BY IMRAN SYED
Published April 15, 2012
The fallout from last week’s Statement cover story — "Order and chaos: Exploring the controversy surrounding a not-so-secret society" — was quite extraordinary for one reason: The most outspoken critics and defenders of the story are really pretty much the same people: Current or recently-departed editors of The Michigan Daily. This uniquely staffed controversy brought up two important issues that I want to address.
First is the membership of Daily staffers in the student group known as Order of Angell. This controversy has confirmed my belief that it is inappropriate for editors who comprise the Daily’s leadership core to be affiliated with Order. I say this with no ill intent toward Order. Admittedly, I’m no expert on that group. I come to this conclusion solely based on the question of what is best for the Daily.
I understand that there is a long tradition of Daily editors being involved with Order (and its predecessor, Michigamua). I also recognize that Order does some positive things on campus, and that membership of a Daily editor in the group could have some potential benefit. All that said, I believe that the drawbacks of a Daily editor being involved in that group outweigh the benefits.
This opinion is informed by personal experience of several recent debates at this paper about Order membership — though I concede that many editors have joined without controversy. It’s also informed by my knowledge of how this paper works, what its needs are, and what ultimately are the journalistic and practical life lessons students are supposed to learn at the Daily.
The mere fact that joining Order is a contentious issue that causes immense friction among the Daily’s staff is reason enough to avoid it. This is not to say that editors don’t have the right to join, but just that they should show good judgment about their responsibilities as leaders at the Daily and walk away from this unnecessary controversy.
Just as importantly, consider why the Daily forbids its staffers from being involved in student government: The perceived conflict of loyalties is too much to explain. The primary responsibility and allegiance of Daily editors should be to this newspaper and student government membership seems to undermine that ideal.
Similarly, while I believe it is possible to be in Order and judiciously serve as a fair editor at this newspaper — and I take issue with any implication that recent editors who were members of the group committed breaches of journalistic ethics — I think that it is simply too fine of a line to constantly walk. And even when walked appropriately, it causes editors to preclude themselves from editing or writing certain stories — which is a deviation from their job responsibilities, and causes more work for their peers. After all, we have a choice, and we should walk away from that line.
Moving on to the second issue: The allegation that the story in question was ill-intentioned, and committed some breaches of journalistic ethics itself. It has been alleged that some sources were misled about the content of the story, and that the story selectively picked from the information provided by sources to unfairly advocate an agenda. It is impossible for me to decide the truth of this issue: I have been told exactly opposite things by people I have no reason to distrust. I will stick, then, to the bits that I can objectively comment upon.
First, the mere fact that editors who oversaw a story might have personal views on an issue does not constitute a conflict of interest, and allegations along those lines are unfair. Second, it is routine practice for many sources to be interviewed, and for only a few of them to be quoted. I am told that cumulative sources were paraphrased in this story, and I see nothing wrong with that. However, selective representation of viewpoints, under guise of telling the whole story, is never acceptable. I encourage writers and editors to be especially cognizant of that issue.
No one denies that sources were contacted at the last minute — via e-mail and Google Chat, no less. And yet, I was repeatedly told that this story was in planning and production for many months. So, there is a problem here.
The Daily has a policy of strongly favoring in-person or phone interviews over e-mail (or modes even more fluid, such as instant messaging). This policy has been taken too lightly recently, and I think this story provides a good lesson on why it must once again be strongly emphasized.
Yes, it is harder to get comments from people in person or on the phone, but that is precisely the point: Our focus as journalists is not to do things the easy way, but rather to embrace the hard way if that is called for. The reason to avoid falling back on methods like e-mail is made clear in this story: There is an incentive to wait till the last minute, to ask for “just a quick quote” as opposed to actually having a conversation and getting full information. My point here should not be contested: Some of the very people who settled for e-mail comments in the Statement story asked me to contact them by phone as opposed to simply responding to my e-mail.
Finally, given the subject of this story, and the immense disturbance it caused within this newspaper, I question what went into the decision to do this story at all. The Daily’s bylaws state that “Management Desk will have final authority over all matters concerning the editorial side of The Michigan Daily.” In practice, this has been taken to mean that controversial stories are run by M-Desk, especially stories that comment on the internal dealings of the Daily.
It would have been beneficial, and arguably was required by the Daily’s bylaws, to have run the Statement story in question by M-Desk — something that was not done. When faced with the decision about whether to run this story, M-Desk would have closely questioned its purpose, gauged its repercussions and then decided whether it was worth the trouble.
Regardless of who made the decision, part of the consideration should be how the story reflects on the public image of this newspaper. As the fallout from the story has shown, coverage in this paper of Order has become more about the Daily than about Order. There has to be a serious discussion about how healthy that is for the Daily as an institution.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.