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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.