The student in my Feature Writing class knew how to spot a winning news hook. In writing about campus ministries (a student activity, under general supervision of campus pastors, who are staff and faculty members) at Goshen College, she led with a dorm floor activity bound to surprise anyone familiar with the school. Goshen is that rare college in the Protestant tradition: a college founded by a church that remains closely bound to that church. In Goshen's case, the church is Mennonite, deeply rooted in pacifism and a New Testament ethic of turning the other cheek. The feature article, however, revealed an informal experiment in aggression at a men's dormitory:
Wednesday evenings in the Yoder dormitory of Goshen (Ind.) College last semester were fight nights. Fifty students crowded into the second-floor lounge, pulsing in a ring around two boxers. Levi Yoder, the sophomore who organized the event, described the tentative first few blows.
For the mostly Mennonite students, it was "unnatural for people to hit each other." After the first blow to a face, though, the opponents lost any reservations and dove in, pummeling their aggression away.
"They just started duking it out," Yoder said, laughing. The matches were over in a matter of a couple minutes.
"Certain events brought the floor together-and one of them was boxing nights," Yoder continued. "For a little while you could forget about everything else ... plus, it was always fun to see the underdog win."
The article went on to note that Levi Yoder was one of eight student ministry leaders at the college (the dorm, by the way, was named after a C. Z. Yoder back in 1961). Levi Yoder was clearly the most daring of the student leaders, which included both men and women. The others planned a weekend retreat at a cabin; hosted tea parties; participated in an intergenerational quilting project.
Readers also learned that the so-called boxing nights were short-lived, terminated when Yoder sensed that "some people's egos were getting bruised." Instead of his ringside role, Yoder began leading small group discussions in the evening.
All of the students in Feature Writing were required to submit their work for publication. When the account of student ministry leaders appeared in April 2009 in The Record, the weekly campus newspaper, it drew little response. But then The Mennonite, the national magazine for the denomination, picked it up, adding a provocative headline: "Fighting Spirit."
At that point, the campus pastors contacted the student writer, the public relations office and me, as the professor who taught Feature Writing. They noted their disappointment in seeing the program represented in a way that highlighted the atypical. They also said they would have appreciated a chance to review the piece beforehand, especially when the writer submitted it a second time, to The Mennonite.
One of the pastors said: "I think I will be more careful about how I engage student writers in the future and will be more clear about asking where the article may end up."
Should the student have given the pastors a chance to review the article beforehand? If objections were raised, should the student have been willing to remove-or at least, downplay-the mention of boxing nights?
I felt torn. The journalist in me supported the story as it was told; conflict and novelty are longstanding news values, bound to interest readers. If the writer had not led with the boxing angle, the editors at The Mennonite probably wouldn't have paid it as much attention, and perhaps not even published the story. But as a colleague of the campus pastors, at a college where the core values include compassionate peacemaking, I also wanted to recognize the legitimacy of their protest (which was, after all, gently raised).
In 2006, I published an article about this very subject in Newspaper Research Journal: "Partial Pre-Publication Review Gaining Favor at Newspapers." For many years, the article noted, journalists have held that "sources" (and in this instance, that would include the campus pastors) should not review an article before it is published. The rationale for this included several factors: 1) sources might change their minds and, after agreeing to be interviewed, ask to have the story terminated; 2) with tight deadlines, it's just not practicable to try to reach sources for their approval; and 3) writers might lose editorial independence, as sources seek to take over the editing and tone of a piece.
What I found in the course of interviewing many editors around the country is that newspapers now appear to have settled on a middle ground between two extremes: either an ironclad ban on pre-publication review or, in effect, giving the source a pen with which to freely edit copy. It's now more common for sources to see selected material, like quotes and figures, or even to review an article to correct factual errors. Most editors would say it's not appropriate to share complete stories in written form and in their entirety; it's better to share portions of a story, either in print or through a read-back. And most would say that only some articles are deserving of this: science stories with technical information, or highly sensitive reports, for example.
In my work with students, I told the campus pastors, I want them to practice journalism at the highest level. If they make mistakes, they should run corrections. If they are uncertain about information or views, they should contact sources again and again until they know they have it right. With certain articles, it is appropriate to share portions of an article-in person or by phone or e-mail. Rarely would I want them to simply turn a complete article over to someone outside the newsroom for review and editing.
What should sources expect from student journalists? For starters, a pledge to seek truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Ethical journalists should treat sources as human beings deserving of respect. They should encourage the public to voice grievances over news coverage. All that and much more is in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. There's a deep ethical imperative to journalism, generally consistent with the core values at Goshen College.
There's also a powerful directive to tell a good story-not to make things up, but to take advantage of a compelling anecdote to interest the audience in broader themes. The article that began with a boxing night at Goshen College went on to talk about changed lives made possible by student ministry leaders. In its overall tone, the piece was quite complimentary of the program. While the campus pastors took issue with a few details in the story, their primary complaint was the focus on boxing in an article shared with a national church audience.
At the least, the pastors should have seen the article placement coming and had a chance to comment directly on the boxing. I take responsibility for not having raised the point with the reporter in class. Just as the Society of Professional Journalists enjoins us to "minimize harm," so too we should "limit surprises." While the subjects of a story may not always be happy with how they are presented, they should not be surprised by where they find themselves being quoted.