by Donna J. Downs, Ed.D.
“I believe it’s my responsibility to help students understand that even best intentions often lead to unimaginable consequences.”
In March 2018, Megan Brenen reported in news.gallup.com that college students who view freedom of press rights as secure had dropped 21 points in two years.
However, in May 2019, Julie Ray in news.gallup.com, reported 88 percent, overall, of people in the United States believe press freedom runs rampant.
In a world of information gone wild, the current administration has ruffled news feathers with claims of “fake news” at every corner. As a professor who taught newswriting, ethics and journalism courses and advised Taylor University’s student newspaper, The Echo, for 15 years, I often found myself trying to wrap my head around effectively educating students to tell the truth while helping them understand unintended consequences of actions that could harm more than help.
Private Christian colleges have faced difficult challenges over time in that freedom of press isn’t ensured when the press is owned by the university. Suddenly, true freedom is dismantled, and advisers must walk the fine line of gaining and holding trust and respect of both administrators and staffers, all the while dealing with promotion, tenure, student evaluations, and, yes, the press itself.
As an adviser, I was blindsided when Cassidy Grom and other Taylor students formed the Student Press Coalition, “a research and advocacy group designed to explore and improve the intersection of press freedoms and Christian higher education.” As an advocate for both truth telling and freedom of press, I encouraged students to write difficult articles and ask hard questions. When administrators might have been hesitant to give information, I informed students of who best sources might be.
Yes, there were the moments when I simply said, “Always consider the unintended consequences of your actions.” Having grown up in the Sally Field days when Absence of Malice portrayed a young journalist who was out to make a name for herself, I believe it’s my responsibility to help students understand that even best intentions often lead to unimaginable consequences.
Unlike Will Young’s claim that at Liberty University Jerry Falwell Jr. meddled in coverage and micromanaged the student newspaper, Taylor administrators have behaved more admirably over time.
In the policy Grom refers to, which was a part of our staff manual, The Echo claimed freedom of press. The one place where it was not granted was that to take our newspaper online in 2012, we agreed to online articles being perused before being sent into the world, which, at the time, really was not our audience. The unquoted part of the policy is:
This Echo Staff Policy & Procedure Manual was created … with the distinct purpose of guiding the student newspaper staff of Taylor University toward professionalism and understanding.
While Taylor University is a private institution, administration has historically supported Freedom of Press and has given students a high degree of independence in their news reporting endeavors.
With freedom comes responsibility, and student staff should use the policies and procedures herein to guide them in ethical decision making and thorough reporting and writing so as to provide Taylor University with a student newspaper that is beyond reproach.
The bottom line is that any student newspaper, private or public, is a learning lab. It’s a place where students make mistakes; sometimes those mistakes cost millions of dollars.
Even when advisers guide students to make the best legal decisions, ethics always comes into play. As administrators and advisers, we can lead by example and abide by above-reproach standards.
|Introduction to Series: When Freedom is not Free: Viewpoints on Student Media Controls on Christian Campuses||Michael Longinow|
|With press freedom comes much responsibility||Alan Blanchard|
|Courageous Advising: A Free Press is Challenging but Do-able||Cassidy Grom|
|Nationally Accredited Journalism Programs and Faith-Based Mission: Not Antithetical, Much Needed in Today’s Media World||Doug Mendenhall|
|True liberty means press liberty: Let the students report||Paul Glader|
|Christian Journalism & Privacy Laws||Terry Mattingly|
|Liberty & Journalism||Michael Longinow|
|Mr. Falwell’s Folly||Timothy C. Morgan|
|Liberty Censorship||Donna J. Downs|
|Inside Liberty’s Culture of Learning: An Opportunity to Excel||Amanda Sullivan Sokolik|