If you’ve been following the coverage surrounding our initial report on university retention rates in the Jan. 19 special issue, you have witnessed the very definition of investigative journalism in action.
What began as a little known plan, documented by hard evidence and supported by conversations between various decision-makers, grew into an exhaustive two-month investigative effort on the part of The Mountain Echo. After the report’s publication on the morning of Jan. 19, it garnered the attention of The Washington Post hours later, followed by reports from several national (and international) outlets.
Days later, a response by the Board of Trustees, penned by Chairman John E. Coyne, III, yielded much more information about the university’s response to the situation.
Community members, particularly alumni, were treated to quite a few answers, and even the reveal of a “forensic investigation” conducted by the board and its legal representatives.
Little to no details about the “forensic investigation” have been made available other than the announcement that it began “within days” of the article being sent to the president and board for comment. What Mr. Coyne’s statement did give us was, in essence, an answer in six parts.
Part five left editors at The Mountain Echo, and other community members, terribly confused.
The Chairman issued a bold statement that a small group of faculty members, accused of “working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman”, had “apparently met together and ‘worked on’ the very Mountain Echo article that resulted in the deliberate mischaracterization of the retention program.”
Leaving aside the chilling effect that such a statement has on free speech at a college campus, there is a key phrase to understand here: “worked on”. What exactly does that mean?
Does Mr. Coyne propose an imaginary scenario whereby this alleged group of faculty members (note, carefully, the lack of elaboration despite the “incontrovertible evidence” proclaimed) actually composed segments of the article (or perhaps the entire thing, it’s not clear) published by The Mountain Echo on Jan. 19?
How did the investigators ever reach this conclusion? I can assure the entire Mount community; only seven individuals ever had the access needed to edit body copy of this story throughout its development. Six were student members of the newspaper’s editorial staff. The remaining person was the Echo’s university-appointed faculty advisor. This is not even remotely close to a small group of faculty members.
With the exception of an Op-Ed, or a press release from a university department, no piece of content published by The Mountain Echo has ever come from the hand of someone other than a student writer or editor. I can confidently say this after four years worth of experience with the newspaper. To do otherwise would work strongly against the ethical and professional standards of journalism.
How else, then, are we supposed to interpret this very crucial phrase?
Does “worked on” mean that certain faculty provided eyewitness accounts and information that led to the investigation?
If so, the chairman would effectively be saying that by giving The Mountain Echo access to sensitive information, and by answering questions, such sources would have “worked on” the article by making it feasible to create.
Using this logic, however, we might conclude that informant “Deep Throat” “worked on” the initial report of the infamous Watergate Scandal. We might conclude that politicians “work on” all content around the 2016 Presidential Election, simply because they answer journalists’ questions and provide evidence when asked. Indeed, this understanding would lead us to believe that all investigative journalism, no matter how objective and fair to both sides of the issue, would have been effectively “worked on” by someone other than the journalist.
If Mr. Coyne expected that a simple, unsubstantiated claim of “misuse” would evaporate all objections to the contrary, I am here to state that it has not. Many observers, including those who are journalists by trade, have rejected the absurd idea that student journalists would publish their own byline on an article written even partly by faculty members.
Does Mr. Coyne assume that our Mount education, provided by his own university, would lead us to unquestioningly accept such writing without inquiring further? What sort of values does he believe are being taught in our classrooms? It certainly does not sound anything like the “free and rigorous inquiry” supported in our Mission Statement.
It is precisely this free and rigorous inquiry in pursuing and editorializing on this story that has drawn praise for The Mountain Echo from a wide variety of observers.
Some accuse the Echo of not having given President Simon Newman a ‘fair shake’ when it came time to talk about retention rates. The president called our article “one sided” in a campus-wide email on Jan. 20, saying that he “offered to sit down with the Echo” without mentioning that the Echo had given his office over a month to offer email comment on an article that he was well aware could be published at any moment after Dec. 9.
In addition, one of the reporters who wrote the story personally approached the president after his open forum with underclassmen on Dec. 8, asking if he had any comment and inviting him to submit a letter to the editor or an Op-Ed piece, either of which the Echo would have published.
The issue of being “one-sided” doesn’t hold water in any case, as many have noted, because of the Echo’s inclusion of comment from both the President and Mr. Coyne in spite of the situation. We published a full letter from Mr. Coyne in response to the Echo on our website. An article from Inside HigherEd even validated the accuracy of the emails used to report on the Jan.19 story.
Some have taken to social media calling for myself and several other members of The Mountain Echo to be expelled/suspended/reprimanded for having dared sullied the reputation of Mount St. Mary’s University by publishing previously tight-lipped information.
The attention is surprising to say the least. Apparently, our articles on a successful science department scholarship grant, an on-campus concert featuring X Ambassadors, and the appearance of the President of the United States on campus, among other pieces, are not sufficient examples of “positive” news for the university.
Even our light-hearted coverage of certain changes implemented by President Simon Newman during his first full semester at the Mount, and even an exclusive interview conducted with the president, which previewed his goals and objectives throughout his tenure, have not been enough.
Apparently, some have overlooked this year’s-worth of positive coverage and concluded that The Mountain Echo is out to tarnish the history of a 200-year old university and seminary in just three days.
It is not surprising that the administration is attempting to spin the story in this way. Especially considering the chairman’s email to the board less than 30 minutes after receiving the original article, which said that the article was “the product of a disgruntled employee and the creative and destructive imagination of a student being spoon fed his information.”
I implore you to consider that student journalism is not always going to result in the fun short stories about the Mount of which the Echo has mainly consisted over the last four years. I implore you to consider that, though change may be needed at this university, this does not mean that all changes should go unquestioned or unpublicized.
I implore you to consider that maybe, just maybe, a group of less than 15 unsung-hero student journalists at a very small private university campus newspaper put in all the professional work, all of the late nights, and all of the tireless double-checking needed to create a worthy journalistic effort for you, the reader, to digest.
And I implore you to consider that this group of students did all of this while facing several powerful people with a very keen interest in making sure the Echo did not succeed, and who did everything within their power to dismantle the credibility of said students in the process.
I am proud to serve the cause of student journalists. I am proud to help make the Mount a better, more informed campus community. I am proud to lead your campus newspaper (which, by the way, is here for you, so that your own opinions may be expressed).
And in my last semester at the Mount, I pledge that I will continue to allow all sides their opportunity to speak up, no matter the issue—an offer that the Echo has always been happy to extend.
Managing Editor of The Mountain Echo
Class of 2016