A cautionary tale of a coverage firestorm

Reflections and recommendations from the adviser of the college newspaper that published what the Daily Beast described as ‘the most racist front page in America’

By Shawn W. Murphy
SUNY Plattsburgh


I took one look at the paper and my heart sank. I sighed. I knew this would understandably hurt feelings and upset readers. I did not predict, though, that it would yield a Daily Beast article titled “College Paper Prints The Most Racist Front Page in America.” Once this article was published online, the clickbait medium, along with social media, immediately drew attention to what had happened on our campus. Oct. 23, 2015, would have been like any other Friday morning during the academic year, in which I, as faculty adviser to the student-run newspaper Cardinal Points, read and mark up the hot-of-the-presses issue in preparation for my Monday night post-publication critique delivered to the entire staff, except on that morning there were a slew of emails in my inbox and messages on my phone.

sean-murphy
Shawn Murphy

I did not know about the firestorm that was to come. I did not know that there would be many more email and phone messages from regional and national reporters who wanted to interview me and the student-editors. I did not know about the hate emails that the students on staff and I would receive from people on and off campus. I did not know that administrators and faculty – including journalism professors in my own department – would come down so hard on the newspaper, its student staff, and me. I did not know that I would witness student-editors in utter anguish and tears about the backlash for what the felt was a one-time mistake in the production process, not a malicious act of racism. And I did not know how lonely and difficult it would be to defend students’ First Amendment rights and explain what my professional organization, College Media Association, considers to be a legally and ethically sound best practice for a newspaper adviser – the post-publication critique without mandatory prior review.

This article for College Media Review marks the first time I have spoken publicly about what happened. I did not speak with any of the local, regional and national reporters who asked to interview me for a quick sound-bite quote to drop into a story they had already written. And it was suggested to me that I channel interview requests to the college’s director of marketing and communications. Instead, I wanted to tell the whole story under my own terms and in my own words; after all, there was no one closer to it than me and the student-editors. I wanted to let enough time pass so that emotions could subside, then explain how it all went down. In doing so, I would explain how this situation came to be; examine what have been the ramifications for the college, the department, the newspaper, its student-editors, and me as the adviser; outline what structural measures Cardinal Points have taken in the aftermath to regain trust and credibility; and offer advice to my advising colleagues across North America.

This is a cautionary tale to other advisers at public colleges.

HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN

The broadsheet front page, above the fold, of that issue of Cardinal Points contained a student-penned, four-color cartoon showing a smiling black student, dressed in academic regalia and proudly holding up his diploma, while standing in the middle of a city street where we see a boarded-up building, a broken window, graffiti on the side of a building, a bent stop sign, and an abandoned car up on blocks. The cartoon was intended to illustrate the news story under it with the headline “Minority admission rates examined,” which was accompanied by an editorial in the opinions sections headlined “Give everyone a chance,” which praised the college’s admission staff for its success in recruiting more minority students from New York City to our rural northeastern New York campus and spoke about the widespread benefits of having a more diverse student body. But it was the cartoon with its offensive stereotypes people saw, not the words. This was aided by clickbait and social media where only a photograph of the cartoon was shared worldwide.

It was the proverbial perfect storm that created that imperfect front page. The newspaper’s editors report that while planning out that issue the week before, there was a lack of understanding of and communication between them and the student artist about how to best illustrate a story about minority student admission rates. Some reporters had missed their deadlines, which compressed the production time for editors who were laying out and copy editing pages. The large-format printer, which was used to print out pages for copy-edits, died after years of dependable service, forcing editors to have to edit on screen where it can be more difficult to catch mistakes. On tight deadline, the news editor quickly glanced at the computer screen to see if there was a cartoon in the designated box on the front page, indicating the artist had submitted the cartoon – but that cursory glance at the screen did not include thinking about what was actually in that box, just that something was physically there. The managing editor, who is black, later said she did not have the social context to critically evaluate the cartoon because she had grown up in a predominately white Scandinavian country, where her family had emigrated as refugees from a North African country. And the editor in chief, whose eyes are typically the last on the paper, had car troubles and midterm exams that prevented her from actually seeing the final pages.

THE AFTERMATH

Following publication, SUNY Plattsburgh college administrators stated they were concerned about what this might do with recruitment and retention efforts of students, particularly minority ones, during a time of overall declining enrollment and tight budgets at SUNY campuses. They wanted to tighten control over content in Cardinal Points, so they put increasing pressure on the dean, department chair, faculty, the student-editors and me as the newspaper’s faculty adviser. Over the course of a few weeks, top administrators seeking to “manage and control” the student-run newspaper so that “this could never happen again” met repeatedly with the dean and department chair, the dean met with student-editors and me, and department faculty met with student-editors and me – all the while applying pressure on the students and me to agree to a system of mandatory prior review.

I have done my job the same way for 23 years at three college newspapers in three states, with 19 of those years here. This includes making myself available at any point in the production process to discuss with editors their concerns about the implications of any content that may be covered or published as it pertains to the law, ethics, taste or sensitivity. And it has included my comprehensive post-publication critique, complete with feedback from accuracy reports that are emailed to each source in each story for each issue. I give this verbal critique for each issue to the entire staff.

Ironically, for many years at the National College Media Convention I have filled rooms with fellow advisers and student newspaper editors wanting to hear my advice about how best to critique a student-run newspaper, and I once authored a cover story for College Media Review about critiques, but now on my campus and in my department my expertise at being a newspaper adviser was being scrutinized – at one point a colleague directly stated that I was being negligent of duty by not doing a mandatory prior review of the entire paper each week.

It should be noted that Cardinal Points is an autonomous newspaper with editorial independence. It is an incorporated 501(c)3 under the name Plattsburgh State Media Inc., a status that came about after a 1997 incident in which the Student Association, the campus’ student-run governmental body, attempted to censor a news story about a dorm fire caused by a student who fell asleep in his bed with a lit cigarette in his hand; when editors refused, the SA froze the budget of Cardinal Points, which at that time was a student club. Before then and since, any student, regardless of academic discipline, has been able to earn academic credit for working on staff. Those credits are issued through a catalog listing of JOU 402 under the name Newspaper Practicum. For me,  this advisership counts equivalent to a course in my schedule every semester. Herein lies the wrinkle. While the newspaper and practicum actually run on separate parallel planes, the college administration sees them as perpendicular planes where the students answer to me as the adviser. However, as I’ve told the students on the newspaper staff for many years, “I work for you, you don’t work for me.”

But, in fall 2015 I was suddenly told that I must do pre-publication, or prior, review. It didn’t seem to matter that over the years the newspapers I advised had been judged an All-American 20 times, a finalist for the Pacemaker twice, best college newspaper in the state three times, and the student-journalists had won dozens of awards in state and national competition – most of these while I’ve advised Cardinal Points in the way that I have. The college was in damage control and worried about the financial implications of this cartoon publication.

In the midst of the racial protests that erupted at SUNY Plattsburgh after the cartoon publication, the college president, frustrated by the logistics of clamping down on Cardinal Points at a public college, stated at a Faculty Senate meeting: “We also have the First Amendment. But then, we have the Second Amendment, too, and you don’t go giving guns to toddlers. And we shouldn’t be giving a newspaper to people who don’t know how to run one” – indicating that the newspaper was his to “give” and alluding to its editors being like children.

On Nov. 3, department faculty met without me and passed a resolution, which was given to me the next day. It read: “The Cardinal Points faculty adviser shall preview all issues of Cardinal Points prior to publication to advise students about content that may be ethically or legally inappropriate. In the pre-publication review, the adviser shall neither censor nor control newspaper content but shall advise, guide and instruct students on content.”

In an effort to educate my colleagues about what is the national standard for advising a student-run newspaper, I told them that the College Media Association doesn’t endorse any advising model that includes mandatory, comprehensive, line-edit prior review. And I said it is not a pedagogical approach to advising that I endorse when the publication becomes my work rather than that of the students. Furthermore, I shared with them excerpts from “The Adviser’s Personal Code” in the CMA’s “Code of Ethical Behavior.” The document states:

  • “There should never be an instance where an adviser maximizes quality by minimizing learning. Student media should always consist of student work.”
  • “Faculty, staff and other non-students who assume advisory roles with student media must remain aware of their obligation to defend and teach without censoring, editing, directing or producing. It should not be the media adviser’s role to modify student writing or broadcasts, for it robs student journalists of educational opportunity and could severely damage their rights to free expression.”
  • “Advisers should be keenly aware of the potential for conflict of interest between their teaching/advising duties and their roles as university staff members and private citizens. It is vital that they avoid not only actual but apparent conflicts of interest. The publicity interests of the university and the news goals of the student media are often incompatible.”

However, the ethics of advising didn’t seem to matter to my department colleagues, so I tried the legal approach. From the SPLC website I shared the following clear-cut legal statement: “No student media, whether official or non‐college‐sponsored, will be subjected to mandatory review by college administrators, faculty or employees prior to publication or withheld from distribution.” It was to no avail.

Seeking to confirm what I had told my colleagues was illegal at public colleges in New York, I reached out to the Student Press Law Center about whether prior review – as mandated in this resolution – was illegal. I got my confirmation on Nov. 5. Wrote Adam Goldstein, a former journalist and now an attorney at the SPLC: “Is it legal in New York for a public college to prior review a college publication? There’s an easy answer: no.” Goldstein noted that the faculty resolution itself was also illegal. “Even instituting a vote as to whether to prior review is itself unconstitutional, even if the prior review wasn’t unconstitutional (which it is, here).” I shared this with my colleagues.

During the next week a faculty colleague contacted Goldstein, who responded, in part: “It’s not that the adviser is prohibited from seeing the content, it’s that no state official or employee can require that editors share the content. In most colleges, editors routinely show work to their advisers before it’s published to get feedback, then lay it out and send it to be published. In fact, if the editors voluntarily went and showed the adviser the content as it’s laid out, the adviser could look at it on their behalf with no First Amendment problem. What creates the legal issue is the state-imposed requirement that someone review the content prior to publication.”

With this resolution shot down, it was back to the drawing board for my colleagues. On Nov. 10, they passed another resolution after I had left the meeting for a pre-announced childcare obligation. It was handed to me the next afternoon, Nov. 11.  It began by stating that the practicum students “request that the following become a permanent part of the course procedure and a vital aspect of the course learning experience, beginning Nov. 11.” It continued with a numbered list mandating what the adviser must do; in doing so, the adviser is also referred to as “the teacher” of the practicum, drawing a comparison to a traditional course rather than an experiential learning opportunity such as a practicum or internship. It said that I must be physically present in the newsroom “on Wednesdays from at least 7-9 p.m. to teach, guide and advise students when they are preparing the newspaper for publication,” on top of my weekly critique time of Mondays 7-9:45 p.m. – much to the concern of our faculty union, which I later consulted. The resolution continued, “The faculty adviser should view the entire content of the newspaper prior to publication to advise students about content that may be ethically and legally inappropriate.”

When I asked a colleague how this came about, he said that he and other faculty spoke with Cardinal Points editors. He claimed editors asked for this. I said I found that hard to believe and voiced my concerns at the time, making it clear that I did not support any formalized prior review of all content for each issue. Later, the paper’s top editors told me they did not write the resolution, despite the appearance that they did by the way it was written. They said faculty walked into the newsroom suddenly, and unannounced, where they showed the few editors present this already-written document and asked them to read and sign it on the spot. The editors said they expressed concerns about the document and how it was written. They said they felt that the faculty members were acting with a high level of urgency and that they felt as if they were being pressured to sign right away. They said they definitely did not want the whole paper reviewed. These editors signed nothing and said they would first have to discuss this with the full Editorial Board and with me.

After my weekly post-publication critique the night of Nov. 16, I left and the staff discussed this resolution and the broader issue of someone, other than them, reviewing all content prior to publication. This meeting included the entire staff, not just a handful of random editors or even the full Editorial Board. This included the junior staff who were the paper’s future; the following week elections were to be held for positions of editors who were stepping down after public outcry for them to do so. The staff decided not to sign the resolution or subject the newspaper to mandatory comprehensive review of content prior to publication.

On Nov. 17, I spoke with Goldstein at the SPLC. Regarding how this deceptive resolution came about, he said: “The goal is still illegitimate. … It’s part of an attempt to restrain rights, which makes it illegal.” In short, he said it went against the spirit and letter of the law – which is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

From my view, I was concerned that faculty, under pressure by administrators to clamp down on content, discovered a way to fudge the illegality of state-mandated prior review. To me, this resolution seemed to be coercing the students into a prior review arrangement, especially knowing that faculty had a hand in this. Students, who did not know all the facts or considerations, approached by powerful, influential and respected faculty members pushing for prior review would undoubtedly feel intimidated and wish only to please them, especially if they had classes with these professors.

A faculty colleague told me that the next step would likely be for the department to rename JOU 402, Newspaper Practicum, so that the word “practicum” was not used. He said that whatever it was called, it would be clear that it is a class with a teacher, not a practicum with an adviser – thus putting the pressure to review content prior to publication on this person. To date, though, this has not happened. However, there was an attempt by faculty colleagues to rewrite my JOU 402, Newspaper Practicum, syllabus and the course outline, which is the college’s master recipe, if you will, for that “course.” They wrote these documents to include measures of mandatory prior review, brought them up for vote at a faculty meeting, and passed them – despite my objections. Later, the faculty union told me that they had no right to write my practicum syllabus and that they had a dubious motivation for rewriting the course outline. The union representatives said that I was clearly wronged, yet their focus is more on academic procedural issues and the labor implications – not the issues that are most important to me and the students who run Cardinal Points, which are the First Amendment, College Media Association’s code, and what’s considered the national standard and best practice for college newspaper advisers.

I contacted Goldstein at the SPLC to see what he had to say about this. When I emailed him the syllabus and course outline, he replied on Dec. 8, in part: “There are two elements to unconstitutional censorship: (1) an action motivated by a desire to control, punish, or influence content; (2) some detriment, however slight, to future publication of lawful content. (Note that the detriment need not be outright censorship – simply burdening the publication with hoops to jump through would still be detrimental.) The proposed changes to the course outline meet both parts of that test and would give rise to a cause of action against the institution.

“Here’s the wrinkle: nowhere in this test does it limit WHAT action is taken. So it does not matter whether the institution attempts to directly impose prior review, or impose it through a contract with editors, or alter the definition of the course to include an element of prior review, or any other action we could imagine from now until the end of the universe: if the motivation is improper and the effect is in any way detrimental, the action is unconstitutional.

“Apart from being unconstitutional, the consistent efforts to find ways to handcuff the students is probably the wrong way to approach them. I don’t get the sense that these editors are hostile to the concerns of the institution. But if the editors get the sense they aren’t being treated with respect – or that their rights are being infringed – they could quickly become hostile. (If a student called me and requested a referral attorney because their rights were being infringed, I don’t really have the discretion to turn them away if they’re right; my job would be to find them a volunteer.)

“I have to point out that any action (the college) took that could in any way effectuate that result would be flatly unconstitutional. … a court is unlikely to be especially sympathetic to the marketing needs of the State weighed against the civil rights of the public.”

This, to me, seemed very clear-cut, so I shared it with my faculty colleagues who had voted in favor of rewriting the syllabus and course outline. One colleague said in a meeting about Goldstein’s legal advice, “It’s a red herring; everything from him is a red herring.” I pointed out to this colleague some key passages Goldstein had written about the illegality of what they had proposed and passed, particularly the phrase “unconstitutional censorship,” and he snapped, “Well, the president and dean say this is a pedagogical issue, not a legal one, and I agree.” He said that I can get whatever response I want from how I phrase my queries to Goldstein. I suggested that we have a conference call with Goldstein that includes the journalism faculty, the dean and the president so that they can ask questions however they wished, and he simply said, “That’s not necessary.”

I then shared with Goldstein what had been said at that meeting, to which he responded on Dec. 10: “I rolled my eyes at the pedagogical issue comment. Saying that this is a pedagogical issue and not a legal one is delusional, because everything is a legal issue. It’s like saying that arson isn’t a legal issue, it’s a chemistry issue.

“At this point the list of options is a little narrower. The students could raise a legal challenge, certainly. And there’s no reason not to pursue all of the union options. If the administration is this determined to have a hostile relationship with the editors, though, I’d be worried if I were them that the editors are likely to take this as an invitation to do a colonoscopy on the e-mail communication between these state actors, via FOIA, to cement the unconstitutional intent (as if it wasn’t dripping from every line of every meeting so far).”

I shared with the dean these concerns about the course outline and made it clear I would not do prior review. At press time for this College Media Review article, I have not seen the course outline come up for vote with the Courses and Programs Committee.

MOVING FORWARD

Following the cartoon publication, Cardinal Points, whose reputation and credibility were severely damaged, immediately tried to right its wrong. First, they ran an online apology on the newspaper’s website, via social media, and through a campus-wide email. Second, they apologized in person before a packed forum organized by AKEBA, the SUNY Plattsburgh Black Student Union. It then lobbied to continue to publish, despite cries to suspend publication from some students and a high-ranking college administrator. Meanwhile, editors and I participated in many private and public meetings with various concerned and/or furious constituents. Cardinal Points then published a front-page apology that repudiated the cartoon and explained how it happened and what staff were doing to help prevent a similar incident. The entire eight-page news and op-ed section were devoted to this topic.

In Cardinal Points’ published “Plan of Action,” it declared that it would fully cooperate with an independent examination led by an ad-hoc committee assembled by the college president; devote the remaining fall issues to an examination of the paper’s error and its wider implications; examine the best way to run the paper, starting immediately; and use the paper moving forward as an instrument of restorative justice, focused on issues of race, gender and other concerns pertinent to the student body.

Since then, Cardinal Points has delivered on its promise. In doing so, it has taken a leadership role on campus. Aside from stepping up its diversity and inclusion coverage, which includes working with the Multicultural Alliance to get story ideas, the Editorial Board has created for its editors a “red flag list” of potentially controversial topics about which they should seek advice from their adviser prior to publication; created a procedural document that goes beyond the position descriptions that already existed so that there is now a chronological checklist to use during the entire production process that aligns with the editors’ responsibilities; and updated the newspaper’s Guidebook to include the red flag list and procedural checklist. In addition, in my capacity of overseeing the practicum, I created an apprenticeship program and a speakers’ series.

The for-credit, graded, semester-long apprenticeship is for students who are not journalism majors or who have not taken a news writing course, yet wish to get involved with the newspaper as a staff member. An apprentice attends the Monday night general staff meetings, receives educational training into the basics of reporting and news writing, shadows a veteran reporter, is assigned some stories by editors, and gets feedback during my post-publication critiques. The stories they write – one news story, one column and one feature story – are encouraged to about a diversity issue centered around under-represented students on our campus. To help promote this, I emailed the president of each diverse SA-sponsored student club on campus. To date, though, this has not yielded one apprentice.

The speakers’ series, titled “Worthy of Our Attention,” is a collaborative effort between Cardinal Points and the college’s Institute for Ethics in Public Life. The briefings, done by former ethics institute fellows, are for the benefit of the newspaper’s staff. The focus is on social, political, scientific and other concerns affecting their lives locally, nationally and globally. The purpose of the briefings is to heighten sensitivity among members of the Cardinal Points staff to the pressing issues of the day, including human and civil rights, politics and the presidential election, climate change, and the world economy, among many others. The briefings are open to members of other campus media or to any student considering joining the newspaper, yet so far only newspaper staffers have chosen to attend.

LESSONS LEARNED

It is important for my fellow advisers to know that being an adviser can sometimes mean that you must butt heads with those who believe you should be doing your job in a different way to ensure a perfect publication. Journalism can get messy. After all, it is a human enterprise – and at our colleges, it is a student enterprise. Unlike mistakes made in the confines of a classroom, where these mistakes are confined by four walls, mistakes made in student-run newspapers are visible to all. Colleges are a place to learn, make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. This is the educational process and it is how student journalists learn and gain experience before they begin their professional careers. There is no panacea here, yet I can offer some advice for my fellow advisers:

  • Open up – and vigorously and continuously promote – the channels of communication between the staff and you, the adviser. Be readily approachable and accessible for prior-to-publication conversations about content. Make it very clear about the adviser’s ongoing role as a resource for consultation in the event that planned coverage or content raises questions about whether it’s legal, ethical, in good taste and in sound sensitivity.
  • Educate your constituents about how the newspaper functions and what role the adviser plays, and does not, in that production process. These constituents include administrators, the student body, and even fellow faculty – who may have little understanding about the ethical and legal considerations for student newspaper advisers, and could be part of a department that include other humanities.
  • Before an event occurs, educate your newspaper staff about the ethical and legal implications of what they publish and the responsibility that comes with it. And be sure they know their legal rights.
  • Encourage the Editorial Board to create a comprehensive Guidebook that serves as a reference manual for the newspaper’s staff, who should receive a copy at the beginning of a semester. The Guidebook should include ethical considerations and legal rights.
  • Encourage the Editorial Board to create a checklist document that makes newsroom workflow clearer and more transparent. The workflow chart should state that section editors need to closely review and edit their sections and then sign off on it, and then the managing editor and the editor in chief need to closely review and edit all sections and then sign off on them. This document should ideally be included in the Guidebook.
  • Encourage the Editorial Board to create an internally generated working list of potential content (stories, photos, graphics, advertisements) about which it would be wise for the editors to consult with their adviser regarding planned coverage or content that raises questions about whether its legal, ethical, in good taste and in sound sensitivity. This document should ideally be included in the Guidebook.
  • Make it clear to reporters, photographers, artists and editors that their actions can have consequences once the newspaper is published, so they need to take their position very seriously. With rights come responsibilities.

sean-murphy_mugShawn W. Murphy (shawn.murphy@plattsburgh.edu) is a professor of journalism at SUNY Plattsburgh. He also serves as faculty adviser to Cardinal Points, the award-winning weekly student newspaper. Murphy also has taught and advised at Midland Lutheran College (Nebraska) and Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Prior to pursuing a career in academia, Murphy worked as a reporter, editor and photographer for several community newspapers and a magazine throughout New England and in Florida. Murphy earned a master’s degree in print journalism from Northeastern University in Boston and a bachelor’s degree in English/Writing from Plymouth State College in New Hampshire.

 

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