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When Sources Won’t Talk

WHAT: It began as a letter to the editor from a former editor. It ended with a record number of online postings and apologies from a fraternity and sorority.

Jamilia Gates, former news editor for The Parthenon, the student newspaper at Marshall University, learned that a campus sorority and fraternity had sponsored a thug- and gangsta-themed party. Gates, who is black, wrote in her letter that the party was an insult to black students and not an appropriate campus activity.

“Pictures from this party were posted all over Facebook. Pictures of representatives from these organizations showed members grabbing their lower limbs, with gum wrappers in their mouth representing gold teeth, baggy clothing, backwards hats and permanent-marker tattoos saying ‘Thug Life,’” she wrote. “The people in those photos were basically displaying light-hearted racism.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics offers guidance on at least three aspects of this dilemma. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” One source was not sufficient in revealing this information.

“Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.” The newspaper editors knew the Greek community had often complained about The Parthenon’s so-called negative coverage of Greek life.

“Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”

Question: How could the editors maintain credibility and remain fair to both sides yet find solid sources for a news tip with inflammatory allegations? Such a story could stir racial divisions on campus and risk the charters of both Greek organizations.

WHO: The newspaper’s editors sat on the letter for a couple of days hoping the Greek affairs reporter could get details. Meanwhile, the editors found proof of the party in photos published on Facebook.

Managing editor Brian Dalek said: “As the person usually overseeing the opinion page and letters, the staff and I did want to verify that the party did, in fact, take place before publication. There was a little bit of concern that having a former editor submit the letter would lead to some in the Greek community on campus to see the paper as singling them out, as they had perceived in the past.”

Members of the fraternity and sorority did not respond to the Greek affairs reporter’s repeated requests for interviews.

“The photos were only taken down when we tried to get the Greek chapters’ perspective on the party before we ran the letter,” Dalek said. “After the initial inquiries, the reporter was basically shunned.”

WHY: Knowing that further delays would detract from the event’s news value, the editors made the unusual decision to break a news story in the letters column and published Gates’ letter Oct. 6, 2008.

Dalek said: “We did wait until we actually found several pictures on Facebook that appeared to have the theme of the gangsta/thug party. Sure, it could have been any party at Marshall, but we saw several pictures that actually had the name of the Greek chapters in the background. My only regret is that we did not print these photos or save them for proof that we did see photos before they were taken down.”

HOW: Their strategy worked. Publication of the letter forced members of the fraternity and sorority to respond to The Parthenon reporter — but only off the record. They still didn’t want to acknowledge the party. Over the next two days, the phone messages, online posts and letters from the Greek community flew. Online posts supported both sides — this type of behavior is unacceptable on a college campus versus no harm was intended as it was just a party.

Finally, the student government president urged both organizations to issue written apologies. Still, they refused to go on the record with the reporter who was finally able to pull together a story with reaction to the incident.

“After the publication of [Gates’s] letter, Sigma Alpha Epsilon members submitted a letter that gave an apology on the taste of the party. Just hours before the page was sent to print, however, the chapter’s president informed us that he had never seen the written apology and his signature was actually forged. They pulled the letter, thankfully, but it also gave us some clarification that there were individuals in the fraternity who were likely to be insensitive to different cultures based on the fact that they forged signatures as well. We no longer had second thoughts about the original letter by Jamilia Gates’ take on the story,” Dalek said.

Alpha Chi Omega’s letter stated: “The sisters of Alpha Chi Omega would not and did not set out to hurt anyone’s feelings or be insensitive to anyone’s culture. We greatly regret choosing a theme with even the potential to be offensive ... Please know that we have learned from this experience. We will share this valuable lesson with others in our organization. And we’ll make every effort to ensure that it never happens again.”

Sigma Alpha Epsilon submitted its letter: “Our fraternity prides itself on our creed, ‘The True Gentlemen,’ and our decisions regarding the social event did not life up to the beliefs to which we strive ... We are committed to reaffirming our actions to reflect those of a gentleman in order to better ourselves and our community.”

The editorial board opted to follow up with an editorial Oct. 10: “Hopefully this is the end of this controversy, but something can be taken from the situation. As individuals and as student groups at Marshall, we all need to take into account the impact of our decisions ... With the Internet, mobile videos and photos posted on MySpace and Facebook, anything you do can be a thorn in your side, and not just on a college campus.”

The editors took a gamble in using the opinion page to break a story. However, their savvy use of social networking sites allowed them to independently confirm the party occurred. By the time Gates’ letter was published, the photos had been removed.

The unusual strategy allowed the newspaper to cover an event with important ramifications to the campus. Had editors waited on a news story to cover it, the story would have been lost.

— by Nerissa Young, SPJ Ethics Committee and Parthenon adviser, Marshall University

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