issues, determine the need for rebuttal comments and opinions and provide space or airtime, if appropriate.

Although some of these guidelines may seem straightforward, they can be difficult to implement, especially on a campus such as ours where much of the community is attentive to its constituents’ positionality, and capturing each sentiment is nearly impossible. We at the Phoenix aim to make our paper, including our opinion section, a place that presents factual, well-articulated stories and arguments that represent our community as accurately as possible.  

We aim to make our opinions section a place where people can come to voice their opinions and participate in civil and productive intellectual debate, even those writers with controversial thoughts from across different social strata. As we discuss more below, we are also aware of our responsibility not to cause the community harm. To ensure that every article we publish is productive,  we review and update our letter to the editor and op-ed policies every semester, printed in the lower right hand corner of this page, to reflect these goals. We review each opinions piece we receive and edit it for clarity, style, length, and factual accuracy. We aim to give voice to community members’ well-reasoned arguments while making sure nothing we publish is damaging to our living and learning environment.

We at the Phoenix know that our opinions section sometimes has too narrow a field of viewpoints and is often perceived as representative of the Editorial Board’s opinions. This disparity is mostly due to the lack of submissions we receive to the opinions section. First, editorials stand for the opinions of the board members, but board members cannot, by Phoenix policy, write for the opinions section themselves. Further, we do not actively refuse most pieces; instead, we publish, following editing and reviewing pieces, what we receive because we do not receive many outside arguments. Yes, this problem is in part due to the limits of our social reach to garner opinions, but by no means do we cherry-pick our pieces. We can only publish what we receive.

That being said, there are some obvious things that we decline to publish. We support the need to prevent any hate speech and language that dismisses the marginalization of groups or disparages attempts to break social barriers.  The SPLC carefully lays out some guidelines with regards to omissions. The items below are quoted from the organization.

  1. Material that is obscene, as defined by state law and this policy.
    2. Libelous material, as defined by state law.
    3. Material that unlawfully invades a person’s right to privacy, as defined by state law.
    4. Material that will cause “a material and substantial disruption” of college activities.

Separating ourselves from one of SPLC’s guidelines, disruption is not always a bad thing. We want articles that incite constructive discussion and protest. We will bar, however, any hate speech from our pages. We will never be perfect at this dismissal, but we hope to diminish its presence as much as possible.

The Phoenix has a long history on this campus. We have published some really great pieces and some not so great pieces over our 136 years on this campus. We aim to improve upon the Phoenix’s legacy. We recognize that even now, we are not perfect and have many ways to improve. We’d love to hear from you about those ways. We are open to suggestions from the public and actively solicit constructive criticism through our weekly Thursday evening editorial meetings from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. and events similar to the forum reported in “Phoenix forum yields feedback,” an editorial in the Sept. 15, 2016 issue.

To reiterate, the op-eds that the Phoenix publishes do not represent the opinions of the editorial board. We want our op-ed section to be a space where students can speak articulately. However, we understand and are committed to our responsibility to turn down articles that are purposefully inflammatory, unproductive, or silence marginalized peoples. We will also not tolerate the distortion of facts.

Our publication’s goal is to represent the student body and to hold the college administration accountable. We do take pride in our work. We work day in and day out to produce a publication that this campus can be proud of, too. Help us realize our goal by reading and contributing to the Phoenix.

 

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