When former President George W. Bush came to Chapman University this month to speak at a private event, administrators gave the staff of the student newspaper the chance of a lifetime: You will be the only press allowed to cover the event.
The staff unanimously agreed to turn it down, prioritizing ethics over access, and explaining the paper’s position in an editorial to its readership last week. Things got even more complicated this week, when the staff found out that it had essentially been lied to about who was attempting to restrict the paper’s access and why.
“It was a difficult decision because we worked so hard to get access,” Panther Editor in Chief Louisa Marshall said in an interview late last week. “We sat on it for a while and we came to the conclusion that even though we could be in the same room as a former president and that was a big deal, we couldn’t do this. We knew this was a rare event, but we also knew that we had talked a lot about journalistic ethics. We wrote our first editorial of the year on this, so that set what we were going to uphold.”
Bush came to campus as part of the 20th anniversary festivities that surrounded the naming of the business school. The namesake of the school, George Argyros, was a longtime friend of the Bush family. The events included a cocktail reception that preceded a private dinner and a one-on-one interview between Bush and Argyros’ wife, Julianne. The former president was also honored with a global citizen medal.
The university agreed to let the paper cover the event on three conditions:
- No photographer was allowed.
- No one was allowed to record the event.
- Bush’s people would have to approve everything the Panther had planned to run before it published anything.
“I was a little disappointed, obviously, but it was also not something I was willing to bend our ethics over,” Marshall said.
“Bending the rules sets a bad precedent and for us to stake our overall tone for the semester on ethics and then agree to this,” she added. “You have to be able to practice what you preach.”
Marshall said she took the news back to the staff and sought input as to what was the best way to approach this situation. On one hand, the students had the scoop most college papers would kill for: A true exclusive with a former president of the United States.
On the other hand, submitting their work for prior review and prior restraint meant that they were allowing a source to censor content, thus undermining the whole idea of telling the campus what had actually happened at the event. Even more, it would call into question the entire truthfulness of the article and maybe even the paper.
“We sat on it for a while, ruminating on what we were going to do and what we were comfortable with,” she said. “We decided not to go.”
“There is a certain level of fearlessness that comes with student journalism overall,” she added. “I think I would really stress to someone wanting to be in student media that even though we’re all young and ambitious, we have to cover our bases. The whole aspect of maintaining integrity is to maintain well-rounded reporting. It’s walking an interesting line.”
Instead of taking the deal, the paper published an editorial that explained exactly why it was they weren’t going, what the university tried to make them do to get access and how they felt this was a better way to go.
After the “fit hit the shan” and everyone seemed to pile on Chapman about censorship, the university began backtracking faster than an NFL corner back and “clarifying” more than Windex. The truth of the matter was that Bush’s people had no problem with the paper doing anything and couldn’t care less about reading the story before it went to press. Instead, it was the university that wanted to get a handle on the paper and manage the school’s image at the cost of a free press.
“The Panther found out that the prior review condition was from the university, not Bush’s office, after I got in contact with Bush’s office,” Marshall said in an email this morning. “I asked about the prior review condition and they gave me an answer that was not in line with what the university had previously told me.”
In short, the students called out a former president for an action he had nothing to do with because the university lied to them.
In an editorial published Sunday, the paper was having none of this “Oh, you kids… you just didn’t understand things with your tiny kid brains” BS:
It’ll be very easy to review this entire situation and blame it on a misunderstanding. Undoubtedly, people will claim that there was some miscommunication along the line, that words and blame got pinned on the wrong person, that Chapman meant no harm.
That’s not the case. We didn’t misunderstand anything. We didn’t misinterpret anything. We were told that it was Bush’s office, not Chapman that wanted us to break our commitment to journalistic integrity. Regardless of any sort of miscommunication, that’s what happened.
“A whole part of journalism is to investigate and to question,” she said Monday in an email. “Although the message was communicated to The Panther from Chapman that President Bush’s office was requiring prior review, we took the steps to verify it. The fact that it was the university’s want for prior review and not President Bush’s staff -and that this information was not accurately communicated to us- is disheartening, as we would like to think that the university would be behind our efforts to cover events on campus with integrity.”
Marshall said this was the first negative encounter she has had like this with Chapman’s PR department.
“In my time at The Panther, this has never happened before,” she wrote. “As much as I have believed and continue to believe that administration will work to the best of their ability and maintain a positive relationship with The Panther, this will make me verify what the school directly tells The Panther from now on.”
Marshall said last week she understands that some people would have preferred the paper just agree and cover whatever it could. However, she said the ethical standards of the paper mattered more than a single story.
“Journalistic ethics is something that I’m personally attached to and very married to,” she said. “It’s something that guided my career especially since people in the field have been pained with an un-credible brush. I think in our climate right now, journalistic integrity is something I want to uphold to any kind of extent.”
It was much easier to uphold those standards, thanks to the team of staffers at the Panther, Marshall said. The students worked together on the decision to decline the invitation, run the editorial and then cover the event like any other media outlet.
“It’s a hard line to walk at times between knowing what you’re giving up but also what you’re maintaining…” she said. “I’m so lucky to be with my team. The level of reporting and writing… none of this would be possible without them.”
Marshall graduates in May with a degree in history and a poli sci minor. She has worked at several publications as an intern and said that a lot of what she has learned both as a student journalist and in these other opportunities helped shape her ethical code.
“I would like people and student journalists to know that it’s OK to question the information that you’re provided with; that, in essence, is really why we’re journalists, to investigate and to question,” she said. “As a student, you’d like to think that you can trust what your school tells you. This has not been the case in this situation, but it’s a good lesson to learn early on.”