“It’s a marathon, not a sprint:” How a student newspaper investigated Title IX allegations against a college administrator

(Editor’s Note: I’m a huge believer in student media and the benefits it has for student journalists as well as campus audiences. When a big story breaks on a campus, I like to chat with the students who made the story happen to get the “backstory” on the piece.

Today’s conversation is with Ian Leonard, the managing editor for enterprise at the George-Anne at Georgia Southern University. He is a senior writing and linguistics major from Johns Creek, Georgia. He joined the paper his first semester freshman year, and is now a four-year veteran of the publication. His staff caught a tip about a professor who was the subject of multiple Title IX allegations, including one that is currently under investigation by the University System of Georgia. If you or your staff has a big story and would like to shed light on how you made it happen, contact me and we can take a look-see at it.)

Journalists will often have to make important ethical and editorial decisions about what to publish and when to publish it. Rush a story to publication, you run the risk of undermining your credibility if you don’t cover all sides as completely as your readers expect you to. Hold on to a story too long in hopes of covering all the angles, you might end up losing any reason to run the story at all.

Ian Leonard, the managing editor for enterprise of the George-Anne at Georgia Southern University, found himself trying to balance those issues when he was working on a story that had the potential to damage a faculty member’s reputation. Eric Kartchner had been the subject of at least three Title IX harassment investigations and three grievances during his 10 years at the school. A current complaint was being investigated by the university’s system.

“A professor approached a staff member and just told us that we might want to look into Kartchner…,” Leonard said. “We pulled his personnel file and saw all of the complaints lodged against him and knew it was something we wanted to pursue.”

Throughout the process of working through this story, Leonard and his staff had several important decisions to make: Do we name complainants? How much detail to we use in outlining the complaints? What should we do if the complainants don’t want to be interviewed? Leonard said he worked with his editorial board and his adviser to make sure each concern was addressed in a way that made sense for the story and the staff. In the end, the George-Anne decided to be cautious in its approach, declining to use the complainants actual names and relying heavily on public documents.

“The decision to use pseudonyms was definitely a difficult one to make,” Leonard said. “As an editorial board we looked at the nature of the situation at hand, knowing Kartchner had multiple retaliation cases filed against him, and thought about what kind of environment we would be putting these complainants in if we were to name them. We did reach out to all of our sources of course but not all of them were comfortable going on the record, and so despite the fact that their names did appear in public records, we figured it would be best to use altered names our of respect for their privacy.”

Leonard said the staff also knew that it was important to be transparent in reporting the charges levied against Kartchner without revealing too much, as to undermine the protection the pseudonyms provided. Although they had access to all of this information from the documents they obtained through an open records request, Leonard said the staff members discussed how they wanted to handle all of this.

“We definitely were concerned with making it too obvious,” he said. “Our main goal was to stick as close to the official university documents as possible while also presenting what we thought to be the most important details of the story at the time. We did our best to ensure that nothing we revealed was so on the nose that it was obvious who the source was.”

In stories like these, people who are the subject of the reporting often develop what some folks refer to as “ostrich syndrome.” They refuse to comment on the issue and stick their head in the sand, hoping that if they don’t say anything, the story will just go away. This makes life difficult for the writers, in that to be fair, they want to hear from the person being accused of something. However, they also can’t let the story die because the person involved is being evasive.

Leonard said the balance between letting Kartchner have his say and deciding to run the story without him required patience on the part of his staff. The same was true in dealing with his supervisor, Curtis Ricker,the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

“As far as Kartchner and Ricker, we reached out to them multiple times and given them over two weeks to get back to us, so we just came to the conclusion that if they didn’t want to comment, that was up to them,” he said. “We would have liked to hear from them, but we felt that the community as a whole would benefit greatly from this piece, regardless of whether they chose to be a part of it.”

Once the George-Anne published the piece, the community responded. Leonard said the staff received additional complaints from other sources about allegations of inappropriate behavior on campus. Others just thanked the staffers for their efforts.

“I think it was the response we received to this piece that really made it all worth it,” he said. “It was so overwhelming how many people contacted and reached out to us, just to share their own experiences, or say thank you. We weren’t really sure what to expect because none of us had really done anything of this caliber before, and were, rightfully, pretty nervous. There have been grumblings of some, not yet confirmed, meetings that may be taking place, but so far we’ve been focused on hearing from all of the new people who have reached out to us.”

“At the end of the day, I think the most important thing to come out of all of this is the conversation that was opened on our campus and in our community about the environment and culture we expect at Georgia Southern,” he added. “We were able to not only be a part of that conversation but, in a lot of ways, be at the center of it. And I personally think that’s the best job a newspaper can do, generate and encourage people to have those tough talks and address issues that are facing their community.”

When it comes to doing the big story, as Allison Hantschel noted before, nobody does it alone. Leonard noted that he worked with two other reporters on the story and spent a lot of time checking in with various other people he trusted. In the end, the story was a solid piece of journalism that made a difference on the GSU campus.

“I think the most important thing is to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Leonard said. “Rushing something like this will almost always lead to mistakes and this is a topic that has no room for them. I also think this is far too large a subject for one reporter to tackle alone. Form a small team of 2-3 people who can constantly be working on this together and looking out for each other. (Fellow staff members) Blakeley (Bartee) and Jozsef (Papp) were obviously instrumental in getting this to print at the level of quality that it did. It wasn’t just “nice” to be able to work on this together, it was absolutely necessary to tell the story the way we knew it needed to be told.”

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