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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Editors’ note: Clarifications regarding the Oct. 15 open letter from SGA

The following corrections are intended to clarify and provide context for certain inconsistencies within the SGA open letter signed by VPAA Aveling that was released on the evening of October 15th. A version of the letter with numbered paragraphs for easier comparison is available here.

Paragraph 4

A. The writer of the story under consideration did not agree or offer to remove the source’s quotes if others (i.e. people not the source) objected, nor allow them to read the full article before publication. S&B writers are specifically instructed not to do this because it is one of the basic expectations of journalism, that sources may not view any part of the story before publication other than direct quotes, and absolutely may not have any oversight in altering or editing them.

B. The S&B did not pursue contact with any student who explicitly stated to the S&B that they did not want to be interviewed. We completely understand that discussing this situation with reporters may have made students uncomfortable. That discomfort was not directly communicated to us during the course of our interviews, and it is standard to follow up with sources after interviews to confirm or clarify details of their interview, especially in the case of a story like this, where fact-checking needs to be foolproof.

C. The editors present at the Oct. 2 meeting with the SEPC and SGA did indicate that we thought it would not be effective for us to check in with the source regarding their comfort level with being quoted. As they agreed to an on-the-record interview and we had received no indication from them that they had changed their mind, it would have been inappropriate to insinuate to them that they should have a reason to rescind. Our “prior commitment” was to notify the source of the timeline of the story’s publication, which we did. We would also like to note that at a professional, non-student newspaper, it would be highly unlikely that an on-the-record interview would be removed from a story. SGA and the theatre and dance SEPC said that they would check in with the source to determine their comfort level. When asked for comment regarding whether or not that meeting occurred, the two organizations declined to comment on that or other follow-up questions.

Paragraph 5

A. Contacting peers of potential sources and “cold-emailing,” as the letter refers to emailing sources without notifying them beforehand, are ubiquitous practices among journalists and are often the only way to make reciprocated contact with the potential source. 

B. At the Oct. 2 meeting with SGA and the SEPC, SGA officials indicated that one specific source had expressed explicit discomfort with these methods to them. We asked for more information and again said that those people should contact us directly so that we can address any concerns. We did not receive these details, nor did any representative at that meeting mention the source’s previous “unpleasant interview experience with an Scarlet & Black journalist.”

C. The S&B requested confirmation of “explicit description[s]” of the alleged incident because confirming a vague concept of an incident is not viable factual corroboration. 

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A. This article was originally scheduled to be published weeks earlier than the actual publication date, hence the future-tense notation of Arcadia’s performance dates in the draft. When S&B editorial staff laid out the paper on the Thursday before the papers were delivered, the sentence using the future tense regarding the performance dates was not noticed or corrected during final reads of the pages. The newspapers are delivered on Monday, so this kind of error, while regrettable, does occasionally slip by due to the layout schedule.

B. In the request for comment detailed in note C. below, the S&B included a courtesy notice that the article’s publication would occur in the near future. The theatre and dance SEPC requested that we hold the article until after the end of the show due to the potential stress the article could cause to cast members during the play’s production period. The S&B agreed and held the article until after Arcadia concluded, publishing simultaneously in print and online on Monday morning. This kind of accommodation is not at all standard journalistically, but we made this decision out of respect for the students involved and to minimize potential stress while still publishing.

C. By the time the writing and editing team was finalizing the article, SGA had been involved in the story to the extent that we felt it necessary to include them as subjects of our reporting. We therefore sent a brief request for comment to SGA and the theatre and dance SEPC in order to clarify certain factual elements of the events we described in our editor’s note and to offer SGA and the SEPC room to respond. Both organizations declined to comment on the questions, which are copied below:

    1. Did SGA and the SEPC meet with [name of source], as you’d said you would on Saturday? If so, when did you meet with them, which representatives were present, and what was said?
    2. Did [name of source] at any point initiate communication with SGA or the SEPC regarding this article?
    3. Has either organization been in communication with the College administrators overseeing the conduct process?
    4. Will SGA or the theatre and dance SEPC be releasing their own statement in the near future?

D. The S&B does not and will not ever “retaliate” against any entity for any reason. The editors’ note states the series of facts that were available to us at the time of publication; as SGA and the SEPC had declined to comment on the questions listed above, we had no access to any facts other than those that we knew ourselves. The writer for the story contacted the source after the retraction to notify them immediately before the story was to be published, but the S&B did not ask the source for additional details because they had explicitly stated they did not want to be quoted or involved in the story.

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A. We clarified the terms of the off-record meeting before discussion commenced, and the students present indicated that they understood them. The terms were that the meeting would not be recorded and that the S&B would not directly quote anything said in the meeting in any future articles. As a result, the editors’ note includes only paraphrased, unidentified information, with no names, direct quotes, or specific terms used by people present. Representatives from both SGA and the S&B took handwritten notes during the meeting.

B. The “survival” and origin of our concern over the S&B’s independence is unrelated to the Mease story’s content and relies on, among other things, the off-topic and inexplicable suggestion during the Oct. 2 meeting that we are unaware of the structure of the organization that directly funds us and that a controversial story could threaten that funding. 

Paragraph 8

A. As VPAA Aveling notes in the SGA open letter, SGA expressed prior to publication that it was satisfied with the S&B’s handling of the story after the meetings had concluded and the S&B had taken sufficient care to minimize harm. The email included in the letter, which stated that SGA was satisfied with our handling of the situation, was sent to us by Aveling the night before the article was published. While SGA’s approval of our handling of a story is irrelevant to whether or not it would be published, nothing changed between the sending of this email and the story’s publication. 

Paragraph 9

A. The Scarlet & Black follows the ethical code laid out by the Society of Professional Journalists, with auxiliary additions and edits for Grinnell-specific scenarios and recognition of our positionality as students.

Paragraph 10

A. “Journalistic independence” is entirely unrelated to whether or not reporters write about communities in which they are members. An independent news source is one whose continued existence does not depend on the whims of the political and administrative bodies that it reports on. This is important because it permits the news source to publish stories that criticize people in positions of power without fear of immediate structural backlash. The S&B is wholly independent because it is overseen solely by SPARC, an organization over which neither the College nor SGA has immediate control, and is not beholden to any outside concerns or interests.

B. “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.” This statement represents a clear misunderstanding of the S&B’s independence and seems to insinuate that students’ disagreement with our coverage could warrant a change in funding. Our funding by the student activity fee does not correlate to any kind of debt or burden to give in to student interests. The implication in this letter that it should be is concerning and is reminiscent of the same pressure we felt in our Oct. 2 meeting.

C. The purpose of this article was and has always been to inform people outside of those immediately affected by Mease’s alleged conduct. That a tenured professor at the College was suspended due to the alleged assault of a student is a news item not because it is “sensational,” or because the S&B decided “to involve itself,” but because informing people not directly involved of alleged inappropriate conduct by a professor is of clear interest to the College community and should be recorded. 

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    DisappointedNov 5, 2021 at 3:38 pm

    Well done, S&B.

    This note is very helpful in getting a better idea about what happened, and it demonstrates a commitment to journalistic best practices.

    The responses from many students on-campus were deeply troubling, but you all did a good job.

    Keep up the good work.

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