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American University Student Newspaper: "We Are Sorry" For Opnion Column Controversy

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From The Eagle Newspaper

The fact of the matter is that The Eagle did not approach the publication of Alex Knepper’s most recent column entirely correctly. For this, we are sorry.

The editors involved in the decision to publish, Editor-in-Chief Jen Calantone, Managing Editor for News Charlie Szold and Editorial Page Editor Joe Wenner focused on whether or not this newspaper should censor Knepper’s opinions because they were controversial. We decided that it would be bad form to censor opinions based solely on the controversy they would cause, especially when the opinions focus on something as important to a college community as the issue of date rape.

We stand by our decision to publish controversial opinions and will continue to publish opinions that a majority or minority of the campus community find wrong and potentially offensive.

However, we should have demanded that Knepper’s column be written in a tone befitting such a serious issue. With a topic as controversial and emotionally charged as date rape, we should have ensured that the column was written in a manner that would have engendered constructive conversation. Instead, it inflamed an already sensitive issue and emotionally harmed many.

We have heard back from editors of newspapers, past editors of college publications and many have said similar things: it should have been more thoroughly edited. It should have been improved. This is true, and we regret confusing better editing for censorship. We apologize for our mistake and will do our best to ensure that it will never happen again.

The basic problem with what we published, and the impetus for our reforms, is that we violated the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. There is a provision in there that says simply, "Minimize harm." By publishing this column we caused undue and unnecessary harm by allowing more bombast than reason, more insults than debate.

Because of the seriousness of the issue and the potential for a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue arising from Knepper’s opinion, The Eagle believes that we should have published a counter-point to Knepper’s opinion in the same issue and also provided the legal definitions of date rape as well as resources for women and men affected. In this way, we could have supported Knepper’s right to express himself and ensured that the debate would be more healthy and informed.

We will be doing our best to make up for the original mistake by publishing lists of resources today, as well as a more responsible take on the issue of date rape. We also encourage readers to check AU’s Student Handbook for the university’s policies concerning sexual assault. In this way we hope to fix a debate we partly broke.

Part of our decision to publish was based on faulty and incomplete policies regarding our editorial control over columnists. Because there is a high turnover of editors at college newspapers, often policies shift and change from editor to editor. As a result, some policies that should be well defined are instead a hodgepodge of previous editors’ personal policies stapled together. This has worked relatively well in the past, but has clearly reached its limit.

One such "hodgepodge" policy regarded columnists.

A newspaper primarily publishes staff editorials, articles, op-eds, letters to the editor and columns. Staff editorials represent the opinions of the editorial board and are written by the editorial page editor. As such, they represent exactly our opinions and we take full responsibility for what is said. Articles are in the news, Scene and sports sections of the newspaper and are, ideally, supposed to be completely factual and devoid of opinion.

A column is something completely different and extremely tricky. Columnists are hired by the editorial page editor at the beginning of the year and are ensured space in our newspaper once every two weeks. Previously, we have taken a hands-off approach with columnists, precisely because they explicitly do not represent The Eagle. Columnists mostly devote three to four hours every two weeks toward writing their columns, while some members of the Eagle staff can spend anywhere from 20 to 50 hours per week working on this newspaper. Now, we see that despite our insistence that columnists are not on staff and do not represent our views, we are perceived to tacitly support what we publish.

To ensure this does not happen again, The Eagle must make a pragmatic move: understand that our columnists are partly seen to represent the newspaper and take more responsibility for what we publish. Until we have a specific policy to do this, The Eagle will be temporarily suspending the publication of all opinion columns. It is important that we first focus on getting back to doing what a newspaper should be doing — namely, reporting the news. Furthermore, we will be defining and codifying policies regarding columnists. We will be speaking with all columnists currently writing for our paper and explaining the new policies as they are developed. Until the policies are written and until the columnists understand the new requirements, we will not publish columns.

Letters to the editors and op-eds represent the views of only those with their byline attached and no one else. They will undergo the same editing and will meet the same criteria as columns in the future. Due to the extreme importance of letters to the editor and their role in allowing the community to give feedback to this newspaper, we will continue publishing them, even before we have completely defined the new regulations.

At The Eagle, we do strive to be the “independent voice” of the student body. For us to more accurately represent all ideological spectrums on campus, we implore those who feel under-represented to apply for columnist and staff positions on The Eagle next year. A diversity of voices is important in a newspaper and we need the help of the student body to make this happen.

Another topic of controversy has been our policies regarding comments on our Web site. Again, this is a situation where our policies are not defined well enough and need clarification. Usually, the Eagle staff informally moderates comments and ensures that comments deemed offensive or threatening are removed in a timely fashion. This does not work when a story receives over 100 to 200 comments in short periods of time. Again, we were in a situation where our policies could not withstand the reality of our situation. We will be working to create a comprehensive policy regarding comments on our stories. Furthermore, we will be adding features to flag posts deemed offensive.

As for our decision to turn comments off on Knepper’s column the morning it was published — at that point, comments were clearly turning in dangerous directions and there would be no editors to monitor what was said overnight. It was a tough decision and, again, it just proves to us again how important it is for The Eagle to better and more openly define certain nebulous policies.

Again, we stand by our right to publish controversial opinions. However, we sincerely apologize for the harm that this column caused. Speaking with people that have been affected by this column and listening to their stories has personally affected everyone on staff. The intention was not to harm, though we clearly did. We take responsibility for this mistake and will make sure — through new policies and new perspectives learned — that this does not happen again.

—THE EAGLE’S EDITORIAL BOARD

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