A pattern of diminished dignity
We editors have all experienced things while working on the Courier that range from bizarre to inexcusable. Throughout this series, we’ve retold some of the more significant incidents in detail, but we simply don’t have the time or resources to write an exposé on every incident.
Everyone has a bad experience here or there. That’s not uncommon. What we believe to be uncommon is the sheer frequency with which these incidents seem to happen to our staff.
Some of these incidents only become noteworthy when viewed as part of a whole.
Let’s start at the beginning, fall term 2016. It was our faculty advisor’s first term teaching the journalism courses. A student began spreading a nasty rumor to high-ranking administration officials across the college about us.
The rumor was that our faculty advisor had been telling students to go “dig up dirt on the college.”
Of course, this was false. Demonstrably so.
One of our current editors was in the room at the time and clearly remembers both the conversation and the ensuing effort to combat the rumor. What had actually been said was part of a class discussion on ethics and the role of journalists in their communities. Our advisor said that Courier reporters shouldn’t try to “dig up dirt on the college,” but that if we receive information about something, we had a moral and ethical obligation to our community to investigate.
Well apparently not to everyone. After an already difficult beginning due to starting from scratch a few weeks prior, we were suddenly thrown on defense. Time that should have been spent helping new reporters had to instead go to soothing frayed nerves among college officials. Worse, not everyone was willing to listen to our side of the story.
Doors began to close for us.
We did everything we could to push back on that rumor, but the damage had already been done. Without the trust of the administration, things began to spiral downward. Stories that in the past would have been non-controversial started to become flashpoints. Less flattering stories that in the past would have been seen as fair game became supposed evidence that we were out to get the college.
This led to a vicious cycle of college officials either not responding to or outright refusing requests for interviews, which in turn made the stories we produced lack their perspective, which made the college look bad, which made college officials even less willing to work with us the next time.
People believed what they wanted to believe. We never fully recovered.
Another example of this undue mistrust in action: there was an incident surrounding a story about a department reorganization that had taken place. Not exactly a sensitive story. There was absolutely no reason for us to expect any trouble covering this; it was just routine college business.
For the story, we sent a photographer to take a picture of a door with a paper sign next to it. The door still had the old titles of two deans whose titles had changed in the reorganization, while the sign next to the door displayed their new titles. We thought that a photo of this, capturing the old and the new, would be the ideal image to accompany the story in the upcoming print edition.
The photographer returned to our lab empty-handed. College employees wouldn’t allow him to get the shots.
The then Editor-in-Chief of the Courier, in an experience that had to be humiliating for both the EIC and the photographer, had to walk with the photographer back to the employees like a parent taking their child to a bully’s house to have a chat with the bully’s parents. The EIC had to speak with the college employees, politely remind them that this was on public property and we had every right to take the photos, and reassure them that we had no interest in spreading any sort of misinformation.
Why? Your guess is as good as ours, but having to endure this kind of mistrust and mistreatment became routine at the Courier.
Or how about the time when another of our EICs interviewed a college employee for a sensitive story and ended up being threatened with baseless legal action?
The EIC was working on a story about layoffs at Chemeketa. She requested an interview with one of the college employees who was being laid off. The employee agreed to speak with her under the condition of anonymity, and the condition was granted. It was made clear that the interview was for publication.
The interview began, as per Courier policy, by informing the employee that the interview would be recorded to ensure the accuracy of any published quotes. The employee agreed and the interview was conducted.
But a few days later, the employee contacted the EIC again after having a change of heart. The employee threatened the EIC with “legal issues” if she used anything from their interview. Needless to say, this came as a shock. The EIC was genuinely frightened and didn’t know what to do. She knew that the interview had been lawfully recorded and that she had done nothing wrong, so she decided to seek help from the administration.
The incident was reported to three Chemeketa administration officials, two of whom are current Executive Team members. One of these Executive Team members responded, informing her that they had spoken with the college’s Dean of Students and the college’s Human Resources department and had decided to take no action.
They told her, “The college does not see this as a workplace situation. We see this event as our college newspaper contacting one of our employees and the employee is responding to the inquiry. The college does not support repression of anyone’s first amendment rights, and so we have no stance on what is printed in the Courier related to this topic.”
So to recap, a college employee, using their official college email account, threatened a student, and the administration’s response was that they didn’t see how it was a workplace issue. Right. Good luck with that position.
The absurdity should be clear to anyone at first glance. But when viewed through the lens of everything else we student reporters have endured at Chemeketa, the pattern becomes apparent.
For another example, take the story of another of our EICs.
She was a student reporter at the time. She had just published a powerful and emotionally charged editorial on her experience with sexual assault. The piece was well received among most of our readers. In fact, the staff of another local professional news outlet even contacted the reporter to commend her bravery.
Unfortunately, a student at the college decided to take it upon themself to begin harassing the Courier about this edition. This harassment was brought to the attention of senior college officials through the proper channels.
We don’t know if they ever did anything about it.
Another incident in this long series of examples came at the beginning of a Board of Education meeting.
Our EIC was covering a double billing: a Budget Committee meeting, followed by a Board of Education meeting.
When the budget meeting wrapped up, the EIC approached the chair of the committee, introduced herself, and exchanged contact information. Standard stuff for a student reporter. It also needs to be noted that the chair of the committee was a member of the public, and was not a college employee.
As the EIC sat patiently waiting for the board meeting to begin, a voice called her name in a stern tone from behind. It was the then president of the college. The president, apparently upset that the EIC had spoken to the Budget Committee chairmen, demanded that any contact with committee or board members go through the college’s Public Information Officer.
We may be reporters, but we’re students first. We have just as much of a right to interact with college officials as anyone else does. It was inappropriate and unacceptable for someone with that kind of power at the college to speak to a student that way.
A student was made to feel intimidated and unwelcome at a Board of Education meeting by the leader of the college for doing her course work. Let that sink in for a moment.
The incident crossed a line, even to us, even with everything else we’ve endured.
This is what we’ve been dealing with. This is the environment that journalism has faced at Chemeketa for years. This is the shameful, petty, utterly unacceptable nature of the conditions that we students have been forced to learn our trade under.
These events are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. We could list several more examples of harassment, of intimidation, of undue hardship and mistrust, of having to fight tooth and nail just to have permission to use a whiteboard and a single cabinet. Given the time and resources, we could go on for weeks about the incidents we’ve endured, but frankly, we’re all very tired and ready for this series to be over.
The college and its officials publicly espouse the values of collaboration, diversity, equity, innovation and stewardship. College officials speak of the importance of a student voice, of free speech, a free press, transparency and accountability.
And yet in practice this is not the environment that we’ve found. Far from it. After years of this sort of treatment, is it any wonder why enrollment in the journalism courses has sunk so low? Who would want to be on the receiving end of experiences like these?
What it all boils down to is this: sometimes a bad experience is just a bad experience, but put enough of them together, and sometimes a pattern emerges.