Editors’ note

Update, October 16, 2020, 4:45 p.m.: Student Government Association has released a response to this editors’ note, which can be read here in addition to a statement from the S&B. 

The S&B began reporting on this story in the days following the alleged incident involving Ellen Mease. As this is one of the more sensitive and complex topics we’ve reported on in recent months, we feel that it is important that we clarify the circumstances of its publication and reveal some of the dynamics that unfolded behind the scenes during the writing of this article, which we feel have the potential to set a disturbing precedent that could limit the S&B’s future journalistic independence.

Midway through the reporting and investigation, members of Student Government Association (SGA) approached S&B staff members involved in this piece, including both editors in chief, the arts section editor who edited this piece and the writer. The SGA representatives informed us that they had been contacted by members of the theatre and dance student educational policy committee (SEPC) who were concerned about potential coercion of a key source by an S&B reporter: the source cited in the article as having withdrawn their account and identity. When pressed further for the basis of concerns, the SGA representatives did not cite any specific allegations from the source and instead told us that the concerns came from unspecified third parties.

The S&B then organized a meeting with SGA and the SEPC, which was not recorded at their request, in order to further hear their concerns and answer questions they might have about the reporting process for the story and the S&B’s ethical policies. During this meeting, the SGA and SEPC members present made it clear that they did not want to see this story published, citing concerns that the article’s publication could open any conduct investigation, if held, to legal challenges and that it would not be appropriate for the case to be made public prior to the College releasing its own statement on an investigation. The S&B has not received any indication of whether or not the College intends to release a statement on the matter nor any other information.

The S&B had considered and continues to consider these risks, but ultimately decided that publishing the piece was an important way of making Grinnell College students, staff, faculty and alumni aware of Mease’s suspension and that not publishing the article could do more harm than publishing.

Another key concern of SGA and the SEPC was that it was a misstep on the part of the S&B to approach students involved in this situation without their explicit consent to be contacted, and that our multiple attempts to contact students via different forms of communication overstepped a personal boundary and had the potential to re-traumatize. We explained that we cannot report on sensitive stories without asking people about sensitive matters, and it would have been a failure on our part to not request statements from students simply because there was a possibility the request to speak about the topic could be upsetting. We received no notification from students that they did not wish to be contacted, and should we have, we would have respected those wishes immediately. Many of SGA and the SEPC’s arguments for the article’s cancellation or delay revolved around concerns for the sources’ state of mind and well-being yet did not provide any specific complaints from interviewees.

During the meeting, one member of SGA also suggested that the sensitive nature of the story could pose a risk to the S&B’s continued funding through the Student Publications and Radio Committee, which we found both irrelevant to the topic at hand and a highly alarming insinuation coming from a high-ranking elected member of the SGA cabinet. It is our independence from the College that allows us to report on stories of this nature without fear of retaliation, and any threat to that independence should be taken extremely seriously.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the S&B advised both organizations that we would proceed with publication as scheduled unless we received compelling factual evidence that publishing the article would cause harm. SGA and the SEPC also informed us they would meet with the source in order to ensure that the source had not felt coerced or pressured to share their story with us, and to ensure that the source was aware of any potential consequences of identifying themselves publicly with the incident. We refrained from sharing our opinion on this suggested meeting so as not to place further pressure on the source from our end, but this level of interference with our reporting disrespects the boundaries between elected student representatives and journalists that allow the S&B independence from College and student government interests.

Shortly before the article was slated for publication, nearly three weeks after the reporting process began, the writer of this article received an email from the key source retracting their story on the basis that they did not want the S&B to publicize the details of Mease’s suspension prior to the College releasing a statement on the incident. The source, who had previously stated explicitly that they wanted to be identified by name and wanted their story made public, wished to retract their name and their personal account from the article, a wish that the S&B respected.

It is rare and bordering on inappropriate for student representatives to involve themselves in a story to the degree that the SGA representatives did in this case, and even more unusual for the S&B to share details about the ongoing reporting of a story with said representatives. We, the editors, made the decision to share those details because we wanted to assure SGA and the theatre and dance SEPC that we had taken precautions to give the source all the information we could know and ethically provide as journalists on what being quoted in this article would mean. Most importantly, we felt this story should be reported, for readers who might wonder why we covered it up had we not published it.

We reached out to the SGA and SEPC members who were involved in this story for comment, and they all either declined to speak on the record or did not respond. We are electing not to name any of the individuals present at the meetings mentioned in this note, other than the S&B staff members who attended.

Abraham Teuber and Eva Hill, editors in chief, and Nadia Langley, arts editor