Quinnipiac Chronicle and administrative “oversight”

I haven’t blogged about the ongoing saga of the Quinnipiac Chronicle, our student paper, which is facing administrative censorship. An editorial printed in the paper lays out the problems: efforts to constrain the way the paper represents the university and its policies. The president doesn’t like how his position has been portrayed in the paper, and the editor has been told it is not appropriate for him to criticize Quinnipiac policy, even when such policy hinders the way in which the newspaper operates. There are other issues, and like any sort of conflict, it’s a lot more gray than black-and-white. What is clear is that the university administration has taken a position that is regressive, and that hurts our reputation as a School of Communication, and, of course, our reputation as a university.

Tin Foil Hat

I have a pet theory. The president of the university, John Lahey, is nothing if not public relations-savvy. What is the guaranteed way of getting publicity for your campus newspaper? Threaten to shut it down, let things stew for a while, then make a firm statement that clearly endorses the autonomy of the newspaper. Think of this as a kind of “Pentagon Papers” for our own little newspaper. In a year the Chronicle may be seen as a beacon of student activist journalism, simultaneously propelling our journalism program to national prominence and dispelling the idea that the Quinnipiac campus is particularly apathetic.

It’s almost a given. If you want publicity, threaten the editor of the university paper when he criticizes an administrative policy. Even better, make sure that the president is directly involved. This is like sending an email to journalists saying “free hooks.” And at least a few of those journalists have bitten. An article appeared last Sunday in the New York Times detailing the conflict, and another article appeared earlier this week in Inside Higher Ed.

On the Other Hand?

On first blush, it looks like there is little to prop up the administration’s position. They offer two issues. The first is that they claim that things have been misquoted or taken out of context in Chronicle articles. This is almost certainly the case: after all, newspapers always fail at incorporating what everyone would like to see in the paper. Newspapers cannot please all of the people all of the time.

However, I am particularly cognizant of this criticism because of an exchange that occurred on this blog. I noted a quote in the Chronicle that seemed odd, and the person quoted argued that she never said what the paper said she said, or that if she did it was taken out of context. She complained to the paper, and the automatic response in these cases–the ethical response–is at the very least to make clear to the readership that the quoted individual disputed the article’s quotation. When I read a response on this blog that suggested that the paper was unwilling to do this, it raised serious flags for me: journalistic ethics require that reporters and editors are sensitive and responsive to their audiences and their sources. I think this is something that the paper should take seriously, and review their procedures for handling complaints about quotes and either publishing retractions or letters from sources contesting the quotation.

The second issue, which comes in a letter from the administration to faculty that I will not quote, suggests that there is an issue of legal liability: if the newspaper publishes content that is libelous, or that reveals protected information about the student (presumably issues protected by FERPA), the university could be held liable. I won’t hold them to this argument, since it seems not only misguided, but potentially damaging. If they are suggesting that by publishing the paper they are editorially responsible for it, I think they are setting them up for a fall down the road. It is almost inevitable that a media outlet will at least be *threatened* with lawsuit at some point. Even this lowly blog has received such threats from more than one corner. Does the administration really want it on record that they think they have an oversight role in determining content in the paper? If they assert such a role now, it will lead to a lot of back-peddling if and when the paper is sued and the administration tries to wash its hands of culpability.

In the end, what needs to happen is a clear statement from the administration that they have no interest or desire in acting as a censor for the newspaper. That is a vital first step. The second issue–whether university officials are allowed to speak to student journalists directly–is important to the quality of the education QU students receive, but if the administration chooses not to speak to the press, internal or external, there isn’t much that can be done about it. In some ways, the worst possible public relations is limiting your relations with the public. As the university seeks to become better known nationally and internationally, it needs to abandon parochial views and embrace a role that is very much in the public eye.

All of this comes back to an instigating issue. A number of racial epithets were scrawled on the doors of black students’ dorm rooms and elsewhere on campus. In some sick way, this makes Quinnipiac quite a bit like some other major campuses, where racial insensitivity is rising. Unfortunately, it represented yet another black eye for Quinnipiac, in part because of a (correct) impression that it is not particularly diverse. Quinnipiac ranks among the “top” ten whitest law schools in the US, and despite some interesting efforts, many of the students are strikingly unaware of the world outside of this little slice of the eastern seaboard, or outside of their own neighborhoods. It is important that the president not sweep racism under the carpet; like many social ills, it racism breeds best when kept under wraps, quiet, and unchecked. Many students on campus reacted against the racial incidents that occurred, and it is important to reflect the tolerance of our community proudly. We need to demonstrate our beliefs publicly, and conversations with our president should be equally open and public.

What Doesn’t Kill Us

As I said, I am hopeful that good can come out of this incident. As one commentator has noted, this act has energized otherwise placid students at Quinnipiac. She notes this rather ominous YouTube posting, suggesting that there is an undercurrent of activism on campus:

If there is such an undercurrent, it is well hidden. Many of the differences between this campus newspaper and that at the The Daily at the University of Washington are night and day, in part because the latter has successfully navigated efforts at censorship. It’s about page proudly trumpets its independence:

The Daily is the independent student newspaper for the University of Washington. The Daily is produced exclusively by students, with the exception of four non-student UW staff members who provide fiscal and administrative assistance. Any UW student may work for The Daily and will be paid for their work.

All content and advertising is approved by student staff members with no interference by UW staff or administration for an uncensored press. No non-student staff members review editorial content before publication.

A nine-member Board of Student Publications oversees the newspaper, reviews finances, resolves disputes and selects the editor and advertising manager. The board is comprised of representatives from UW administration, the Faculty Senate, the Department of Communication, ASUW, GPSS, a professional publication and The Daily newsroom.

The Daily began as the Pacific Wave in 1891. It became The Daily in 1909 when the paper began publishing five days a week. The Monday edition of the paper was dropped in 1933 during The Great Depression. The Monday publication resumed in 1985 and has run on schedule ever since.

The uncensored approach to student journalism has been controversial at times, but the First Amendment and Supreme Court decisions guarantee this right for students at the University of Washington.

Former UW Communications professor, Don Pember, stated “While freedom of expression has been considered a basic right for the press in this country for nearly 200 years, this right was not articulated for college and high school newspapers until quite recently. Until the 1960s, college and high school journalists enjoyed about as much freedom of expression as the newspaper’s advisor, the high school principal or the college dean was willing to allow.”

In the 1967 Supreme Court decision Dickey vs. Alabama, it was ruled “censorship of school papers is allowed only when the exercise of freedom of speech interferes materially and substantially with the requirement of appropriate discipline and order in the school.”

It remains as the law today.

UW faculty, staff and students can be proud that this university was a pioneer in clarifying the freedom of student press and that University presidents have defended that Constitutional freedom ever since.

The Daily won the Apple Award at the 2006 College Media Adviser Spring Convention in New York City for the best overall four-year college tabloid-sized newspaper in the nation.

Obviously, The Daily has about a century of a head start on the Quinnipiac Chronicle, but I hope that the current efforts to curtail its freedom act as a kind of annealing process, giving student media on campus a more common set of values and objectives.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted 12/9/2007 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    thanks for noting my blog, but i’m a she- not a he.

  2. alex
    Posted 12/9/2007 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Fixed!

  3. Kendra
    Posted 12/10/2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Jason Braff is a junior, despite what many in the administration believe.

  4. alex
    Posted 12/10/2007 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Kendra! Fixed that too. Thought I saw in one of the articles that he was a sophomore, but must have been mistaken.

  5. Posted 12/20/2007 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I think your theory on the Tin Foil hat bit is nicely devious, but if that’s the case then President Lahey is paying for it with major hits to his own credibility. A journalism and communications program like QU’s and the president of the college gets quoted by the Connecticut Post as saying he didn’t even know his own school’s newspaper had a website? And a policy gets put in place -last year- which prevents the students from updating the website until the printed version is released because “old dinosaurs” like him can’t/won’t check the website?

    I think that the misquotes are problematic for any student newspaper because by definition most of the journalists are extremely green in an undergrad program. I wouldn’t see that example of a misquote linked to above as being anything beyond a lack of full appreciation for the breadth of the journalist’s professional considerations by the students on staff.

    With that said, yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the way to turn this fiasco into a strong positive for Quinnipiac University. Start with Lahey’s statement denying attempts at censorship, but follow up by opening up the administrative task force to be transparent to the student media, and to include academic faculty from the journalism and communications schools (if any have the time for it given scheduling, naturally…only so many hours in a day). Also have the Chronicle institute a policy where -every- SGA meeting is covered by a reporter. On a college campus, I can’t think of anything more newsworthy to the students’ interests than what happens in their student government. That way, there’s no special attention paid to the visits to the SGA by the president of the college, since there’s a reporter always present unless the SGA president calls for a closed session. Then turn it into a PR blitz to the NY Times where the president and PR department come up with suitable language to point out just how strong the QU program is, that it took their own administration to task and were able to reaffirm the role of journalistic and communications freedoms as the cornerstone of collegiate inquiry. Some such.

    Then he gets the controversy turned into a PR triumph, he gets all of the credit, and Braff still gets his gold star resume for being the Junior who faced the university machine and won. Win/Win, and win for the students overall.

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