To the Students, Faculty, Staff and Administrators of the Mount:
Last Wednesday, an email sent by Provost David Rehm called for “fairness and civility”, implying a lack thereof in recent content published by the university’s own official student newspaper, The Mountain Echo.
The provost specifically called the Mount community to be “attentive” to the use of anonymous sources in the Echo’s front-page article from its Nov. 18 edition, “Administration Announces Cuts to Employee Health Care, Retirement Benefits.” If you have not already read this story and the editorial content that accompanied it, I highly encourage you to do so. It is available on the Echo’s website, msmecho.com, alternatively accessible directly from our official Facebook page.
I do not believe that anyone can properly begin to understand the issue of faculty health care and retirement benefits without approaching it, as Provost Rehm stated, “with a spirit of inquiry”. In addition to reading this article, please consider the provost’s email, and seek out not only his opinion, but also that of your professors, your university’s staff, your co-workers and the alumni who call the Mount home. We believe strongly that all members of the community should feel welcome to participate in this discussion.
I am writing to you today in order to clarify The Mountain Echo’s editorial policy on using anonymous sources. As the Managing Editor, and a member of this publication during each one of my seven semesters at the Mount, I feel it is in the best interest of transparency that we disclose to the community the process by which we report on sensitive, yet vital, issues on campus.
Contrary to Provost Rehm’s assertion that the use of anonymous sources is “bad practice”, such sources are actually quite prevalent in professional journalism. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied heavily on information provided by an anonymous source (given the pseudonym “Deep Throat”) in order to reveal what would be known as the Watergate scandal. The series of events initiated by their work led to the resignation of the President of the United States. If the administration contends with our use of anonymous sources in and of itself, they will have to understand that history is not on their side.
All requests for anonymity in the reporting of news are made by the source themselves, not by us. We open the possibility of honoring anonymity requests made by sources, particularly if the sources reasonably fear negative consequences from employers or from their peers, either directed toward themselves or their acquaintances, social groups or family members.
This is the first step of the process: a source agrees to an interview with an Echo reporter, and beforehand lays out their own terms for agreeing to provide information, which may include, among other stipulations, a request to remain anonymous or a request to either speak/not speak “on record.”
Once an anonymity request is made, both the reporter and the editorial board process it during the second step: verifying that the request is made reasonably. It is our duty to disclose the identity of our sources whenever possible. There are times, however, when the sensitive nature of a story or a piece of information may leave only one or few authorities available to comment.
As stated above, revealing the names of these sources, while certainly helpful for members of the public curious of their validity, may obviously lead to damaging personal or professional repercussions. It is standard journalistic practice, not to simply ignore the pleas of sources who have generously come forward in good faith to talk about important issues, but to honor reasonable requests by these sources whenever necessary. Take for example the article presently under discussion, where two anonymous sources were referenced at least once. We have performed thorough checks to ensure the credibility of these individuals.
This brings us to the third and final step: ensuring that a reasonable request for anonymity is kept in good faith by the reporter, the editor of the section whose jurisdiction the article falls under, the Managing Editor, and by our advisor, Professor Ed Egan. Each of these Echo leaders must be informed of each source’s identity and of the reasoning behind their requests. If a request is approved, it must be executed properly. This means that the Echo will withhold in good confidence the name(s) of the source(s) both during and after the publication of the story. This is known, in First Amendment law, as the concept of “Promissory Estoppel,” invoked most notably by the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. The Echo made a promise to its sources, and kept it.
I should add that, prior to the publication of this article, we consulted with a professional journalist in order to confirm that our process toward anonymous sources complied with standard journalistic procedure. It is the very same philosophy that guides reporters for professional publications, including the Associated Press. We hope that members of the community consider the legitimacy of this practice before rushing to judge its ethical value.
Provost Rehm and the administration may feel that the article and its accompanying commentary were published in bad taste. These pieces came weeks after an administrative decision was made to cut benefits, and it is clear that officials are upset over what they perceive as “one-sided” reporting. I would like to point out that the decision not to include more comment from administrative figures stems from a much broader lack of transparency on the administration’s behalf.
As we pointed out in our staff editorial in the last issue, there are several issues that concern students and community members that have not been adequately communicated by the administration: the current deanship of the College of Liberal Arts which seems to be simultaneously vacant and not vacant; a historic President’s House that continues to remain empty; a Veritas program that befuddles students and educators; and a rising tuition that comes in light of the benefit cuts. We applaud administrative actions to increase communication with the community, including the provost’s comments about recent decisions in last Wednesday’s email and President Newman’s private student forums held this week.
Additionally, our editorial welcomed commentary in favor of the benefits decision. In fact, we published a letter to the editor in this Dec. 9 edition from a respected and knowledgeable faculty member who supports the decision to cut benefits. We have received similar additional requests and will continue to evaluate them as necessary. We strive for fairness in our reporting and editorial content, and in line with the provost’s suggestions and those of our peers, I will personally direct our reporters to engage in greater dialogue with members of the administration on all applicable content.
In closing, I would like to call attention to the Mission Statement of our wonderful university.
“In order to enable individuals to understand and to challenge or embrace the cultural forces operating on them, Mount St. Mary’s, in all its curricular and co-curricular programs, encourages each student to undertake free and rigorous inquiry leading to a reflective and creative understanding of the traditions which shape the communities in which we live.”
I ask you, are the student reporters and editors of The Mountain Echo not allowed to pursue the truth through a free and rigorous inquiry of the policies like the one covered in this article, if for no other reason than that we might be allowed to understand and to sustain the university community in which we live? Indeed, it would seem unreasonable for the provost to suggest that all students participate in “spirited inquiry” if at the same time a student newspaper could not do so.
Granted, the position of a student newspaper necessitates great responsibility. We must always strive as amateur journalists to improve our writing, to exercise our practice of objectivity and accuracy, and to work with those making important decisions before reporting on them. By all means, we accept the challenges posed to us by Provost Rehm, for whom we at The Mountain Echo all have tremendous respect. We look forward to working with him and the administration as we strive to be a legitimate place for student reporters to develop into qualified professionals.
Thank you for your attention to this lengthy message. I pray for the people of this university; that we may come together during periods of great change in order to create a more robust and viable community. I pray that the decisions we make today continue to contribute to the goal of producing intelligent, capable adults in line with the mission that guides our university. We at the Echo will do our part to achieve these worthy goals.
Managing Editor of The Mountain Echo
Class of 2016