During last week’s campus lockdown, The Collegian website published the name of a former student who allegedly posed a threat to campus. Soon after, The Collegian removed the name, recognizing that it had not been confirmed by the administration. Since then, the newspaper refrained from printing the name, returning to a longstanding policy of not publishing the names of students who may be involved in crimes.
At the time, I agreed with The Collegian’s decision to publish the name. The Collegian staff believed publishing the name was an issue of public safety, and that students had a right to know who the suspect was so they could be on the lookout and take necessary precautions.
But I now believe The Collegian should not have released the name without knowledge of the full story in its proper context.
The Collegian’s instinct to report relevant information to students as quickly as possible is right and good. Yet if the Collegian’s information regarding the situation had been false, Hillsdale College could be facing a libel suit.
When the integrity of The Collegian and the college is on the line, we as journalists should gather together all necessary details diligently and be patient enough not to release every bit of verified information before we know the full story in its proper context.
Context is just as important as the verified facts themselves — journalists can easily misconstrue an event or misrepresent a person by omitting additional facts or details. Context clarifies the meaning of facts, which means it is just as important as the facts themselves. Waiting for the full context sometimes requires patience.
Journalists claim to write the first draft of history, and to a certain extent that’s true. But drafts are just that: drafts. They often need revision. Journalists have a special obligation to make sure their published drafts don’t contain grievous errors. On the essentials, we need to be correct from the start.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” and later states journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
Professional media struggles mightily with these principles. We at The Collegian must be vigilant in abiding by them ourselves.
I stand in solidarity with The Collegian staff and I will defend our honesty and integrity — but I also propose we approach stories like this differently in the future. The best thing we can do to contribute to the safety of the school during a crisis is to monitor the official statements of the college and publish them, and then add more later as additional facts emerge.
Journalists are heralds of the truth — we must be responsible with the information we glean, but we must also exercise good judgment when deciding how to dispense that information. The Collegian takes this principle seriously, so I’m confident we are already better prepared to handle critical breaking news stories in the future.
Ms. Patrick is a senior studying history and journalism.