The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
May 6, 2024
Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

Oct. 15 open letter from SGA (with numbered paragraphs)

This version of the open letter from SGA excludes the “TL;DR” at the beginning of the original letter; that copy can be found here.

Dear Abraham, Eva, and Nadia,

  1. We, members of the SGA Cabinet, with the support of the Theatre and Dance SEPC, want to preface this open letter and statement by saying that we value the Scarlet & Black’s position as a credible, student-run newsource and hope to repair our relationship with you. It is necessary that we write this letter to comment on your recent editor’s note, both at the request of affected students in the theatre department and in order to justify our actions to the constituency that we represent. Please note that this entire situation has been deeply unpleasant for the students involved. We would have preferred not to write this, and regret that our earlier communications with you were not treated with the severity requested by the affected students. 
  2. You are correct that it is rare for student representatives to be involved in the details of your reporting process. It has been thankfully rare that there’s been a compelling need for this. Our involvement was directly requested by students affected by both the alleged incident and affected by the Scarlet & Black’s decision to involve itself. Actions of Scarlet & Black editors and writers made students feel sufficiently uncomfortable, pressured, and coerced that they came to SGA asking for help. This would be severe even if it wasn’t in the aftermath of the alleged physical assault, and directed towards both students who’d survived this event and students impacted by Mease’s alleged actions in other contexts and times. I have four main points to walk you through, explaining our exact reasoning and perspective in an effort to clarify what your editor’s note left unsaid.  
  3. First, your note represents the Theater & Dance Student Educational Policy Committee (SEPC) as some detached body of ‘student representatives,’ instead of people, deeply connected to all aspects of the department, speaking for their peers and for themselves. It’s important that these students were key stakeholders because you— Abraham, Eva, and Nadia— treated their concerns as if they were irrelevant and detached from the situation both while working with the SEPC and directly in your editor’s note. Three out of the five students on the ThD SEPC were directly involved with Arcadia‘s production. Two members were present for the alleged incident. All members have worked with Ellen Mease, and been harmed by her alleged behavior. Several described extreme discomfort with the investigative methods used by Scarlet & Black staff to attempt to gather information from them. Throughout the past month, they’ve been in continuous, close contact with other students affected by the incident. They asked SGA to assist them in advocacy starting about an hour after the alleged event. They requested that you not record the meeting on October 2nd for several reasons: in order to trust you with the information that they were personally affected by the alleged actions of Mease, their personal objections to both the Scarlet & Black’s manner of reporting the story and your choice to highlight the situation of the cast directly before the show’s premiere (evidence of which is detailed below), as well as their understandable fears that publishing a detailed account would invite retaliation from the alleged perpetrator, even without the fact that your key account had been obtained on false grounds, as I’ll describe next. You had enough information to understand the context of the SEPC members’ involvement and their position, and the fact that you ignored it is difficult to understand. 
  4. Second, your actions made students uncomfortable and they came to us for help of their own volition. You describe a key source that withdrew consent for the Scarlet & Black to include their story. You do not mention that this source spoke to you with the request that you (a) remove their portion of the story if anyone else involved in the situation objected and (b) show the story to them before publication. You (a) did not listen to clear discomfort from other students involved in the situation and (b) did not reach out to show your source the story before evidently rushing to publish. In fact, you told us and the SEPC that it was explicitly against your policy as a publication to show anyone a draft before publication, which means you obtained interviews with the affected student under a false pretense. You also insinuate that the SEPC or SGA pressured your source into withdrawing consent. Not only is this overwhelmingly patronizing, but in fact, the SEPC first asked you to confirm with your source that they felt comfortable with you continuing to tell their story, asking you to follow through on your prior commitment to reach out to them before publication to get their input. You declined to do this, at which point the SEPC determined it would be appropriate for a fellow cast member of Arcadia to check in with the anonymous student about prior comments they had made about feeling uncomfortable with Scarlet & Black reporting practices, particularly pressure to divulge their identity publicly. This direct follow-up from a fellow cast member to the student had not occurred when the anonymous student decided to withdraw consent, which was a wholly independent decision on their part. 
  5. Further, in the context of justifying your communication patterns with students about the Arcadia incident, you mention “multiple attempts to contact students via different forms of communication” and that you “received no notification from students that they did not wish to be contacted.” To be precise on why this is misleading, please remember that Arts Editor Nadia Langley individually messaged (and called in at least one case) at least three friends of a student who had already had an unpleasant interview experience with an Scarlet & Black journalist to ask for that student’s personal phone number, then after obtaining the number against the student’s wishes, asked that student for more information that the student had already told you they were unwilling to discuss for legal reasons, through both text and— when that was ignored— personal social media. You had already reached this student through email and had no reason to resort to personal means of communication or asking friends for their contact information. Scarlet & Black reporters also cold-emailed several members of the cast of Arcadia to ask for details, in multiple cases sending an explicit description of the reporter’s understanding of the alleged incident along with the emailed request for information. In another case, a reporter emailed a member of the cast on September 30th, shortly after being told by that member of the cast that they couldn’t discuss the incident, with the reporter’s understanding of explicit details of the alleged incident and another request to validate the details that the student had said they could not discuss. A consistent theme here is a disregard for boundaries, implicit and explicit. 
  6. Even more, it’s clear that the Scarlet & Black fully intended to highlight the circumstances faced by the cast of Arcadia right before the show opened, after cast members, crew members, and students affected by prior alleged behavior of Mease had spent time, energy, and emotional labor communicating to you their extreme discomfort with this public exposé. The Scarlet & Black’s print edition story about the alleged incident from this week literally has as its closing line, “‘Arcadia’ will hold performances in Roberts Theatre this weekend, Oct. 8-10,” despite the paper’s physical release being on October 11th. You refrained from publishing right before opening night only when the SEPC directly pleaded for you to refrain. This was after you sent them another set of demanding questions in response to the anonymous student’s withdrawal of consent, apparently with the intent to retaliate against the SEPC for the withdrawal by framing it as interference with your reporting. In doing so, you failed to consider the reality that this student withdrew this statement of their own free will. This framing is exactly the narrative you chose to publish in your October 11th editor’s note. 
  7. Third, members of the SGA Cabinet connected you to the SEPC, which brought you their concerns and students’ concerns in confidence, with the expectation that you’d be willing to work with them and us to respect the wishes of the cast of Arcadia and other affected students. Instead, you violated the explicitly agreed confidentiality of your discussions with the affected students in order to manufacture a false narrative of SGA and the SEPC threatening the freedom of the press, the survival of which was wholly dependent on the involved students not speaking out against you to describe their experiences — as some have now done on social media. 
  8. Also note that the three SGA Cabinet members involved never requested you to cancel your story; our only request was that you listen to the concerns of students with a stake in the issue and minimize the harm your planned course of actions would have knowingly or unknowingly inflicted. By respecting the anonymous source’s withdrawal of consent and respecting the affected students’ request to avoid publishing an article centering the production difficulties of the cast of Arcadia until after the performance run had concluded, we had considered you to have met your obligations of not inflicting harm, and told you exactly this on the evening of October 10th.
  9. Fourth, you frame your entire note around concerns that your journalistic freedom and independence are being threatened based on the content of things you’ve published. This is not the case. SGA has zero jurisdiction over the Scarlet & Black’s funding. However, to reiterate, a student involved was coerced into speaking to Scarlet & Black journalists on the false pretense that their wishes would be respected, your reporting practices violated explicit and implicit boundaries, and the students closest to this alleged event have been left hurt, exposed, and angry. That your journalistic practices resulted in these outcomes may have the potential to alter your conditions of operations because of the context you exist in, which you should know. The Scarlet & Black has no published ethics policy or any publicized procedure for handling a journalistic grievance. It’s also unclear if your journalists, particularly the journalist involved with this story, received any kind of training to prepare them to work with people in the aftermath of a stressful and traumatic event.

  10. This is important because, while you are somewhat independent, the Scarlet and Black is not an island. Culturally, you exist at a tiny private liberal arts college where everyone knows everyone and your intended readership is largely the students of Grinnell College. Logistically, much of your publication funding—  including your staff wages—  comes directly from the Student Activity Fee, a flat tax that all students pay into, coordinated through the College’s Office of the Treasurer. Physically, your office space exists inside the student center, a campus building. You as editors and the Scarlet & Black as a publication are inextricably enmeshed into the culture of Grinnell College as a private institution. Please do not let it be foreign to you that consent is a continuing conversation and that structural power dynamics can make it difficult for affected individuals to individually speak out against an organization’s actions. Your independence and your funding also rest on consent: the Student Publications And Radio Committee is an organization that is directly accountable to the student body, because it controls ⅓ of their student activity fee, including the student activity fees of those who felt harmed by your actions.

  11. To that end, in order for you to be effective as publication editors and for the Scarlet & Black to be effective as a publication, students need to be able to trust that your reporting will not negatively affect them through direct pressure or undesired public exposure; that you will not sensationalize, exaggerate, and omit crucial facts; and that you will consider the context of your actions. Failing to consider these has already damaged your credibility among current students, which we sincerely consider to be unfortunate. The Scarlet & Black has been a trusted organization at this college for over a century and we would like to see this continue. We hope that mistrust from the events of September and October heals and that we and other student leaders can arrive at a consensus on how best to move forward.


Ashton Aveling ‘22

Vice-President for Academic Affairs, GCSGA

With approval and consent from the Theatre & Dance SEPC, SGA Cabinet, & members of the cast of Arcadia.

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