Until last Tuesday, I was the Hill News' Editor-at-Large, a position on the executive board that I received when I joined the organization in the early weeks of my first semester. New to college journalism as the only freshman editor, I looked forward to my time spent in the third floor office, which rang with laughter, bursts of music from our temperamental Macs and the scratching of our red pens across paper.
Like any student organization at St. Lawrence, the Hill News is governed by a constitution that the editorial board writes and submits to the student government for review. At our very first meeting, the Editor-in-Chief made his philosophy for the newspaper clear: "This is not my newspaper," he intoned. "This is our newspaper." I didn't give much thought to the implications of the statement -- if I was unfamiliar with college journalism, then I was positively brand-new to the idea of journalism ethics.
During meetings in which we discussed revising the existing constitution, I privately opposed the idea of giving the Editor-in-Chief the sole power to appoint editors and to dole out our (meager) paychecks, as well as to have the final say on what ends up being printed in the paper, but I figured that he would have the sense to not abuse his station.
One evening, I was called in by two fellow editors and asked if I would take on a story about the Koch Brothers. I had never heard of the Kochs before, but understood that the Editor-in-Chief was particularly outspoken against them. The article was to focus on how certain speakers on campus are funded by the Koch Family Foundations. Flattered and slightly bewildered, I accepted the story, and resolved to write as objective and unbiased of an article as possible. After all, said a close friend upon hearing my assignment, "no matter who they are, these are multibillionaires, and if your article is libelous, biased, or incorrectly researched, your future could be jeopardized."
With that in mind, I set out to write an article that no one, multibillionaire or not, could describe as "biased." I interviewed the Economics Department Chair responsible for selecting the funded speakers, the Dean of Academic Affairs and the Director of the Corporate and Foundation Relations Office, and finished the story on a Wednesday night. It had been a grueling, weeks-long process, but I was satisfied that I had written an article that was, to the best of my ability and knowledge, as neutral and fair as possible.
The next day, upon stopping by the office, I noticed to my dismay that the Editor-in-Chief had rearranged large sections of the article and inserted paragraphs of his own composition, one of which described the Kochs as "infamous." I was tremendously uncomfortable with the new tone of the article, especially as it was still written under my name. I said to the Editor-in-Chief, "This is my article, and I want to keep it objective," to which he replied, "This is my newspaper."
I was shocked. Here was a profound statement that was completely at odds with what I had been told at the beginning of my tenure in the organization, and the Editor-in-Chief was showing no signs of backing down. I should have fought back then, and protected the integrity of the article I had taken such pains to keep impartial, but I reasoned with myself that compromising would be sufficient.
An hour and many heated arguments later, we had reached a hard-won compromise on a few phrases, but I had to leave the office to get to class on time. I requested that a final copy be emailed to me for my approval, but no such email ever arrived in my inbox. Instead, the Editor-in-Chief later admitted he had lied, claiming he had wanted me to feel like the issue was in my hands, when in fact it was not.
Over the course of the next week, the article garnered a barrage of emails from professors and administrators alike. I explained to the parties involved how my article had been edited without my consent, which triggered another round of messages denouncing the Editor-in-Chief's dishonesty and lack of professionalism.
A mediation session between the Editor-in-Chief and me was the denouement of the entire situation. I stated that I did not feel it was ethical for any Editor-in-Chief to edit a journalist's work for content under their name, to which he replied, "If you don't like the way the Hill News is structured, then quit!... I had half a mind to take away your one-to-two hundred dollar paycheck and add it to mine, because of all the trouble this article has caused."
At that point, I could no longer quietly disagree with the Editor-in-Chief's monopoly of power. I walked out of the mediation session, resigning my position, and my name was removed from the printed staff list as quickly as it had been put on. That, so it seemed, was that.
But was it? I don't believe for a second that the issue was resolved for me by walking out. I didn't resign my position out of anger or frustration; rather, I meant for it to be the loudest action of which I was capable. Journalists, whether college students or professionals, should retain ownership of their written work and should receive at least a solid collaboration with their editors over controversial articles. While an Editor-in-Chief may legally have the power to edit however they please, actually using that power to mask their own political views under someone else's name violates the entire principle of journalism! Especially in college organizations, where mutual trust and respect governs nearly every student group, individuals who have been granted power should seek to return it to the organization's members in every way they can. Perhaps it isn't the most efficient way of running a newspaper, but I believe it is the best way.
Resigning from my college newspaper was the first time that I had taken a stand for something I believe in. I left the Hill News because to me, ethics means simply that things are done honestly and correctly -- even if it results in decreased efficiency. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but I now have a taste of what it feels like to truly believe in something.
This post has been updated from a previous version.
Follow Amy Yao on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yaoamy