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Campus Press Documents, Part 2: The Voakes Report

Categories: Media

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The April 10 Message column refers to a report by Paul Voakes, dean for the School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Colorado Boulder, about the Campus Press, CU’s student-operated online newspaper. The de facto investigation into the Press following its publication of “If It’s War the Asians Want…,” a controversy-sparking satirical essay by student Max Karson, was to have been conducted by a committee of four faculty members, including Professor Meg Moritz. However, the committee disbanded when student journalists at the Press asked to be questioned as a group rather than interrogated separately, leaving Voakes (pictured) to pick up the pieces.

Read the details of what he did, and didn’t, find below. -- Michael Roberts

Report to the SJMC Faculty: Campus Press
Dean Paul Voakes
March 28, 2008

Background

At its March 3 meeting, the SJMC faculty agreed to a number of measures designed to help the Campus Press move forward from the debacle surrounding the Feb. 18 posting of the column, “If It’s War the Asians Want…” and the posting of the column “No Habla Ingles.” Among those measures was the appointment of an ad hoc faculty fact-finding committee “to learn more about the decisions to publish the columns… as well as other issues this controversy has raised.” That group, citing “no cooperation or support from the key figures involved in this current controversy,” disbanded a week later, on March 10. I offered to take up the task; this report represents my best efforts to report, accurately and briefly, on what occurred.

This report does not attempt to recount every action taken, or summarize everything written, regarding this episode – for that readers can visit http://www.colorado.edu/news/reports/campuspress. This report focuses on the questions that the faculty seemed more interested in addressing at the march 3 meeting, in the School’s effort to move to more important discussions of longer-term policy.

This report is based on a group interview with student editors of the Campus Press; on the accounts (regarding this incident) that have been published in the Campus Press, the above-mentioned Web site and other local media; on interviews with Campus Press Manager Amy Herdy; on data supplied by Assistant Dean Stephen Jones; and on my own personal observations and actions. (In my group interview with students, I urged students to call, visit or email me privately to communicate anything they would be uncomfortable saying in front of the group. To date I have received one email, and it was a clarification and reinforcement of what the student said in the meeting.)

Who Decided to Publish the “If It’s War” Piece?

In late January, the student author of the column (whom I will refer to as “the writer”) enrolled in JOUR 4552 (Campus Press Editing) and was appointed, by the editor in chief and the opinions editor, to serve as assistant opinions editor. The Campus Press published this writer’s first opinion piece, entitled “Bruce and Me: Going Toe-to-Toe with Benson at Tuesday’s forum,” on Feb. 13. But earlier, on Feb. 4, he had submitted another opinion piece: “If It’s War the Asians Want…” Both the editor in chief and the opinions editor were troubled by aspects of it, and the editor in chief was concerned over the general reputation that the writer had on campus already. The two editors spoke with Campus Press Adviser Amy Herdy. Herdy replied that the writer’s work was subject to the editing prerogatives of his editors, and she offered to mediate a meeting between the editor in chief and the writer. The two students then met on their own and later told Herdy that they had worked out their differences over editing the piece. Herdy said she was given to understand that the writer’s piece was potentially offensive to Asian-Americans but that she did not read it before it was published.

The editor in chief wanted the writer’s piece, which was intended as a satirical commentary on anti-Asian stereotypes harbored by CU students, to be accompanied by a piece by an Asian-American student that would address racism authentically from the Asian perspective. Herdy suggested asking one Asian-American journalism major in particular to write the accompanying column. This student told Herdy and the editors that she thought the writer’s piece was funny but that the Campus Press could expect a significant negative reaction from student groups on campus. She declined to write the accompanying piece. On Feb. 15, the writer approached another student of Asian descent who was not enrolled in the Campus Press course, to write an accompanying piece. The piece was entitled “A Few Words on the Asiaphilic Plague.”

On Feb. 18, about two weeks after the editor in chief and the opinions editor first discussed whether to run the writer’s column, both columns appeared in the Opinions section. The second student’s piece was placed beneath the writer’s, but the two were not linked graphically or in headlining.

Who Decided to Publish the “No Habla Ingles” piece?

A student reporter in the Campus Press class had submitted a column entitled “No Habla Ingles: Try Speaking English, this is the United States.” Four editors (not including the editor in chief) reviewed the column, and they decided it should be published. They had also discussed running a “counterpoint” opinion alongside, but the column was posted on Sunday, Feb. 17, with no accompanying counterpoint.

What was the Adviser’s Role in the Review and Publication of Either Piece?

As indicated above, Herdy did not read either piece before publication. Herdy was unaware of the “No Habla Ingles” piece before it was posted. She was aware that the (first) writer’s piece was creating dilemmas for the editors and that it might prove offensive to Asians, but she did not read it before publication.

The current student editors and Herdy agree that she and the staff attempt to abide by the Code of Ethical Behavior of the College Media Advisers, which states (among other things), “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 education opportunity and could severely damage their rights to free expression.” Please visit http://www.collegemedia.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11&Itemid=45 for the entire code.

Students report that Herdy is generally available for consultations on reporting strategies, but only at the student’s initiation and only after the student has consulted with student editors. Herdy critiques each online edition of the Campus Press on the morning it appears on the Web, in addition to giving a few short lessons on reporting or writing in class every week. The students say they regard her critiques as the most valuable mode of her teaching in this course.

Students who have worked on the Campus Press for more than three semesters said the degree of student autonomy has changed little over the last two years (which has involved three different advisers); that is, students have enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and freedom from prior restraint by their advisers.

What were the Campus Press editors/ and adviser’s responses immediately after “If It’s War…” was published?

Students were first aware that the writer’s column would cause a stir when they received a call from a reporter at the Greeley Tribune several hours after the piece was posted. From that point on, the calls and complaints, including reader reaction on the Web site, accelerated for the rest of the week. By Wednesday morning (Feb. 20), the Daily Camera and the Rocky Mountain News had published news stories about the writer’s piece and the emotional reactions it had caused.

Herdy mentioned the writer’s column in her daily critique (Tuesday, Feb. 19) of the Web site, writing that “I read it and sighed, and sighed again.” Throughout the first day of reactions to the piece, she advised the student editors not to respond to calls from the news media about the piece, and she predicted that the reactions would evaporate in a day or two. She later said, “I knew there would be a backlash. I would say one of my mistakes as adviser would be underestimating it. I didn’t react as quickly as I should have.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, Herdy met with the writer to discuss the piece. She told him that it was badly written and that it had hurt a great many people. She discussed it in class and urged the students to adopt an opinions policy. She also said the editors needed help in the skills of editing opinions and satire.

Also on Feb. 20, the editors suspended all activity in the Opinions section until such time as they could adopt a policy for accepting and editing opinions. They began publishing opinions again on March 3.

Six days after the writer’s piece ran, an op-ed piece appeared in the Campus Press in which nine other editors stated that they were not part of the decision to run the writer’s piece and that they would not have agreed to let it run.

In the two weeks following the posting of the writer’s piece, Herdy and the editors devoted four class periods to discussing the issues and implications of the incident.

Are There Limitations on Student Enrollment in a Campus Press Course?

Students without SJMC News-Editorial backgrounds are allowed to enroll in either section of Campus Press. Assistant Dean Jones supplied this summary of enrollments in the Editing section over the last 12 semesters.

Enrollment in JOUR 4552 Advanced Editing (Campus Press Editing)

Year -- % -- % other -- % non-SJMC

02-03 -- 83 -- 4 -- 13
03-04 -- 64 -- 15 -- 21
04-05 -- 74 -- 3 -- 23
05-06 -- 79 -- 6 -- 15
06-07 -- 84 -- 3 -- 13
07-08 -- 65 -- 13 -- 22

Six-Year Average -- 75% -- 7% -- 18%

Six-year average enrollment = 16 students per semester
’07-08 average enrollment = 18.5 students per semester

There is no prerequisite for Campus Press enrollment. Herdy and Jones told me that the School is not in the habit of screening (for evidence of criminal records, controversial behavior, etc.) students desiring to enroll in SJMC courses – beyond the fulfillment of prerequisites. The campus administration judges a student’s suitability to enroll and/or remain at CU.

In January the writer approached Herdy and asked to participate in the Editing (as distinct from Reporting) section of the Campus Press course. Herdy referred him to the editor in chief and the opinions editor, who met with him. The two editors decided that he was a sufficiently skilled writer to qualify for the editing section of the course rather than the reporting section. They discussed ground rules and expectations, and they agreed that he would be appointed assistant opinions editor. The writer, Herdy and several current editors dispute the assertion by one former editor that Herdy in some way “hounded” the writer to join the Campus Press.

What Has the Campus Press Done to Rectify Mistakes and Move Forward?

1. The editors of the Campus Press have published two apologies to readers. On Feb. 21 they met privately with leaders of student organizations in the chancellor’s office. On Feb. 27, they attended (and spoke at) an all-campus forum hosted by the chancellor. The editor in chief issued another public apology at that meeting. On March 11 the editors hosted an all-campus forum on diversity in journalism, which lasted about 2 and a half hours. The writer was present, and several of the audience’s questions and comments were directed at him. The editors listened to an array of criticisms. They also attempted to prompt suggestions as to how their coverage of CU-Boulder diversity might improve.

2. The editors and Herdy have organized a Student Diversity Advisory Board, whose purpose is to reflect on the paper’s recent coverage of campus issues and to alert editors to upcoming stories or trends in communities of diversity. At this point the board has six members, and its first formal meeting is scheduled for April 1.

3. A column submitted to the editors in response to “No Habla Ingles,” entitled “Si Hablo Ingles,” has not been published as of this writing. Editors said they held it because of the two-week suspension of the Opinions section, and that they are currently considering running it as a letter to the editor.

4. The editors have adopted this Opinions Policy:

1. Informed opinions: All opinions are sourced. This can be as complex as getting multiple quotes or simply looking up a news article that the author can reference.

2. All opinions deemed controversial are first discussed (most likely at the budget meeting) with the managing staff for input. While staff opinion will be valued, it is still up to the editor-in-chief to have the final voice over content.

3. All controversial opinions should strive to have a counter-opinion run the same day, an dif possible on the same page view as the opinion in question.

With assistance from faculty and Advisory Board members, I drafted a suggested addendum, which the editors say they are considering incorporating.

5. The editors have adopted a policy of transparency in reporting the “Asians” controversy and have published several stories on campus reactions, SJMC reactions – and one piece examining the genre of satire. The editors have also pledged to be proactive in seeking out stories of interest to a broader diversity of students on campus.

6. The editors have revised the Campus Press’s mission statement, which last semester’s editors had written. The former mission statement read, “The Campus Press’ mission is to be a must-read for the CU community with fresh, edgy, accurate and indispensable content that comes from a student perspective. With an emphasis on multimedia, The Campus Press also seeks to train a new generation of journalists to contribute positively to the professional world post-graduation with an additional expertise in new technologies.”

The current mission statement reads, “It is the mission of the Campus Press to serve the CU community by providing thorough coverage of news, sports, entertainment and culture relevant to current themes, topics and trends within this community. In addition Campus Press strives to provide a place for all people to be heard on all ideas and to do this in as respectful a manner as possible. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of journalism by providing coverage that is accurate, unbiased, and in the interests of the public.”

7. The editors have declared their intention to revise the Campus Press’s ethics code, which was also written by last semester’s editors. As of this writing, that work had not yet begun.

8. The top editors have not demoted or terminated any Campus Press students as a result of this incident, nor has the adviser done so.

9. Using a fund donated by a private individual who recently supported the Campus Press’s transformation to a daily online news site, Herdy is arranging for diversity training by a team from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies – for the entire class this semester. In addition, members of several student groups on campus have offered to conduct “per” diversity training with Campus Press staff. This will take place April 4.

Respectfully submitted,

Paul S. Voakes
Dean



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