Student Name Should Not Have Been Released

An opinion published in the Robert Morris University student newspaper:

The purpose of a university newspaper is not to depict students or the school in a negative light, but to talk about positive stories, current events, campus activities etc. Now imagine a high school kid looking to come to RMU, a parent wishing to send his/her daughter here…they decide to pick up the December 12th edition of the sentry…front page…”RMU Student Faces Multiple Drug Charges.” What a great way to promote the school! This was in very bad taste for a front page article… Speaking for myself and other students I have spoken to, this is our school and we don’t want articles like this on the front page of our school newspaper.

I’m the adviser of Seton Hill University’s newspaper, and I don’t tell the editor what to publish or where to put the stories. I do confess that I have encouraged them to save their heavy-hitting, critical stories for the issues they publish during the regular semester, and to treat the Summer Orientation issue as an opportunity to build community and recruit new staff members.  So the editor does need to exercise tact. Yet, recently the students published an issue with a front-page article about drug abuse on campus, and the university president said she was proud to distribute it to the board members.

Here’s the comment I left on the RMU Sentry’s website:

A very important function of a university newspaper — something that a PR office cannot supply — is giving students the opportunity to practice journalism. And students cannot practice journalism unless they have the editorial freedom to publish stories that will make some people uncomfortable.  Surely RMU already has a venue for publicizing all the positive stories.

Because the student faces a felony charge, and had already been suspended from classes and kicked out of the dorms as per RMU policy, the event seems newsworthy. I would like to have seen evidence that attempts were made to get the accused student’s side of the story, but the article does include a quote describing what will happen if the student is found not guilty — a clear reminder to the public that the courts have not yet heard the case.

Perhaps the author of this letter (Jason?) should join the staff of the Sentry and work his way up to being on the editorial board, where he can help make decisions such as where to place stories, whether to name names, and whether to publish critical letters to the editor without fully identifying the author.

If the students do their jobs as journalists, they will end up publishing stories that upset some people. Reporting that police have charged someone with a crime is not a violation of the suspect’s privacy — it’s a matter of public record. Let’s imagine that a student paper published a photo of a student being led across campus in handcuffs, when the police ended up realizing they had the wrong person, or for some other reason they released him without filing any charges. That would be ethically questionable.