Why the University of Georgia Student Editors Resigned

You may think the editors resigned to make a First Amendment point, but this isn't about the First Amendment. This is about journalism, and how we teach it, and what student journalists are supposed to learn.
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On Wednesday, the student editors of the University of Georgia's independent student newspaper resigned in protest and started planning their own publication. The SPLC's full story is about what happened is here. I want to offer one possible reason why it happened.

Founded in 1893, The Red and Black is the University of Georgia's student-run newspaper. Since 1980, the paper has been operated as a non-profit corporation with a professional board of directors overseeing the corporation and a student editorial board overseeing the publication. In 2011, the paper switched from publishing five times a week in print to a single weekly print edition with a larger online presence.

Apparently, the board objected to this decision, and in the process of reversing the publication decision, decided to assert a greater degree of control over the editorial functions of the publication. As the (now former) editor-in-chief put in her resignation letter:

In a draft outlining the "expectations of [the professional staff member] editorial director at The Red & Black," a member of The Red & Black's Board of Directors stated the newspaper needs a balance of good and bad. Under "Bad," it says, "Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is 'journalism.' If in question, have more GOOD than BAD." I took great offense to that, but the board member just told me this is simply a draft. But one thing that would not change is that the former editorial adviser, now the editorial director, would see all content before it is published online and in print.

In fact, not only did this memo assert that professional staff members would be making final edits, it went further with some worrying examples, suggesting that the professional staff "will not tolerate" headlines that aren't in English, or police reports where someone swears, or sarcasm that the professional staff doesn't like.

You may think the editors resigned to make a First Amendment point, but this isn't about the First Amendment. This is about journalism, and how we teach it, and what student journalists are supposed to learn.

Something I tweeted last night on this topic summarizes the crux of the problem: "Journalism is about judgment, context, ethics, and consequences. Four things that prof[fessional] control of student media erases."

Students are supposed to learn to make editorial judgments. This why the College Media Association, the largest group of college media professionals in the country, has a code of ethics that would condemn precisely what the board of The Red and Black is proposing.

The Association's code of ethics directs:

Faculty, staff and other non-students who assume advisory roles with student media must remain aware of their obligation to defend and teach without censoring, editing, directing or producing. It should not be the media adviser's role to modify student writing or broadcasts, for it robs student journalists of educational opportunity and could severely damage their rights to free expression.

Compare that guideline with this language taken from the memo received by The Red and Black's editors:

Effective today, we expect our Editorial Director and the entire professional staff to be responsible for the following: [ * * * ] 7) Holding our students accountable for quality, by correcting poor quality before publication and grading quality post publication.

The board of The Red and Black created a memo that is reversal of a 119-year tradition of being a student voice, with really no coherent explanation, other than that they don't like mistakes. But mistakes are part of the educational process. Because mistakes have consequences, and consequences create accountability.

Despite the memo's assertion otherwise, you don't hold someone accountable by removing the consequences for an action. A staff member two generations removed from the students he or she advises removing something for reasons of taste doesn't inform the current generation's concept of accountability in the slightest. In fact, in all probability, the older staff member is the one who has questionable taste in the eyes of the readers.

For example, some students might question the wisdom of forbidding foreign languages in headlines in a state with over 600,000 Hispanic residents and which ranks 10th in states with the largest Hispanic population.

Journalism education is about teaching students to make these decisions. Partially because sometimes they're better at understanding the audience. But mostly because if you remove editorial judgment to professional staff members, the resulting educational process is learning to write what you're told when you're told to write it, which is what we currently describe as a public relations degree.

Professional staff should teach students to make judgments by teaching them, not by replacing them. If that staff member is incompetent to teach, the answer is to replace the staff member, not to impart greater authority to censor. But that is obviously not a problem at The Red and Black, which has incredibly talented educators that have produced stellar journalists. Particularly the ones who resigned in protest.

We don't produce student newspapers because we want perfect newspapers. We produce them because we want journalists. Our high expectations for the products they produce have come out of their successes. But we should never forget that journalism schools produce journalists first and journalism as a close second. (The moment that ceases to be true, we owe them a refund of their tuition, because they are no longer the primary beneficiaries of this process.)

If the board of The Red and Black wants to run a fully professional newspaper, they can do that. But at least have the good taste to change the name, because for over a century, this name has signified a student voice. To continue producing a professionally-run newspaper in the skin of a gutted student newspaper is like promising Timmy a puppy and giving him one fresh from the taxidermist. It isn't the same thing.

It's this simple: editors resigned because they were asked to participate in something that college journalism standards and practices would call unethical. To expect less of a reaction would be to underestimate just how talented these editors have become.

And if professional staff members are now the ones in charge, well, I guess this is a great refresher in college journalism's crucial lessons of judgment, ethics, context, and consequences.

Full disclosure: right now the editors are operating under the domain redanddead.com. When I saw they had named their Twitter account @redanddead815 (currently suspended because it obtained too many fans too quickly), I bought the domain name so it wouldn't get be bought by a cyber-squatter. I transferred the name to the editors for free about an hour later. If for some reason this wasn't obvious, I support their decision.

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