Editor’s Corner

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In with the old in the new year

If you’ve been following the CMA listserv since the first of the year, you’re familiar with the case of the East Carolina University newspaper adviser who was fired after controversy over the publication of a full-frontal photo of a streaker at a Pirates home football game. And, by now, you’ve probably heard about the blunder by a community news blog managed by Penn State students whose premature reporting of the death of coaching icon Joe Paterno was picked up by national media.

These two incidents are vastly dissimilar on some levels – the ECU publication has (or had) a professional adviser, while the Onward State news staff apparently does not. Most advisers who have responded on the CMA listserv believe Paul Isom’s firing at ECU was unethical — that he was held responsible for the publication of content that he had no legal authority to squash. ECU has stated it backs the editorial independence of the newspaper. If that is indeed the case, the timing of ECU’s decision couldn’t have been worse in terms of the credibility of their position.

At Penn State, student journalists proceeded with the publication of Paterno’s death after two staff members reported to editors that an athletics administrator had sent out an email message to student athletes notifying them the long-time head football coach had died. One staffer was victim to a hoax email and the other’s account was, in hindsight, at best weak on substantiation.

But in all the hurly-burly surrounding Paterno’s dismissal from the university in the wake of the Sandusky sex scandal, his subsequent announcement that he was being treated for lung cancer, and the reports that he had been hospitalized in serious condition, were the student editors at Onward State so caught up in the events that some professional advice might have clarified their thought processes? Would they have benefited from advice from a disinterested party to make the additional phone call to get as close to the primary source as possible? I think so.

We don’t know the extent to which Isom and the East Carolinian staff discussed how the photos of the streaker should be played. But we have accounts from Onward State about how it arrived at its decisions, of which the news site ProPublica reported:

The fateful Tweet was no snap decision. The site has a complex editorial process that’s designed for the Web and has earned praise for its vision — but like any editorial process, it can easily be disrupted by bad reporting and pressure-packed situations.

And so, presumably, was the editorial process at CBS Sports, which picked up Onward State’s account. In both collegiate cases, student journalists made decisions that have come back to haunt them. But we all know that goofs are inevitable from time to time; even the master carpenter is resigned to the inescapable collision of thumb with hammer, and most of our student journalists are apprentices of sorts. But too often in our ranks, advisers are finding themselves marginalized, if not fired, following controversial news coverage over which they have no control but that now can be read globally instead of only on campus. According to the Student Press Law Center, some 15 advisers have been fired in recent years following the publication of controversial content or because they refused requests from administrators to overstep legal bounds to control content.

In this edition of CMR, Debra Landis reports on steps advisers can take to protect themselves from administrative efforts to hold them accountable for student content. Landis’ news package also examines how advisers who feel the economic squeeze from administrators or campus student agencies displeased over news coverage can avoid that pressure without compromising the news mission of their publications.

One campus institution that protects the integrity of student publications at many universities is the student publication board, which provides a buffer for publications and advisers. Those boards also have the potential to create additional pressures on advisers. In this edition, Fairfield University journalism professors James Simon and Lei Xie examine in their peer-reviewed research how these boards function and how they’re received by advisers.

Also in this edition, Rob Kaiser tells the tale of his baptism by fire at a private university after the newspaper staff discovers allegations that student-athletes have been involved in some campus thefts.

And as always, let us hear from you about your magazine.

Robert Bohler, Editor