Opinion: Intimidated in pursuit of the truth

The Western Front will continue to to hold those in power accountable, as we’ve been taught to do by our department.

 

There’s a few things every journalism student learns within the first few quarters in the department: That the First Amendment protects journalists, and that people in power need to be held accountable by journalists. We don’t learn these things from just guest speakers or textbooks, we learn them from the professors in our department who encourage us to follow a story until the end, no matter how hard that might be.

Recently, The Western Front staff dealt with a story that had a more difficult beginning, middle and end than we’ve dealt with before. This is our side of the story, which started off with a white anthropology instructor who used the N-word in class as a teaching example in fall 2017. The Front reported on it during winter 2019, and because of that story, a proposal was brought to the Faculty Senate to recommend the limit of faculty’s use of the N-word in learning environments.

On May 8, 2019, the Front published a story about the Academic Coordinating Commission rescinding a motion to ban the N-word from classrooms.

Faculty Senate President McNeel Jantzen and ACC chair and journalism professor Sheila Webb, who were mentioned but not interviewed, felt the coverage of that meeting was one-sided and that being given only a day to respond was not fair. As soon as these concerns were brought to the attention of the editors, it was clear to the Front editorial staff that this article was rushed and should not have been published until it was fully reported.

Committed to the fair and balanced journalism that is expected by our department, the Front decided to hold itself accountable by adding some voices that were not included and notified readers of the correction. The process of re-reporting the story meant meeting with Jantzen, Webb and Faculty Senate parliamentarian Lizzy Ramhorst.

It’s at this point that the process began to break down.

The original reporter was barred from attending the follow-up meeting, sacrificing a learning opportunity for her in favor of making people in power feel more comfortable.

The reporter’s editor asked Ramhorst for the meeting’s audio recordings to continue reporting on the story. Ramhorst said she felt she did not have the authority to provide the recordings without the approval of Webb or Jantzen.

The editor then requested the recordings through Western’s Public Records Office, a normal practice for student journalists. Because of that, Jantzen said in an email she found the student’s actions “threatening.”

Both the reporter and editor felt as though they were unfairly treated by Jantzen and Webb, who had to be convinced to include them in the meeting at all.

During the Faculty Senate meeting to discuss a separate motion that also addressed the use of the N-word slur in the classroom, student journalists yet again faced barriers to doing the type of reporting we have been taught to do by our department. Jantzen told us we were not allowed to film the meeting, something that is legal under Washington State law. So we filmed, anyway.

As a courtesy, we also provided Jantzen with her quotes from that meeting. This is neither required nor necessary for a newspaper to do, since all her comments were made in a public meeting. Jantzen refused to have her quotes used, but we were fully within our legal right to print them. So we did, anyway.

In response, Jantzen emailed the Front’s managing editor, sarcastically commending the paper for its “lack of commitment to fair, truthful, and ethical journalistic reporting.” The email was also sent to journalism department chair Jennifer Keller, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Brent Carbajal and President Sabah Randhawa.

Journalists are not aggressive for pursuing a story and following the laws of the state they’re reporting in. Student journalists should not be demonized in what should be a learning opportunity. People in positions of power should not use their power to influence, intimidate or disrespect students, journalists or not.

These interactions took away from the discussion on the First Amendment and using the N-word in the classroom, a discussion that affects Black students on this campus but has never completely included them. Black Student Union has said they were never contacted or invited to attend any discussion of prohibiting the use of the N-word in class, either in Faculty Senate or ACC. We also never contacted them in conjunction with our coverage of this issue.

The Faculty Senate president and other faculty senators are concerned with the implications of limiting the First Amendment in the classroom, but not the implications of limiting the freedom of the press. Jantzen went as far to use the Faculty Senate presidential blog as a medium to further de-legitimize the Front’s coverage of this issue, without linking to the article itself. There’s a clear power dynamic at play here: Jantzen is one of the most powerful faculty on campus, and her status is being used to undermine our hard work and attempts at transparency and education.

As student journalists, we are doing what we’ve been taught. We’re attempting to hold people in power accountable, and holding ourselves accountable when we fail. In this process, we believe we have been intentionally intimidated by senior faculty members, and we have dealt with it on our own. Despite this intimidation, we’re remaining steadfast in our coverage of this issue.

The next Faculty Senate meeting will be happening on Monday, June 3. The Western Front will be there.

 

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Julia Berkman, Laura Place and Stella Harvey.

7 comments

  • Never forget Democracy stands strong because of a Free Press. Never give up the good fight.

  • Christopher Lovgreen

    I am so disappointed in this year’s faculty senate president. Her actions have been entirely inappropriate; we must expect better of university faculty/admin.

  • Maggie Herriot

    Wonderfully written, will be on the lookout for updates.

  • Once you have chosen a path thru a moral , legal and thoughtful process it is never easy. Stay true to your process There are many who believe in you and the way.

  • Bravo. As you have seen, the free-speech issues surrounding this matter are complicated. But it is troubling to see such blatant disregard for transparency from faculty, and even more troubling to see public or semi-public attacks on student journalists coming from journalism professors.

  • BTW — I love the illustration that accompanies this editorial.

  • I have been following this story with great interest. This is an excellent editorial and I want you to know that those of us who understand the academic freedom, first amendment, government transparency (both open public meetings and open public records) issues at play here “have your back.”

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