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Opinion: The Collegian must remain independent of ASWU to best serve campus community

Noah Dantes

Contributing Writer

Update: The resolution is being repeatedly edited after the fact but this piece was accurate at the time of publishing.

Graphic by Maizy Goerlitz

Note: Noah Dantes has been on the Collegian’s staff for over three years and served as the paper’s Editor-in-Chief for the 2020-21 school year. His opinion is his alone and he does not speak for the paper as a whole.

A [proposed Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) resolution up for discussion Thursday, Feb. 3] and voting Thursday, Feb. 10 would radically restructure The Collegian. Its passage would give ASWU the power to fire any Collegian staffer, transform the paper’s Editor-in-Chief into an elected position, restructure the paper’s editorial board, rewrite the paper’s mission statement and more. The resolution is authoritarian and unnecessary. It is not, and should not, be ASWU’s job to restructure the campus community’s independent student newspaper. This resolution, if passed, would fatally undermine the paper’s ability to produce independent and impartial journalism and permanently harm campus discourse. It is critical that this resolution fails so that The Collegian can continue to fulfill its central mission: representing the diversity of perspectives on campus independently. Journalistic independence is essential to any representative democracy’s success.

The resolution asserts that since The Collegian is a “major beneficiary of student funds” it must have “sufficient democratic oversight.” The resolution further states that the paper should be “published by the student government” and proceeds to write the paper’s mission statement, core duties and responsibilities, land acknowledgement and more. Hypocritically, it states that the paper must be a “totally independent journalistic body” controlled only by the paper’s executive board, while on top of the above, the bill gives ASWU the authority to remove members from said board. The resolution also outlines The Collegian’s election and replacement procedures, in effect dictating the paper’s structure from top to bottom.

There is no debate: journalistic ethics, history and [the First Amendment] make it clear that state-run (or state-influenced) media is both unethical and a recipe for disaster. It has long been industry practice to keep the government out of journalism—even NPR, which receives public funding, operates independently from the government.

Some may claim that I overstate the risk of ASWU influencing content decisions, or otherwise controlling The Collegian past its restructuring. But why risk it at all? The Collegian does not get to publish anything it wants: ASWU already has the power to strip The Collegian of funding if it sees fit. The Collegian is not exempt from the rules that any other student organization has to follow. As students, we are all held accountable by University-level conduct policies and its violation processes. Additionally, The Collegian has internal policies and procedures for staff removal, including for its Editor-in-Chief. There are many laws constraining journalism, especially student journalism, including regulation against slander and libel. The Collegian considers letters to the editor submission through its website so that non-staff voices can be heard. The Collegian is already accountable to ASWU and the University, and more importantly, the student body.

Journalism inherently carries tremendous political and social power, and there is a [large code of ethics and best practices] out there that outlines how to best handle that duty responsibly. Beyond the existing literature, The Collegian has had [its own mission statement and policies] for several years and recently published its own [land acknowledgement]. All staff at The Collegian are required to attend training at the start of every semester. This is informed by a professional, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and by the wide array of literature already available out there. Staff is also able to attend national student journalist conferences where they can gain additional experience and knowledge not available at Willamette. I had the privilege of attending an antiracism in journalism seminar last spring with the rest of the executive team, which we used to inform our antiracism action plan. The resolution states that The Collegian needs to “develop and maintain a code of ethics and responsibility,” ensure all activities are “diligently compliant with the code” and “conduct comprehensive training for its members on journalistic standards and excellence.” The resolution writers have clearly not talked to Collegian leadership, since the paper has already accomplished all three objectives independently from ASWU.

ASWU does not know how to do The Collegian’s job better than The Collegian. Furthermore, it is not ASWU’s responsibility to determine the leadership of any student organization on campus other than their own. If the resolution passes, The Collegian would become the first student organization that had its structure and leadership selection process entirely determined by ASWU, which would set a dangerous precedent. While most of what the resolution sets forth has already been done independently, its two new proposals are irresponsible:

  1. Journalism at its best serves the public, but transforming the leadership of the student newspaper into an election contest is seriously problematic. The most popular candidate for the paper’s leadership might not be the best to actually lead it. All Collegian Editor-in-Chiefs have several years of experience working at the paper before leading it, and that experience is vital to ensure the campus community is served in a respectful, careful, timely and diligent manner. While the training that all staff has to attend every semester is helpful, many of the lessons of journalism are learned mainly through experience, as it is with any other position.

  2. While the resolution claims that no firing decisions will be made as a result of published content, this is impossible to enforce practically, since true intentions can always be kept private while other reasons are invented. The restructuring of the paper as outlined by the bill is a massive overstep by ASWU. This resolution would, in effect, allow ASWU to influence what’s published and what isn’t, because it creates incentives for Collegian staffers to stay in favor with ASWU. An Editor-in-Chief that could be removed by ASWU might be more reluctant to cover [its deficiencies] or [controversies].

The Society of Professional Journalists [defines the four key principles of journalism]: to seek the truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and to be accountable and transparent. While The Collegian is a student newspaper, which differs in several ways from a professional newspaper, its core principles remain the same. Transforming the leadership of the student newspaper into an election contest and increasing ASWU oversight over the paper’s operations would destroy the paper’s ability to meet any of those four core principles. The resolution would allow ASWU to, in effect, control “the truth,” and I cannot see any other purpose for this resolution other than that objective. The University recognizes the paper’s need for independence by not attempting to control the Collegian’s content decisions. Everything published by the paper is decided upon solely by student staff. ASWU should recognize the same by voting this resolution down Thursday, Feb. 10.

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