On Feb. 16, the Thresher published an article I co-wrote titled “SA addresses campaign ethics concerns.” I would like to discuss some of the concerns members of the Rice community have raised and be transparent about the Thresher’s journalistic ethics and the right to privacy. The thoughts I express are mine and mine alone based on my three and a half years of experience with the Thresher, during which I have served as the News Editor and Managing Editor.
I strongly encourage any students who have opinions about this article (and really, any article) to pen a letter to the editor in response. LTTEs serve to not only increase dialogue among the community, but also to foster a better newspaper by broadening perspectives and raising issues that the Thresher staff may not have considered in the newsroom.
For any article we publish, especially an investigative piece, the first step in the writing process after completing all gathering of evidence is to ask ourselves: What is the news in this piece that is of greatest concern to and has the most pertinent effect on our community? What is most relevant to the body we directly serve, namely, undergraduate students at Rice?
With the community’s interests in mind, we examine every aspect of an article to ensure we include only the most relevant facts to communicate the news at hand. Each detail in the story must serve this purpose. If at any point a staff member points out that a detail may be extraneous, we discuss the reasons whether or not to retain it with the understanding that the detail can only be included if it is supporting what is newsworthy.
If any interviews or material evidence involve another student, we provide that student an informed and sincere opportunity to comment, and respect their decisions to keep their statements on or off the record. Finally, once we have written the article, we comb through each line to ensure we are not editorializing any statements that individuals have made.
Every member of this community has the right to privacy and free speech. However, when one’s actions become newsworthy, one’s private actions can become public according to journalistic ethics. Given the Thresher’s purpose, actions that are newsworthy are those that directly affect and concern undergraduate students at Rice. This is why we provide coverage for matters concerning the Student Association, but choose not to cover national political news unless it involves or has a direct and prominent impact on the undergraduate community (e.g. the Women’s March on Austin or President Trump’s immigration ban).
We do not grant anonymity lightly. As writers for a newspaper that depends on the First Amendment, we tend to favor free speech, and the bar for meriting any sort of censorship is high. When an individual’s actions become newsworthy, the Thresher is not at all journalistically responsible for protecting their identity, regardless of what these actions were. In this matter, the Thresher differs from Rice administration, which is required to protect students’ identities in judicial matters due to federal regulations.
As a newspaper, we exist to serve the student body with the news that concerns and affects them, not to protect individuals from the consequences of their own actions. Anonymity is a privilege. We typically do not offer anonymity for those whose actions are newsworthy, and only consider anonymity if the source’s position would become directly threatened as a result of their providing information to the press. For example, we have previously granted the privilege of anonymity to individuals who have commented on their hard drug use at Rice. Individual drug use is not newsworthy to the undergraduate body, and revealing their identity could result in the loss of their position as a Rice student due to SJP adjudication and/or criminal charges. Conversely, we have refused the privilege of anonymity to individuals after evaluating that their position would not be threatened if they chose to reveal their identity.
Regarding the article “SA addresses campaign ethics concerns,” there was only one decision for which, at least in my memory, the Thresher has not had any precedence, and that is whether to include this individual’s email in full online. After receiving the individual’s public statement, we had little choice but to include the email. Given that the individual in question accused us of fabricating the entire story, we decided it was necessary to provide hard evidence rather than just quotes. We wanted to enable readers to decide for themselves whether this was indeed “fake news.” Publishing the email falls within journalistic rights, as a reasonable expectation of privacy was lost when this individual’s actions became newsworthy.
I thoughtfully consider and grapple with any concerns about the Thresher, and I look forward to reading an array of criticisms and suggestions on our Opinions page next week. If you would instead like to talk privately, about this or any topic, as always, feel free to email me.