May 11, 2011

Opinions differ on TKS oversight

When Elmhurst College student and editor-in-chief for The Leader newspaper John Garcia wrote an editorial criticizing the Dean of Students, he expected some backlash. What he didn’t expect was for the paper’s funding to be cut by $27,000.

“We got a call from the student government who told us that our funding had been cut,” Garcia said. “Also, because we were no longer recognized as a student organization, we were going to lose our office space.”

The reason given for the funding cut was that The Leader staff had failed to attend a meeting earlier in the fall of 2010 concerning the use of funds provided by the Student Government Association (SGA), under which The Leader then fell. However, this was not the first time The Leader had not sent a representative to this meeting.

“I asked former editors about the meeting, and they were like, ‘No, we never went’ or ‘What meeting?’” Garcia said.

Although speculation remains about the exact reasons for why The Leader’s funding was cut, the biggest question raised by this incident has been one of oversight.

“We were a media organization,” Garcia said. “It’s not right for us to be under the student government.”

The Leader is certainly not alone in its funding woes. From the University of West Georgia to Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in Pennsylvania, college papers across the country have had their funding slashed allegedly due to content they have printed, forcing them to reassess their relationships with other college bodies. Tensions between newspapers and the people on whom they report are nothing new, yet college media outlets present a conundrum: when a publication bears the college’s name, how much oversight should the college have?

Creating oversight

After the initial phone call from the SGA, The Leader was left without funding and without an office. It was able to gain the latter back by accepting status as a provisional organization, but the former presented difficulties.

“[SGA] wanted us to come to them every time we need money. We had to break down how many pages and how many stories … as a provisional organization, they had every right to say no to our request,” Garcia said.

At Knox, funding for student media is overseen by the Broadcast, Internet and Publications Board (BIP), an entity almost entirely separate from student government or administrative oversight.

According to its constitution, BIP exists to protect student media from direct or indirect censorship while maintaining journalistic standards. Heads of publications submit budget requests to BIP, which then makes a recommendation to the Student Life Committee (SLC).

“There are no set budgeting rules. SLC has never given us a number we should shoot for,” Assistant Professor of Political Science and Chair of BIP Andrew Civettini said.

“Funding has always been pretty much the same,” Instructor of Journalism David Amor added. From 1986 to 2009, Amor served as advisor to The Knox Student (TKS).

Like other funds from the activity fee, media budgets must be approved by the SLC and thus could face opposition from committee members, which include students, faculty and ex officio administrators. However, this has not been the case in recent history.

“To my knowledge, BIP was never approached about reducing our in-year budget or our recommendation to SLC,” Civettini said.

While the student body as a whole can have almost no influence on media funding, college administrators could have a hand via viewpoints voiced through SLC. This has generally not been the case, however.

“[Knox] has had voluntary spending restrictions in two of the past three years, and in no instance was it ever brought up that we should reduce spending on student media,” Civettini said.

After doing research on other colleges, Garcia decided that an entity like BIP was exactly what Elmhurst needed.

“I spent a lot of time with our advisor … writing a media board charter,” Garcia said. “We just want to separate ourselves from the student government.”

Still, the minimal influence college officials have on the budgeting process for student media at Knox does not mean they have not found other ways to occasionally express disapproval of content.

“Things could be pretty tense,” former TKS Editor-in-chief Bill Mayeroff, ’07, said, “but at worst, we were enemies who respected each other.”

Illinois state law prohibits college administrators at public and community colleges from having direct oversight or censuring student media. Although private college media outlets are not protected under this legislation, Amor believes long-standing institutional values of free speech at Knox function as an equivalent.

“[TKS] plays an important role,” he said. “My gut feeling is that it is respected by the administration.”

Earning esteem

While TKS may be respected on good days, it has not taken much for that respect to wither.

In March 2008, TKS published a column entitled “Racism? Nah, just some truths,” which supported the idea of eugenics among black athletes. For many, this irresponsible journalistic decision indicated fundamental flaws in TKS’ methods.

“I collapsed on the floor … and just laid there for a while,” Tom Fucoloro, ‘08 said, who was editor-in-chief of TKS at the time. “It makes you question the whole process, because it looks like you’re not paying attention at all.”

In response, BIP mandated that TKS set earlier due dates for columns and create a style guide addressing satire and community sensitivities. TKS co-advisors Amor and Professor of Journalism Marilyn Webb also proposed bringing in an outside media professional—currently Tom Martin, editor-in-chief for the Galesburg Register-Mail—as an advisor for TKS.

“Controversies have shown that if the paper is going to be a serious player in the campus community, it needs more resources for training and advice,” Amor said.

Although concerns were raised among the TKS editorial board about possible funding cuts, the existence of BIP made it so offended administrators and students could not impact TKS’ budget. Still, uneasiness pervaded the publications office.

“They knew [shutting TKS down] was clearly a bad move and I don’t think they could’ve done that, but there was definitely intimidation,” Fucoloro said.

While the eugenics column may have been the most visible instance of questionable content, other instances that provoked controversy involved issues much closer to home. In 2004, several Knox students were quoted in the Register-Mail as having been drunk on Flunk Day, which did not go over well with then Dean of Students Xavier Romano.

“Xavier wrote a letter [to those students] basically saying that if we had to cancel Flunk Day, it’s your fault for talking to the press,” Chris Etheridge, ’05, said. Etheridge was Editor-in-chief for TKS at the time.

After hearing that TKS had a copy of his letter and was intending to print it, Romano contacted Etheridge and, as Etheridge remembers it, insinuated that TKS’ budget had not yet been approved and that he did not want the letter printed.

“He denied saying that at all and said it was all a misunderstanding,” Etheridge said. “I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it certainly made me uncomfortable.”

Ultimately, Etheridge decided to only publish parts of the letter, in part because he had just assumed the editorship and did not want to ruffle too many feathers.

“We thought we could convey the intent [of the letter] without publishing the whole thing,” he said.

Having BIP in place gave TKS the confidence to tackle the tougher issues, Mayeroff said.

“The administration liked to play certain things closer to the vest,” he said. “We had been trying to tackle tougher issues. We did a lot of things that upset people.”

This type of tense relationship is not atypical for college newspapers and not necessarily unhealthy. Accuracy, according to Amor, has always been a bigger concern than the delicacy of content.

“[The administration] is not happy with every story, but at least within the circuits I’m in, I’m not hearing any rumblings,” he said.

Questionable content

A line exists, however, between edgy and irresponsible journalism, and when it has been crossed is sometimes difficult to discern.

At a SLC meeting in the spring of 2008, Professor of Psychology Tim Kasser announced that he was going off the record. Fucoloro, who was covering the meeting, was surprised, but he agreed. It was a decision he almost instantly regretted.

The discussion turned quickly to columns written by Brian Camozzi, ’08, that were critical of SLC. The committee suggested that if Camozzi’s columns did not stop, TKS would no longer be allowed to attend SLC meetings.

“I was completely shocked,” Fucoloro said. “Basically, they were just saying to me that I could stay and agree or leave.”

At first, Fucoloro was unsure of what to do with the information. Journalistic standards mandate that anything said “off the record” cannot be published. However, Fucoloro felt that the information needed to get out, and he wrote a column of his own.

“I … threw in this anecdote because I thought it was very pertinent for people to know,” he said. “What SLC did wasn’t fair, and I did something equally unfair to them. Had I known what they were going to say, I probably would’ve said something in the meeting and solved it there.”

Kasser declined to comment on the incident.

The content in question was also troubling for many, as it suggested that what TKS printed, no matter how true, could result in punitive measures. BIP decided that in order to reserve these for grave situations, it needed to be given autonomy from SLC, which at the time served as its parent committee.

“We were troubled that we couldn’t come to a decision without another committee coming in,” Associate Dean of the College Lori Haslem said. Haslem served as chair of BIP during the incident.

BIP decided that it needed to separate itself from other bodies entirely in order to ensure sufficient autonomy for student media. In the fall of 2008, BIP became its own standing committee, freeing itself from outside oversight.

“That’s kind of the point of BIP: to be kind of a ruling body of students and faculty to provide oversight without being directly controlled by Roger or another administrator,” Mayeroff said.

Maintaining autonomy

In the real world, any sort of body with authority over a newspaper, no matter how benign, would have people crying censorship. The situation with college papers, however, is much more complicated.

“Ideally, I would say that there should be no control,” Mayeroff said. “But to do that, the paper would have to be completely self-sufficient. If there were to be no oversight, the paper would essentially have to sever ties with the school.”

Etheridge agreed that there are factors involved in college media.

“Student journalists have so much more access than regular journalists,” he said. “At Knox, you can email people or walk down the hall. It doesn’t happen in real life that the mayor sends you a list of candidates for city council.”

The accessibility of information means that students have to learn how to responsibly address their findings. In order to do that, education is a must.

“Editors may screw up, but after all, these are students,” Haslem said. “BIP has been pretty good at remembering that [education] is at the heart of this.”

Although certain constituencies may find their portrayals in TKS unflattering, there is a general respect for keeping the paper free from arbitrary funding cuts or other punishments for content as long as it maintains standards of accuracy.

“The paper has been taking on bigger issues but doing so in a way where you’ve got the facts and your reporting has been really solid,” Amor said. “That’s something the administration can live with.”

Ultimately, Garcia and the staff of the Leader decided not to go to the SGA for money every week.

“I know a lot of people freaked out,” he said. “People expect The Leader to be on the racks … They don’t care how it gets there, and they don’t know our process.”

Instead of “groveling to the SGA,” as Garcia put it, the staff chose to operate using advertisement revenue and focus on the creation of the media board, which is on track to be established in the fall.

“I’m confident that the next set of editors will get the whole thing set up,” Garcia said. “Nothing’s going to happen to The Leader.”

TKS asks: How much oversight should the college have over student media?

I’d like to assume that the student body is capable of self-regulating, but I think there is reason to allow the school some say in terms of overall appropriateness.

-Katie Miller, sophomore

My mom subscribes to TKS, and if there’s a really raunchy article, she’s going to be like “Whoa.” At the same time, I do support student creativity and don’t think it should be impeded.

-Eva Marley, sophomore

I don’t think that checking the material is necessary. I think the students running TKS are responsible enough to decide what goes in. That’s what makes it student media.

-Ivan Keta, freshman

None. Knox shouldn’t be worried about its image. It should be more worried about students expressing what they want to express.

-Alix DeWald, senior

Anna Meier

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