Letter from the editor: The Western Front has messed up, but we’re committed to being better

We had our reporters ask how you think The Western Front can improve as part of our effort to better serve you. Consider taking our survey to have your voice heard.

A letter from the The Western Front’s editor-in-chief for winter quarter, Asia Fields.

The Western Front has messed up in the past and we want to own up to it.

As the current editor-in-chief and a former managing editor, news editor and reporter, I’m pretty invested in the paper. I think that at its best, it serves Western and the wider community by providing the news with context, holding those with power accountable, and including underreported issues and underrepresented voices. I’m proud of the work that’s been done by the Front.

But I’m also not blind to its flaws. I know there’s a lot of distrust when it comes to the Front, often stemming from times in the past when the paper has made mistakes — sometimes colossal mistakes that exclude, hurt and at the most extreme, put students’ safety on the line.

In this letter, I want to recognize the Front’s mistakes and outline how we’re working to make sure they don’t happen again. But first, I thought I would provide some context about how we operate.

What many of you likely don’t know about the Front is that the staff changes a lot. The editor-in-chief and most of the editors are different every quarter, and we often aren’t great at passing on institutional knowledge between quarters.

In addition, the reporters are students taking the Front as a class, and a majority are usually new to reporting. We do everything we can to train reporters and have discussions about being respectful and responsible, but ultimately, we don’t get to see how they interact with sources.

None of this excuses any wrongs committed by student journalists, but I do hope they help explain how they might have happened.

We sent some of our reporters out to ask you what you think the Front can do to improve, and here’s what you said.

Outing transgender students

There have been a few times in the past year when people have been reluctant to talk to the Front because they heard it outed transgender students years ago. From what I can tell based on available records, the article being discussed was published in April 2012 and was about the AS Board passing a resolution to stand for women and transgender students’ right to healthcare. The article quotes transgender students who appear to have testified at the meeting and includes personal information they shared.

In a letter to the editor published in May 2012, a journalism student who identified as a leader in Western’s transgender community said they were concerned with the article, as the students were not asked for permission before being included in the story. Also, the wrong pronouns were used for one of the students.

As the student said, while the AS Board meetings are public, the Front should have asked before including personal information or identifying individuals as transgender. Just because some information is available, doesn’t mean it’s ethical to print it.

Some transgender students may feel comfortable speaking up in an AS Board meeting and being out on campus, but not to their family or friends back home. This mistake is also one that could significantly threaten students’ safety, as transgender people face high levels of harassment and violence. More than one in four transgender people have faced a bias-driven assault, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“I hope the Front learns from its mistakes in this story and begins to apply a high level of scrutiny to covering topics like this with such sensitive material,” the reader wrote.

I checked the other papers published that quarter and was not able to find a response from the editors or even a correction for the incorrect pronoun. It’s now years later and I don’t know the full story, but I would like to recognize what appears to have been a grave error and assure readers that we are striving to do better.

Other mistakes

The Western Front has made a wide range of mistakes over the years, including the quarters when I’ve been an editor (all errors in the news section spring 2017 and in the overall paper summer 2017 and this quarter are at least partially my fault). While most of these were not intentional, it’s my hope that my staff will be transparent about any mistakes we make as an act of accountability. In order to own up to mistakes made by the Front, here is a brief list:

In winter quarter last year, the paper inaccurately covered a City Council meeting and said a sanctuary city ordinance was declared when it was not. While a correction was issued, the article still did not provide context about what was actually passed (which advocates said did nothing to protect undocumented people) or reactions after.

When I was a news editor spring quarter, in one of our first stories, we incorrectly made it seem like a young man was recently detained after a traffic stop, when the incident actually happened years prior. While this was corrected, it was a significant error.

An infographic in a paper fall quarter had a completely inaccurate description of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that said DACA brought immigrants to the U.S., but no correction was issued. And a story on sexual assault did not include the voices of survivors, give context for numbers provided or adequately discuss underreporting.

This quarter, while working on multiple stories about a lack of inclusion on campus and looking at how professors of color reported having to work more than their peers (such as by serving on committees and doing work around diversity), we found that our reporters had been unintentionally replicating this problem by going to the same professors of color over and over again.

Also this quarter, after publishing a story about students tripping on bricks with a light tone, a student made us realize that we hadn’t even thought to include the voice of students with mobility impairments, for whom the bricks on campus may be more than just a small inconvenience. We also saw that we should increase our coverage of campus accessibility.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’ve heard tales of past editors running racist cartoons, ignoring issues that affected students of color and not being responsive to audience feedback.

If you have your own stories you’d like to share, I encourage you to send them to me over email or to post them in the comments or social media posts for this piece. I will do my best to respond to all of you who do, to let you know I’ve heard you and that our staff is working to prevent these mistakes from happening again.

The highest value in journalism is accuracy and I want you to be able to open the paper knowing everything has been fact-checked. While mistakes will be made, I want to assure you our commitment to truth is sound and that we are also striving for ethical, responsible coverage. If you ever see a mistake, please let us know and we will do what we can to quickly and transparently correct it.

Your feedback

Last quarter, my managing editor put out a survey on the WWU Only page. One question asked respondents if there is anything they’d like to see the Front do differently or improve on. Here are a few responses (not censored or edited):

Not be transphobic? Ask for pronouns? Not invade queer spaces uninvited? Not be culturally appropriative?”

“Respect students’ right to privacy and maybe I’ll consider reading it.”

“write less fucked up shit. seriously. do better. y’all need to understand consent. the WF has harmed people on this campus & threatened our lives on multiple occasions, particularly through irresponsible and exploitative coverage. if the AS review can turn things around, so can you. hold yourselves accountable for the trash you’ve published & bring in folks who can and will do the tough work. no more excuses.”

“representation of & respect for marginalized identities”

In order to continue to learn how we can better serve you, we put together another survey. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and your feedback will help us identify how we can still improve and what you want to see covered.

What we’re doing to be better

This quarter, we’ve been engaging in more dialogue as a staff and in the classroom about how to take on important stories and sensitive topics respectfully. We’ve discussed past mistakes and are making an active effort to constantly evaluate our own performance.

We require reporters to ask sources for pronouns. We’ve reached out to offices working with marginalized students and discussed how to ensure respectful coverage. We’ve made sure to ask before attending events that might be sensitive, and have been careful to understand what sources are comfortable having included in our stories. We recognize that journalistic rigor is not an excuse for invading safe spaces, and that the way we approach reporting on powerful politicians is not the way we should approach all stories.

We’ve engaged in dialogue with CASAS advocates to discuss how we can better report on sexual assault and be trauma-informed. I’ve made sure every reporter has access to a presentation I created on how to responsibly report on sexual assault and trauma, drawing on available resources. And I will continue to send them important resources on other topics, such as GLAAD’s guide to reporting on LGBTQ people and issues.

We’ve talked about rethinking traditional methods of reporting in order to stop placing the burden of education on marginalized people on our campus. We’re trying to engage more with our audience when working on stories to give people the opportunity to be a part of stories, rather than targeting them. We’ve also discussed bringing in new voices, rather than asking the same people to speak to us over and over again.

While we maintain editorial control of our stories, we understand that sources know their own story best and should have a role in whether and how we tell it. For sensitive stories, I have told my editors that sources are in control of their story and can withdraw at any point, no questions asked. Your story is your own, and we are not entitled to them. I know sharing your stories with us is a significant act of trust, and to us that trust is sacred.

We need you

There are a lot of issues on campus that don’t get nearly the quantity or quality of coverage that they should. Issues like harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, mental health, awful landlords, college debt — these are all big stories that need human sources to have real impact. We want to dive in, collect data, make phone calls to people in power, find records, do research, give context and show the human impact of big issues. We know these topics are important to you and we can’t report on them effectively without you.

I know that asking you to share your stories with us and to trust that we will treat them with care is a lot to ask.

But I’m hoping you will see that we mean it when we say we consider your trust sacred. You’re the reason we do what we do, and I hope we can work together for the rest of the quarter on stories that will really have an impact.

If you would like to discuss what sharing your story might look like, or if you have any feedback or questions, please get in touch. You can contact westernfrontonline@gmail.com or my personal email at asiafields.westernfront@gmail.com. And you’re always welcome to leave us comments, message us on social media or see if we’re in the newsroom (we basically live here).

8 comments

  • Had an event recently about a sensitive topic where we announced “No reporting, no articles, in fact if you are a reporter we ask you to leave” then your reporter went ahead and wrote an article. Not cool. Not happy.

  • I really find your lack of embracing video and other online content saddening. When I had transferred from EWU to Western, I contacted the Western Front to ask if you had any videographers on staff. I wanted to know because I had been the lead videographer at the Easterner and figured that the Front would have a similar position.

    Web-exclusives and supplemental content from videos and additional photos would make the paper much more accessible to students and community members who read the paper. People love to see short soundbites and opinion pieces as short videos; they’re easy to understand and can often give context to an article. Even though the video in this article wasn’t the best quality (the audio was really low in some parts), it still worked significantly better than writing line-after-line of quotes.

    Simply getting someone to record a few clips of an event another reporter is covering and having them edit together a short segment could do wonders for the paper. You can even make the videos accessible through short links written at the end of articles, QR codes on the paper, or simply linking to the content on social media.

    • Thanks for the comment, Michael. First I’ll explain how video on the Front works, but then I want to look into the bigger “pivot to video” the industry has experienced in the last few years (which many industry leaders admit was a failure) and discuss how we approach video.

      We actually do have a video editor, who is paid, as well as three visual storytellers, who take the class for credit. Most of the visual storytellers’ work is photo-based, as we need photos for most of our stories. However, they are required to work on some video projects of their own choosing, which gives them the space to work on projects that interest them. For example, one of our visual storytellers recently produced a video compilation of a climbing tournament that can be found in this story: http://www.westernfrontonline.com/2018/02/01/veni-vidi-ascendi-climbing-competition-slated-for-this-weekend/

      We had the video editor give a presentation on videography, and she has offered her assistance to any reporters interested in working on projects. The video you mention was compiled from clips our reporters had actually filmed (hence the inconsistent quality). But while we do encourage all of our reporters to think of how a story they’re working on might lend itself to video, they typically end up being primarily focused on writing. I’ll admit that this can sometimes be an issue, as there are some pieces where video is a more compelling or appropriate format than written word. We are giving reporters the tools to work on video projects, but have emphasized that we don’t merely want short clips that do not provide context, as we want to focus more on video quality, rather than quantity.

      The recent “pivot to video” the industry has experienced hasn’t worked out the way many people thought it would. Video clips that just shortly show something being discussed in the story doesn’t really provide context. Sometimes, they seem like a cheap trick to try to reel in viewers by offering video that doesn’t communicate anything. We used to have compilations of quick reporter-submitted clips of things that happened over the week and while the quality was sometimes good, nobody watched them, even with QR code promotion and social media sharing. This is why we decided to steer away from quick clips and incorporation of video that is not deliberate. We don’t just want to throw video at our readers. We want to think about how we can utilize video to its potential for telling stories and captivating readers. Good video takes time to produce, just like good journalism in any form. However, I will admit that the Front doesn’t frequently produce video and that this is an area in which we can significantly improve.

      If you’d like to discuss this further, or if you have any ideas about video projects the Front should consider working on, email me at asiafields.westernfront@gmail.com.

      Also, here are a few pieces on the failure of “pivot to video”:
      https://www.cjr.org/business_of_news/pivot-to-video.php
      http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/12/r-i-p-pivot-to-video-2017-2017/

  • I was on the front that quarter in 2012. There were many discussions afterwards about the ethics of identifying people, especially in regards to pronouns and accidentally outing people.

    If i remember correctly, the reporter felt terrible about outing someone, and the front changed its best practices, regarding identifying people.

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment. I’m glad to hear that the incident from 2012 sparked discussion and conversation on the Front. I wasn’t able to find anything in the papers from that quarter, so I appreciate you providing more context for what happened after. I know that mistakes are made every quarter and I’m glad they lead to reflection on the staff. We’ve been facing how hard it is to regain public trust after these kinds of mistakes, which is why we’re trying to work on transparency. That way when we have those discussions recognizing we made a mistake and figuring out how to avoid them in the future, they’re public.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  • It seems to me the ongoing problems with the WF have to do with its dual character as the main form of print media on campus while also being an educational tool for journalism students.

    Your comment about institutional memory kind of strikes at the heart of the problem as I see it. With journalism students running the paper and the crew changing every quarter the litany of f***-ups you spell out in this letter are unavoidable. There just isn’t any way to address these problems and improve the quality of reporting/reporter conduct without implementing more insitutional continuity somewhere in the organization — due to WF’s particular circumstances, probably somewhere up at the top of the organization.

    The Western Front gets the worst of both worlds: they are held to professional standards by the student body (rightly so — journalism is very real work that impacts people’s live in very real ways), but they lack the rudimentary tools needed to continuously improve the paper in response to students’ input and their own mistakes. In a few quarters a new editor will take over and they probably won’t read or internalize anything you had to learn from hard experience even if you write it all down and make them read it, and the WF will be back at square one.

    I don’t know the best way to address that conundrum (I’d hire a professional editor, but I am just an alumnus, not a part of WWU currently, so my opinion is beside the point) but that seems to lie at the heart of the problem.

    • Hello! Thanks for commenting. I would agree that the dual roles of the Front make it difficult to provide consistency in quality of coverage. It can be frustrating, especially as reporters grow so much and then editors have to start over each quarter. I think the experience of learning to report and edit by being on the paper is invaluable to students, but I do wonder if there is a way there can be more continuity. I think you absolutely nailed the problems the Front faces organizationally. Student editors have shown tremendous dedication to professional standards over the quarters I’ve been around to witness it, but we are limited by the structure of the institution.

      I’m hoping to ensure more passing on of institutional knowledge to next quarter’s staff. For a while now, the transition has mostly been done in a one-hour job shadow on a production night. I definitely don’t think this is enough, and I will work with whoever is selected to be editor-in-chief next quarter to make this process better, if they are interested.

      I’m not sure what the right answer is, and I know the structure of the Front is not in my hands. I would love to share your comment and any further ideas with the faculty, if you are interested in that. I know they have to ensure there is ample opportunity for students to gain publication experience, but maybe there is a way to ensure more continuity without taking away that opportunity and while keeping control of the paper in students’ hands.

      Thanks again for commenting!

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