DTH decision represents best in college newsroom decision making

Here we are, fresh out of the Labor Day weekend and we have a college newspaper controversy.

The story, reported on College Media Matters, the Associated Collegiate Press blog, presents some ethical dilemmas faced in student newsrooms. The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina reported on a student’s ouster from a campus religious group because of his views on homosexuality. Further, it appears that the student’s homosexuality also contributed.

Both the CMM blog post and the original story point out how this raises issues of importance on college campuses — such as how institutions’ non-discriminatory policies address (or ignore) this issue. In response to the controversy generated, The Daily Tar Heel wrote a letter to readers in response.

What makes this interesting to me as a journalism educator is how the newsroom process appears to have played out and the teachable moment of the “what if it happened here scenario.”

It seems the DTH staff took the appropriate action and discussed all the necessary ethical issues.  Then, it came down firmly on the appropriate side of a discussion about a student newspaper’s role.

I have always maintained that the purpose of a high-quality newspaper (campus or otherwise) is to not only report the news but also to put that news into perspective for its readers. For instance, it is one thing to simply write that a school has raised tuition 10 percent. What makes it important to readers (students) is what will that mean in dollars and cents.

What the DTH appears to have done here is realize that this is an action that may affect more students than the one in the story. It may affect more than just gay students.

Here are some of the questions DTH Editor Steven Norton told readers the newspaper considered (emphasis mine):

  • Would the DTH essentially be outing someone who might not want or feel comfortable with such attention or exposure?
  • Would it appear to readers that the DTH was attacking a group simply for the religious beliefs it holds? Would readers assume we were just substantiating UNC’s liberal stereotype?
  • Was Thomason’s removal from his a cappella group an isolated situation, or did it represent a larger campus issue?
  • Would we fail in our job to hold the University to account if we didn’t run the story?

And here is the conclusion they reached (emphasis mine).

“The editors and I discussed these questions and more at length. We weighed the DTH’s mission to inform campus and hold the University accountable without doing undue harm.

“We ultimately decided we needed to run the story for many reasons.”

Among those reasons, Norton listed the one that makes my point (again, emphasis is mine):

“…we ran the story because of the real dilemma it presents: Thomason’s removal shined a light on a University policy that is far from clear.

“We saw Psalm 100’s case. Its right to control membership based on adherence to the group’s constitution has some grounding, according to the rules in place. Meanwhile, one could make a case for the group’s interpretation of that rule as a contradiction of the University’s non-discrimination policy.

“The story went to print and addressed the policy’s blurriness. But it was ripe for follow-ups.”

That last sentence says it all. If something is ripe for follow-ups, it deserves — rather, needs — examination by the college paper. It is what I call the “Lee Corso Principle.” News editors should always be saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”

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