INDIANAPOLIS — When a struggle for editorial control emerged at The Red and Black, the independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, student staff members walked out of the newsroom in protest of their board’s attempt to diminish their independence. Their actions attracted national attention and support.
In response to the controversy, Society of Professional Journalists President John Ensslin wrote a letter to Elliott Brack, chairman of The Red and Black board, expressing his concerns about the situation and asking for further action by the board to ensure a positive outcome from the episode. The full letter is provided below.
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Elliott Brack President, Chairman of the Board The Red and Black 540 Baxter St. Athens, GA 30605
22 August 2012
Dear Mr. Brack,
My name is John Ensslin. I am the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, the oldest and largest journalism organization in the country with 8,000 members nationwide, including many in Georgia.
I have been following with keen interest and considerable dismay the stories last week on the walkout of your student staff.
I admire the way those students banded together and used social media and their basic reporting skills to illuminate their fight for editorial independence. It was something to behold, something not often seen in newspapers both professional and collegiate.
They are a scrappy group whom I believe are on their way to becoming outstanding journalists.
I was heartened then to see the apology delivered to the students and the acknowledgement from your board that mistakes had been made in the way this situation was handled.
I was also glad to see that your board has agreed to some of the students’ key demands.
That said, there are still some lingering questions that I would ask you to address.
Has your board retracted the draft memo that helped touch off this dispute? Particularly the part describing “Good and Bad” content, in which described “Bad” as “Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess that would be journalism.”
Yes, that would be journalism. As journalists, we found this language to be obnoxious. It conveys a profound misunderstanding of the basic principles of journalism. It is no small wonder that this message provoked such a strong reaction among your staff.
I was glad to see that the person who wrote the memo has resigned, but my question: Has your board repudiated what he wrote?
I was glad to see assurances that your board will seek more student input. More student representation on your board might have helped avert this situation. What efforts are you making to give students more of a voice in the operation of the paper?
Restoring the paper's adviser to his original job title was the right move. So was your pledge that the adviser will advise, not exert editorial control.
But it sounds as if the students still had some lingering questions on this issue during Friday's meeting. I would urge you to address these questions in a full discussion at the first opportunity. Perhaps writing your pledge into the job description also would help.
Obviously last week included a stormy couple of days with emotions running high on all sides.
But you have a teachable moment here, one that if exercised can result in a better newspaper and some lasting life lessons for your student journalists.
Please be advised that SPJ will continue to monitor this situation closely. If we can be of any assistance, do not hesitate to ask. You will be receiving a copy of this letter in the mail.
Yours truly, John Ensslin President The Society of Professional Journalists