As COVID-19 outbreaks pop up on college campuses across the country and as colleges grapple with the task of enforcing strict social distancing measures, the job of covering those outbreaks and colleges’ punitive measures has oftentimes fallen on student newspapers. Since the Fall semester began two weeks ago, The Phoenix has covered multiple stories regarding the health and safety of students as well as the actions the college has taken in its enforcement of the Garnet Pledge. In the era of COVID-19, we at The Phoenix take our role especially seriously given the severity of the virus and the conditions it has created. In an effort to be transparent about our reporting, we hope to share the methodology we use when covering stories about such topics as Garnet Pledge violations and health and safety protocols.
In many of our recent stories, we have utilized anonymous sources to protect the identities of either those directly or indirectly involved. Anonymous sources are people who have either direct or indirect knowledge pertaining to a story. We recognize that using anonymous sources instead of on-the-record sources (or people who are identified in the published article) may cause readers to question the veracity of our reporting. In recognition of such concerns, we confirm information that we publish by corroborating with either two indirect sources or one direct (primary) source. Our decision to withhold the identities of our sources is intended to ensure that students are not targeted or ostracized for such things as testing positive for COVID-19 or going to a party on-campus.
Furthermore, recent concerns have been raised about our inclusion of certain facts in our Garnet Pledge violations stories. Specifically, concern was raised about our decision to include the detail, in both articles, that the majority of students in violation of the pledge were affiliated with varsity sports teams. We chose to include that detail because varsity intercollegiate athletes make up around 20% of our student body. Historically, sports teams have had almost exclusive access to party spaces such as the (now banned) fraternities, Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi, and we believe that it is useful to use that historical background to inform our and our readers’ understanding of the recent spate of parties held on-campus. We chose not to disclose which sports teams were involved in either of the most recent incidents due to privacy concerns.
When reporting, we realize that we are a sliver of a larger, diverse campus community and that our choices in coverage can be influenced by our own personal perspectives and experiences. We at The Phoenix are not individuals free of personal biases. In recognizing this fact, we also hope to illuminate an often misunderstood concept in journalism that guides our approach to reporting and mitigates the likelihood of those biases affecting our new coverage: objectivity. Objectivity should not merely be understood as neutrality in tone but as neutrality in method. As Walter Lippmann said of objective methodology in journalism,“there is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.” Lippmann believed that journalists should apply a scientific method to reporting (though he recognized that news was oftentimes messier than science). In other words, journalists should use uniform, objective methods to report on the facts. By adhering to certain rules that require a minimum of three sources for each of our news stories, our goal is to establish a discipline of verification — talking to those involved in the story, those affected by it, and those who have a stake in it.
It is important to note that we, as individuals, are not objective. We create methods to hold ourselves accountable, but our biases still may be present in the stories we pick — in how we tell them, in the facts we deem relevant and necessary, and in the photographs we choose as headers. We recognize that a fundamental principle of journalism, that one group of people is able to gather facts and then tell a singular truth about what has happened, is flawed, and we are working to hold ourselves accountable. There is no perfect method to do so, but in publishing this editorial, we hope to clarify what steps we take to ensure we are sharing the facts with the campus community. It is our prerogative, as student reporters, to deliver factual information to the campus community. It is not a duty we take lightly and we hope to be fully transparent about our methodology when covering stories in this troubled and confusing time. Our ability to report on our campus community is reliant on our ability to maintain a relationship with that same community. Trust is a cornerstone of that relationship and we hope to build that trust by keeping lines of communication open between us and our readers. We encourage our readers to reach out to us by leaving anonymous feedback or tips, emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or even submitting an op-ed (op-ed is often conflated with opinion but it technically means opposite the editorial page) to us. Trust is built through our ability to do our duty to report the facts and we will continue to do so, global pandemic or not.