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The Art of the Scoop: Reflections on Student Journalism

in Campus Journal by

Given that I am at a time in my life when almost any moment could be productively spent chipping away at a tall stack of obligatory and enlightening readings, and more often than not I am sitting in a library while a staggering number of nationally- and internationally-acclaimed publications wait at my fingertips, a mere keystroke away, I was surprised to find myself spending hours reading articles with headlines like “The Great Meal Swipe Debate of 2017” from the student newspapers of colleges I do not attend.

Before the beginning of this year, I admit I was not a particularly regular reader of “The Phoenix”. I took note when the opinions section would get heated, and I was fortunate to have arrived at Swarthmore in the last year in which it was still possible to wander into a dorm room lounge and hear a stranger reading aloud, with mingled admiration and amusement, the latest intricate, verging-on-the-incomprehensible, Flaubert-and-George-Lucas-reference-riddled arts section review by Erik Myers ’15. However, I found it difficult to cultivate an interest in staying abreast of campus news when the news outside Swarthmore seemed so much bigger and more pressing.

Yet after recently signing on as a Campus Journal writer, I developed an appreciation for the work at “The Phoenix” that is carried out each week and for the craft of student journalism in general, from making connections in order to stay informed on administrative politics, to engagingly framing events that may have audience attendance in the single digits, to the basic gumption of approaching strangers for their opinions and finding the exact questions that will draw them out.

I became interested in how other publications tackled these issues and started reading around, focusing mostly on the newspapers of other small liberal arts colleges. I wanted to see how they managed to keep small-pond news feeling fresh and got strangely sucked in. Each paper had a distinct editorial voice and its own set of well-worn inside jokes, conveying a sense of the cozy insularity and sometimes comically self-perpetuating culture that gives ea small school its particular stereotype.

(By way of example, one need look no farther than the opening of our own Erik Myers’  2014 review of a performance by the Yellow Stockings theater group to get the flavor of a paradigmatic Swarthmorean: “If you look deeply enough into the rabbit hole, the stained glass windows, the use-value of Essie Mae’s, the dubious exchange-value of its meal credits, across the picturesque courtyard at the weary door of the Intercultural Center, up at the exaggerated Gothicity of its bell-tower, and finally down into the bright fluorescent-lit basement, at the Kitsch, the condoms and the candy that go for sale next to monolithic stacks of often unbearably dense and inapplicable textbooks, Swarthmore’s Clothier Hall and Shakespeare resemble something like a Church and its Pope, or a couple-centuries-old theology, a religious institution in any event suddenly reinvigorated by the always threatening, dramatic, sometimes even godless gestures of its students. Heidegger says that places teach us more about phenomena than people do.”)

However, the consistent coverage across publications of racial discrimination, sexual assault, and insufficient mental health resources, both through investigative reporting and thoughtful op-eds, reveal the ways in which campuses are as fractured as they are insular. Not all campus news is small, even if it’s playing out on a small stage.

Interested to learn more about the daily workings of student papers and the experience of those who run them, I contacted Kenyon’s “The Kenyon Collegian” and “The Student Life”, the joint newspaper of the Claremont Colleges (a five-college consortium consisting of Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer). The editors-in-chief of both publications responded nearly within the hour, testifying to the well-oiled professionalism of their respective journalistic machines, and agreed to speak over the phone.

“The Collegian” caught my eye with its clean format and extensive arts coverage, unsurprising given Kenyon’s reputation for creative writing. When I first encountered the paper, the front page was sporting an interview with Colm Tóibín, author of the “New York Times” bestseller “Brooklyn”. Gabrielle Healy, the editor-in-chief, said that this piece was part of a popular feature called “On the Record” in which the paper interviews speakers who come to campus, which can be more engaging than just publishing a review of the talk.

Though Healy stressed that Kenyon is a small community and Gambier, Ohio a small and isolated town (a village, in fact, with a population of 2,390), she said that the newspaper is rarely short for content, largely because of the staff’s involvement across varying aspects of campus life. One news editor is the president of a sorority and reports on Greek life, another is a member of the cross-country team, and another is – shockingly – a math major.

“Most of us are humanities majors,” Healy admits, “so he’s able to touch an area we don’t always get to.”

Healy uses her connections with professors as an important way to source stories – after signing up for a dance class for the first time, the paper’s coverage of dance events increased because she asked the professor to let her know about anything notable coming up. The editors also have a standing weekly meeting with the president of the college, which allows them to stay abreast of administrative politics, and Healy said that the paper is established enough that sources will often reach out to them when they hear something newsworthy.

“The Collegian” embraces its circumscribed range by keeping its editorial content intentionally focused on Kenyon.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between the news and opinion sections,” said Healy, meaning that each week the staff will publish editorials on the paper’s most newsworthy items. The paper also publishes op-eds on national news but ensures that they always have relevance to local topics.

“It’s unique to Kenyon that we try to keep editorial content localized,” Healy continued.

This immersion in the local is a function of Healy’s belief that because the community is so small, the importance of “The Collegian” as a resource is particularly great.

“Our job is to inform and engage the Kenyon community, to represent its diversity, to tell stories that aren’t being told. At least in Gambier, we’re the only paper in town,” she said. “I think doing the news is a public service, I really believe that.”

She is particularly proud of publishing stories that might not have otherwise come to the campus’s attention, such as a story that they broke after a receiving a tip-off that a Kenyon alum had been named an executive at the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. It was summer and they were not publishing a print edition, but were able to get the word out online and generate attention in the alumni community.

Liam Brooks, the editor-in-chief of “The Student Life”, also believes that a primary function of his publication is its ability to provide a platform for conversations about topics that might otherwise fade from attention, often with measurable results. In the fall of 2015, a dean at Claremont McKenna suggested in an email that students of color “didn’t fit the mold” of the college, sparking large-scale protests and two hunger strikes, and resulting in the dean’s resignation. Brooks says that while events transpired so quickly that the paper wasn’t able to publish many op-eds on the subject, their news coverage made it possible for all the campuses in the consortium to be aware of what was happening at Claremont. They also leaked an internal report by administrators at Harvey Mudd about the overwhelming workload, which caused protests that ultimately led to changes in curriculum.

“We were able to give context to things that otherwise might have been dismissed,” said Brooks. “That’s probably the most powerful thing we can do, to say hey, this thing is worthy of conversation.”

“The Student Life” is the oldest student newspaper in Southern California, and is considered a fairly traditional publication among the generally far-left-leaning students of the Claremont colleges. By Brooks’ account, while it is generally respected, it is sometimes critiqued for being “bigger and older and slower” and producing “less radically progressive reporting” than other, less official publications. However, it still has a more alternative feeling than “The Collegian”, publishing headlines like “The Exploitative Politics of Thrifting,” and “Flavorful New Vape Trend Lights up 5Cs,” and it hosts one of the longest consistently-running sex columns of any newspaper in California.

Brooks says that while the paper is “pretty open to radical opinions” and is willing to publish conservative opinions “when we can find them,” generally the most controversy generated by the paper takes place not within the campuses but across right-wing media outlets, which occasionally will republish “Student Life” content as an example of excessive left-wing sensitivity. When I spoke to Brooks, this had happened several days before with an op-ed they had published about access to the outdoors being a form of white privilege.  

Though Brooks says that the paper has no political bent and always presents facts impartially, he believes that student journalism performs a political service.

“I personally have tried to push the way we’ve covered news to be a bit more adversarial than in the past,” he said. “I definitely see the role of the student paper as being inherently political in that we have to actively seek out truths and things that are not being told by administrators.”

He noted that because private colleges are inherently promotional, it is important that student papers serve as a form of independent review.

“A lot of the media that college students consume about their campuses is going to be produced by those campuses,” said Brooks.  “Magazines that get sent home to parents, posters about how great the school is – everything in your eyeline at campus has a vested interest in saying: these campuses are the best places ever, come here. That’s not to say I don’t really like these schools, but it’s pretty rare actually to get a different voice and a different narrative out there.”

Both Healy and Brooks spoke about their time working for student publications as having completely transformed their college experience, and Brooks said that he is constantly aware of his role as editor and is always on the lookout for news.

“I think about the paper every day. I’m always wondering if breaking news is going to happen right now. Whenever my phone buzzes I think, hey, is it something important?”

Perhaps it is this outlook that stuck with me most from these conversations: that to effectively participate in student journalism is to live in a state of deep engagement with all aspects of campus life – to attend events, to form relationships, to pay attention to policy changes, even if they seem mundane. It is a form of active listening and active questioning, a type of civic engagement that is vital to a community and, as these editors can attest, personally enjoyable, inside or outside the newsroom.

 

Updates to Quoting Policy

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Coming off of election years, national news publications, such as the New York Times, cite issues with campaign offices having tight lips and hesitant hands. The offices revise, redact, and reform quotes to fit a narrative. Journalists have trouble developing stories because of this policy called quote revision, which enables the places and people they report on to manage what they say officially. Stories and reporting tactics are hampered because the honest quotes — the less-than-polished, off-the-cuff words of people — are refined by bureaucracy and management.

Now, the problems for college journalists are not of the same sensitivity or degree as those of national news organizations; they are, however, persistent and ubiquitous on our campuses. At Swarthmore, as a small college community, not only does everyone know each other, but everyone knows what others say. This fact can often cause friction for college papers. Sources understandably want to ensure their images are not marred in the publication of a controversial piece or in the leak of sensitive information. However, these intentions conflict with journalism’s goals of telling honest, well-rounded, and meaningful stories.

Previously, the Phoenix has maintained a de-facto quoting policy through which sources could retract quotes that were once on the record. This policy was meant to serve the campus community. In recent years, however, the policy has had the unintended consequence of limiting writers’ ability to cover stories earnestly and the Phoenix’s ability to report campus events accurately.

As a result, the Phoenix has decided to change its quoting policy, so the campus benefits from better reporting while it maintains access to quotes. The new policy states that sources who had previously provided quotes on the record are expected to be treated as on the record. Retracted quotes will be considered in only extreme cases. Less frank quotes reduce stories’ ability to convey the truth. In the event of an extenuating circumstance, a source may withhold their quotes pending a meeting with Phoenix staff. This is actually not a new policy at the Phoenix; rather, it is the reiteration of our current policy. Certain editors have ventured away from this policy in the name of transparency and dialogue, but these decisions have caused more problems than solutions, and thus we feel compelled to reiterate our original policy. Furthermore, although we will not allow sources to retract or revise their quotes, sources may request for their quotes to be sent to them before publication.

It is also important to clarify the distinctions between information that is considerd “on the record” and “off”. On the record information is information that can be quoted or used toward a piece’s final published form and is attributed to the source. This information is usually obtained over in-person interviews, phone calls, and email correspondence. Off the record information cannot be reported in the final published piece. However, off the record information can be used to motivate further research and find new sources who can provide the same or different information on the record. Once a Phoenix reporter identifies themselves as a reporter to a potential source, all correspondence thereafter is assumed to be on the record unless otherwise specified. Also, a source may be referred to as an anonymous source, pending a meeting with Phoenix staff.

For reference, this change comes after many other established institutions have made similar policy changes or comments. The New York Times, in addition to other college publications like the Harvard Crimson, holds similar quoting policies in order to avoid these skewed and sterile quotes.

The Phoenix recognizes that we are not the New York Times, and the situations both papers find themselves in are very different. Our change is not because of a concern with “getting the scoop” or catching people in a bad light. Although we do want to hold the college and community accountable, this reasoning is not the root of this policy change. Instead, quote revision prevents dialogue and the exchange of ideas from taking place. Therefore, restating and reaffirming our practices and policies as they were intended to be followed ensures that we are a place of discourse where ideas are offered up for discussion and comparison.

Updates to Quoting Policy

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Coming off of election years, national news publications, such as the New York Times, cite issues with campaign offices having tight lips and hesitant hands. The offices, barring campaign spokespeople, revise, redact, and reform quotes to fit a narrative, a voice, and a message. Journalists have trouble developing stories because of this policy called quote revision, which enables the places and people they report on to manage what they say officially. Stories and reporting tactics are hampered because the honest quotes — the less-than-polished, off-the-cuff words of people — are refined by bureaucracy and management.

Now, the problems for college journalists are not of the same sensitivity or degree as those of national news organizations; they are, however, persistent and ubiquitous on our campuses. At Swarthmore, as a small college community, not only does everyone know each other, but everyone knows what others say. This fact can often cause friction for college papers. Sources understandably want to ensure their images are not marred in the publication of a controversial piece or in the leak of sensitive information. However, these intentions conflict with journalism’s goals of telling honest, well-rounded, and meaningful stories.

Previously, the Phoenix has maintained a quoting policy through which sources could retract quotes that were once on the record. This policy was meant to serve the campus community and help constituents maintain their reputations. In recent years, however, the policy has had unintended consequences of limiting writers’ ability to cover stories earnestly and the Phoenix’s ability to report campus events accurately.

As a result, the Phoenix has decided to change its quoting policy, so the campus benefits from better reporting while it maintains access to quotes. The new policy states that sources who had previously provided quotes on the record cannot retract quotes. Less frank quotes reduce stories’ ability to convey the truth. To offset worry, in the event of an extenuating circumstance, a source may withhold their quotes pending a meeting with Phoenix staff. Furthermore, although we will not allow sources to retract or revise their quotes, sources may request for their quotes to be sent to them before publication.

It is also important to clarify the distinctions between information that is on the record and off. On the record information is information that can be quoted or used toward a piece’s final published form and is attributed to the source. This information is usually obtained over in-person interviews, phone calls, and email correspondence. Off the record information cannot be reported in the final published piece. However, off the record information can be used to motivate further research and find new sources who can provide the same or different information on the record. Once a Phoenix reporter identifies themselves as a reporter to a potential source, all correspondence thereafter is assumed to be on the record unless otherwise specified. Also, a source may be referred to as an anonymous source, pending a meeting with Phoenix staff.

For reference, this change comes after many other established institutions have made similar policy changes or comments. The New York Times, in addition to other college publications like the Harvard Crimson, holds similar quoting policies in order to avoid these skewed and sterile quotes.

The Phoenix recognizes that we are not the New York Times, and the situations both papers find themselves in are very different. Our change is not because of a concern with “getting the scoop” or catching people in a bad light. Although we do want to hold the college and community accountable, this reasoning is not the root of this policy change. Instead, quote revision prevents dialogue and the exchange of ideas from taking place. This change ensures that we are a place of discourse where ideas are offered up for discussion and comparison.

Journalistic integrity involves us all

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Freedom of the press is threatened each and every day at a local, national, and international level. Within the United States, we enjoy constitutional protection of our most basic freedoms of speech and press; the same can be said here at Swarthmore for the most part. However, with the rise of President-elect Trump, the national and international press are entering into new territory. They no longer have an ally like President Obama within the White House, who protects free and independent journalism. Instead, the press is being antagonized by President-elect Trump, who is accusing media outlets of applying bias and liberal skew to their portrayal of every issue. Undoubtedly, certain networks are politically biased and slanted. However, the press serves an absolutely critical role as the fourth estate, an institution that has an unparalleled ability to monitor and report upon governmental affairs. It then falls upon us as citizens to ensure that we are consuming media that is transparent and reputable, spreading truth rather than misinformation. This becomes essential amidst reports of fabricated news stories and false claims, especially when these fallacious statements are being spread by someone as powerful as the President-elect himself.

The Phoenix strives to uphold a high standard of transparency and journalistic integrity as we conduct our affairs on campus. However, we have run into some obstacles in the past. We hope to work with faculty, staff, students, and the community to overcome these hurdles. We write this editorial in hopes that we can move forward and achieve progress together.

Most recently, when tasked with covering a story involving the Student Government Organization, the Phoenix became aware of the circumstance that members of SGO must present their statements to the Co-Presidents of SGO before releasing them to campus publications. The Phoenix was, unsurprisingly, unable to find students willing to go on the record to discuss the reason why this policy was enacted. However, we denounce such practices as inherently opposed to the free flow of independent information between members of SGO and campus journalists. Providing objective and unbiased coverage of the ongoings of campus institutions is near impossible when we are unable to gather untampered quotes and information from all relevant stakeholders and sources; the news we are able to present can only unbiased and impartial when our sources, be they students, faculty, or administration, cooperate fully and are willing to be quoted on the record and not regulated by the voices of others. We encourage SGO to work to create a more transparent and open dialogue with campus publications to ensure continued accountability as they pursue various policy agendas.

Furthermore, criticisms of coverage of on-campus events by student journalists can often be proactively resolved if the campus community engages openly and honestly with those student journalists.The journalistic process is severely impeded when no students of a particular constituency are willing to comment on a given issue. The Phoenix strives to include as many perspectives as possible, but the Phoenix also recognizes that the nature of journalism makes this task particularly difficult in certain instances. As per our policies, the Phoenix staff also recognizes that the newspaper’s audience is a small campus community; therefore, reporters and editors continue to strive for a balance between reporting events accurately and respecting the privacy of community members. However, the Phoenix asks the college community to continually engage with student journalists and work with them in the pursuit of comprehensive news coverage.

The Phoenix staff has also noticed an increase in the number of requests for anonymous quotes and anonymously published op-eds this semester. Anonymous sources undermine the integrity of campus journalism and detract from our stated mission to keep institutions accountable. The senior editors may choose to publish submissions without the writer’s name in exceptional circumstances only. In no case will the Phoenix publish the name of anyone submitting a letter or op-ed with a request for anonymous publication. Letters may be signed by a maximum of five individuals. Op-eds may be signed by a maximum of two individuals. The Phoenix will not accept pieces exclusively attributed to groups, although individual writers may request that their group affiliation be included.

Furthermore, when the Phoenix is forced to publish stories with the disclaimer that certain sources were unable to be successfully contacted, we inevitably and reluctantly provide an unobjective and limited view of an issue; this is not the type of journalism we wish to pursue or engage in, and we rely on the members of the college community to aid us in this pursuit.

Despite the challenges the press may face on a national or international level, the media continues to be one of the most valuable institutions to hold governments, institutions, and individuals responsible for their actions and words. We want to maintain and improve our standards of journalistic integrity, and seek the support of each and every one of you in this endeavor.

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