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Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Education Toolbox

Student media: Lessons for when you’re part of the story

By Peggy Watt

Last fall, college journalists across the country reported about diversity issues on campus, sometimes involving classmates raising awareness of racism, discrimination and threats.

These issues came to our campus at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., with an unprecedented action: The administration canceled classes for one day, concerned about threats on social media toward students of color. Western is nestled just south of the Canadian border and serves 15,300 students, most of them undergraduates; about 25 percent are students of color.

Our student media didn’t just cover this story; apparently it was part of the impetus. That has prompted student journalists to report this ongoing issue with particular care.

Here’s how it started: The student-run Western Front ran a story in its online edition Nov. 19, 2015, about two separate circumstances of members of the campus community questioning the university’s choice of mascot. Western’s mascot since 1923 has been the Viking, a nod to the Pacific Northwest’s Scandinavian heritage. The Viking image has changed through the years; the current one is a tough-looking guy in a horned helmet and has been in use less than 10 years.

The Front’s story quotes two campus sources interested in reconsidering the Viking. One was a professor preparing a study about this particular image. The other was an officer of the Associated Students interested in discussing whether a Viking was an appropriate mascot at all. Western is the only one of Washington’s six public regional and state universities that has a human mascot (the others all have animals, including the geoduck).

The Front editors were surprised at the passion the story produced. First, the professor complained of errors. At least two professional media outlets picked up the story, but one conflated the two proposals, boosting attention but causing confusion on and off campus. And some of the online comments deteriorated into vitriol — which included chatter on social media that led to the canceled classes.

One longstanding Western Front policy helped guide the editors: Front reporters record all interviews and file the digital recordings along with their copy. Editors review the MP3 files as part of their fact-checking. After additional review due to the complaints, the editors posted one correction to the initial story (the professor had not urged the athletic department to drop the mascot).

Meanwhile, however, the mascot talk spread. University administration became aware of threatening online comments aimed at students of color. Early in the morning on Tuesday, Nov. 24, the administration canceled classes, citing the online threats. The university’s public information officer confirmed to the Front editors that the newspaper’s story was part of the thread that had led to the threats.

But while classes weren’t meeting, many staff, faculty and students were on campus. Front reporters came, too, seeking out students to hear what they felt. They covered a rally organized by the Campus Christian Fellowship and a press conference called off campus the next day by the Associated Students president, a target of the threats.

But the Front editors proceeded with care, concerned that they should cover — and not contribute to — a volatile situation. Heidi DeHart, editor-in-chief, and Brenna Visser, daily editor, described their approach:

• They didn’t rush to post; stories underwent discussion and careful editing. Editors aimed to exercise both good news judgment and sensitivity.

• The Front repeatedly contacted official sources: university communications office and Associated Students representatives. They still regularly reach out to the Associated Students president, who has declined to speak with any media since her press conference.

• Reporters sought comments from a range of students on and off campus.

Editors also decided that this coverage warranted some deviation from policy.

• The Front took the unusual step of identifying students by race, in terms the interviewees preferred, in a story about the closure. “This was because students of different races reacted differently, and we wanted to hear all sides of the story,” DeHart and Visser explain.

• When an arrest was made over a racially tinged threat on social media — the post that prompted the closure — The Front reported the name of the student who was arrested before he was charged. This was because the university released his name in an official communication, including a press release and a text to all students, faculty and staff who subscribed to the university alert system.

• Concern about racial insensitivity, physical protection for students and related issues have prompted several campus meetings since the day of canceled classes. At least once, Front reporters were asked not to quote participants at a meeting; the journalists agreed in an effort to learn their peers’ concerns and apply the insights to future stories.

As far as the Front editors are concerned, this is a bigger and ongoing story. Visser is now editor-in-chief, and she and DeHart noted, "The rapid fire of breaking news has started to slow, and The Western Front has an obligation to uncover the larger issues that led to these events. What does racism look like on a college campus in the 21st century, and how do we report it as student journalists?" It’s still the students’ story, and it’s still unfolding.

Peggy Watt is a Western Washington University alumna and associate professor. Email peggy.watt@wwu.edu. On Twitter: @mjwatt

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