THE PUBLIC EDITOR: On mixing journalism, opinion and the Garland sit-in

By JACOB TOOK | May 2, 2019

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The News-Letter is proud to introduce The Public Editor, a platform acting as a bridge between our readers and editors.

The News-Letter has heard a range of concerns from our readers about an op-ed titled “Progressives should not insist on anti-zionism” which we published last week. 

The author of this piece addresses the student activists leading the Garland sit-in, an ongoing month-long demonstration calling for an end to the University’s plan for a private police force and contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, as well as justice for Tyrone West, a black man killed by Morgan State University police. The author describes his perception that the anti-zionist focus of the sit-in can be exclusive to Jewish students who want to take part in radical action on campus.

Now, it’s important to be clear about a couple of things. First — per our stated policy, op-eds reflect the opinions of individual authors, not those of the paper as a whole. Second, and more important — the author of that piece is an incoming News & Features Editor and has been reporting on the sit-in for weeks.

Publishing this op-ed was a clear oversight. We violated the trust of the sit-in participants by sending this reporter to their space and then publishing his opinion alongside a news piece — written by the same reporter — featuring several of their voices. We failed to respect the privilege that these student activists afford us when they welcome our reporters into their space to record their voices. Publishing this op-ed violated the mutual respect that we strive to maintain with our readers.

But where do we go from there? We lack accountability because we have no public channel for our readers to communicate with our leadership. We’ve heard from the sit-in participants through a haphazard collection of text messages, Twitter DMs, emails and conversations. That’s where I come in.

In some ways, this piece is an introduction. For the last year, I’ve been a Managing Editor at The News-Letter. Before that, I was a News & Features Editor. Now, I’m starting our inaugural Public Editor position to act as a bridge between our readers and editors. I will step back from the production process and turn my critical attention to the journalistic practices that I’ve been central to for years.

And as part of my pivot to Public Editor, I’d like to make one thing clear: this was an oversight by the outgoing leadership of the paper, myself included. We claim to strive for objectivity. How can we do so when we publish op-eds by our reporters on the very subjects of their reporting?

The incoming leadership cannot be held responsible for our mistake. Going forward, The News-Letter will institute a policy against publishing op-eds written by our reporters on the subject of their reporting. I wish responsibility for that policy didn’t rest with our new leadership, but we must work actively to rebuild trust and reflect a genuine intent to improve our journalistic ethics. In my new role, I will seek to represent our readers as a check on our journalistic practices, scrutinizing everything we publish to make sure The News-Letter maintains a high standard. I do this out of love, because I want to see the paper constantly improve.

A group of passionate, dedicated students pour in an unimaginable amount of work to fill these 24 pages every week. We do our best, but we are only students and we are fallible. We trust our reporters to represent the paper thoughtfully and appropriately when they’re on the job. In exchange, a news piece goes through several rounds of editing and fact-checking before publication to ensure that we can stand behind anything that makes its way to print.

Amidst that process, we failed to recognize the issue that op-ed posed. The News-Letter stands behind the author on two counts — we have placed our confidence in him as a News & Features Editor, and we support his right to his opinion. But we understand that our oversight has broken trust between us and our readers. We understand that the author is no longer welcome at the sit-in, and he will not report there in the future.

In many ways, I sympathize with this reporter — I’ve often chafed against restrictions on when, where and how strongly I can express my opinions while reporting. I’ve often reported on student-led demonstrations wishing I could be among the crowds of protestors, raising my voice in solidarity. When the University announced its plans to create a private police force in March 2018, keeping my virulent opposition out of my reporting was a near-impossible challenge.

I had the grim duty of transcribing hours of interviews, frantically shuffling through my notes and piecing together disparate perspectives into one narrative. In The News-Letter, I had a unique platform to equitably represent those perspectives. But the University runs a media arm which spins relentlessly, dominates communication with alumni and other donors and even polices in-person conversations with students. So I felt a responsibility to use that platform first and foremost to uplift student voices. This is not activism — this is not joining protests, lending my voice to a call for action. 

Instead, I let my critical thoughts guide my search for the ever-elusive “objectivity” by balancing a broad range of perspectives which are often in tension with the administration line and even one another. I’d like to think that striking that precise balance can meaningfully further conversation on campus, giving students and administrators (not to mention Baltimoreans — more on that another time) an equitable space for dialogue.

I’m looking forward to fostering those conversations going forward. I’ll seek to hold The News-Letter to a higher standard by offering a platform for our readers and editors to communicate on neutral ground. In that spirit, I look forward to hearing from you.

We want you to be part of this conversation. We encourage all our readers, and particularly members of the Hopkins and Baltimore community, to email publiceditor@jhunewsletter.com with questions or comments about our practices and published content.

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