Editor's note: For free survivor support resources, community members can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and DVSAS of Whatcom County. In addition, Western students can access free, confidential support on campus from Western’s Survivor Advocacy Services, offered through the Counseling and Wellness Center.
Content warning: This letter from the editor references sexual assault.
This quarter, The Front had a big wake-up call.
As fall editor-in-chief, I care a lot about both our publication and the community. That’s why in October, after The Front published a controversial guest opinion column about sexual assault, I knew we had to make a change.
Let me be clear: The point of this letter is not to dwell on the details of the column. It’s not to criticize the column’s author. The point of this letter is to take ownership and be open about how we can do better moving forward.
So, when your newspaper hurts and angers readers, how do you respond?
I’ll start by saying something I wish The Front had communicated from the get-go: we stand with survivors. We recognize how deeply our decision hurt survivors in our community, and we’re listening to the feedback we’ve received.
The reality is, the vast majority of sexual assault cases go unreported. Even fewer cases are prosecuted. Survivors consistently experience trauma and shame.
What that indicates to me is that our priority should be to believe them.
While it’s important to approach the topic of sexual assault with nuance, it’s also important to stand firmly and unapologetically in support of survivors. I speak on behalf of our entire staff in affirming that there is never an excuse for sexual assault, and it is never a survivor’s job to educate their abuser.
Let me say that again: There is never an excuse for sexual assault, and it is never a survivor’s job to educate their abuser.
To those who we’ve harmed, I know that “sorry” is a far cry from what you want to hear, but I’ll say it anyway:
I won’t stop there, though. This quarter and moving forward, The Front is committed to rectifying the harm we’ve caused with our actions. I believe our readers deserve answers to two questions: what happened, and what are we doing about it?
First, what happened?
As a newsroom, we often don’t recognize holes or flaws in our practices until they’re brought to light by a mistake. This was the case with the opinion column.
A good opinion page will feature a diverse range of perspectives, including some you might not agree with. One of journalists’ key responsibilities is to protect free speech and healthy public discourse. But that responsibility has to be weighed with another, often conflicting responsibility: minimizing harm. In this case, we failed to carefully consider the latter.
The column was submitted to our opinion editor and went through three typical rounds of editing. However, the author was not vetted, and editors were unclear about whether they were allowed to reject the column. We didn’t include any resources for survivors when we published the column, and our content warning wasn’t specific enough.
While this lack of clarity and intentionality is disappointing, it also points toward an answer to our second question: what do we do about the situation?
I know things have been awfully quiet at The Front this quarter. Many of you probably think we haven’t been doing enough to publicly acknowledge our shortcomings, which is fair. But after issuing our initial apology, I felt it was important that we take time to step back and work through some of our issues internally before making another statement. This is not to say that we made the right decision in every scenario — it is simply to say that we’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes that our readers might not be aware of.
This quarter, here’s what we’ve done:
- Revisited our editorial policies
- Accepted letters to the editor
- Met with Survivor Advocacy Services
One of the biggest shortcomings we discovered this quarter is that our editorial policies don’t have clear enough guidelines for guest submissions. I drafted a new set of policies specifically for guest opinion columns that clarify a chain of command, a vetting process and guidelines for what we do and don’t accept. The hope here is to learn from our mistakes and create a set of standards that help us avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. While we’re still in the process of finalizing the policies, I intend to have them published on our website so we can stay transparent about the changes we’re making in the newsroom.
In our apology, we encouraged members of the community to submit responses to us. I read every one of these letters and have worked with multiple people in a collaborative editing process.
Many of the letters we received criticized The Front, which I think is not only fair but necessary for community accountability. These responses added depth and perspective to an important conversation and helped guide our decisions as a newsroom. To those who reached out, I want to express my sincere gratitude; I know that trust is earned, and it means a lot to have the opportunity to engage with you.
The Front’s adviser, managing editor and I were fortunate enough to meet with Survivor Advocacy Services. Together, we discussed tangible changes we could make to our processes, like providing more robust and specific content warnings and support resources at the top of our columns. We were also advised and agreed that intentionality is key when publishing columns that address trauma or marginalized identities. Because we read through the lens of our own experiences and identities, it can be helpful to consult with experts and discuss as a newsroom whether publishing an opinion will contribute to a meaningful and respectful conversation.
Survivor Advocacy Services also provided us with resources for reporting on sexual violence, which I hope The Front will incorporate into its editor trainings and classroom discussions moving forward. Survivor Advocacy Services requested that we clarify that our consultation does not constitute an endorsement of this letter or any future steps The Front may take moving forward.
Again, I want to sincerely apologize for the harm The Front has caused and reaffirm that we stand with survivors.
I also want to be as honest as possible about how we operate as a newsroom.
Every quarter, The Front gets a new editor-in-chief, managing editor and editorial staff. That means every quarter, The Front’s staff rebuilds itself with a different range of strengths, weaknesses and experiences. Many of the projects and conversations we’ve begun this quarter take longer than a quarter to complete in a meaningful way — and while I’ll do what I can to support next quarter’s leadership, it will ultimately be up to them to continue the work we’ve started.
I understand that this statement won’t satisfy everyone. Some people will say we still aren’t doing enough, and others will say we’ve overstepped our bounds. That’s OK. This letter is not meant to be the final word but rather one small step in a much longer process of regaining our community’s trust. As we continue to seek ways to do better and support survivors, I hope we can also continue to have valuable conversations.
Fall ’22 Editor-in-Chief
Olivia Palmer (she/her) is the city news editor for The Front this quarter. She's a fourth-year environmental journalism major who loves running, playing violin and swimming in alpine lakes. She's excited to be spending her last quarter at Western back in the newsroom.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.