Important lessons on journalism were learned this week when a student editor at a local Christian college defied his college’s president to get news out.
Alex Green, editor-in-chief of the Bryan College Triangle, planned to publish a story when he found out that one of his Biblical studies professors, David Morgan, had left the university after being charged with attempted child molestation.
Morgan was accused of meeting two underage girls at a gas station in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., by officers in an FBI sting. He resigned this summer. An official statement from the college gave a benign reason for his departure, saying he left to “pursue other opportunities.”
When Green, 22, got the police records, he waffled about what to do with them. He discussed it with other student journalists, with his advisors and, finally, with the college’s president. Bryan President Stephen Livesay decided to kill the story. The president said the school didn’t know if the charges against the well-respected teacher were true.
But rumors were already circulating on campus, Green said.
“A lot of students had misinformation,” he said. “They had a little bit of the story and some had even filled in the gaps with things that were not true. We wanted to present the facts and dispel some of the rumors.”
So on Monday he used his own money to print 300 fliers that he spread around campus.
The decision took two months to make, and he had no idea what it would trigger.
“Honestly, I had no idea the power that I was about to yield. I didn’t expect it to go off campus,” he said.
Bryan College and Green learned this week what all news men and women know. The truth can be tough to swallow, but it always gets out.
Livesay seemingly forgot that the First Amendment guarantees free speech and a free press, but he made another blunder. With public records, the Internet and social media, few things are secret these days. And it’s better to present the facts than hide them.
His actions ultimately made the college look a lot worse than if the school paper had published the story. That’s because the story of Green’s fliers went viral. Fast. Journalism bloggers wrote about it, and even the widely read Huffington Post covered the controversy.
Now, not only the students of Bryan College know about the arrest, but so do an untold number of people who’ve read it on the Web. And the school has a black eye for appearing to have tried to cover up the arrest.
In a statement, Livesay said the student paper falls under his administration’s authority because it is produced as part of a class and student journalists receive academic credit.
All papers fall under someone’s authority — an owner, a corporation, shareholders, even nonprofits in some cases — but the legitimate ones still are free to publish the news. Bryan’s student editors and reporters won’t learn about journalism if they are taught to whitewash news or, worse, ignore it.
In the end, Livesay did something commendable — and uncommon — he admitted he may have been wrong.
“In hindsight, this may have been a mistake,” he wrote in the statement, which was released after the story went viral. “We believed we were doing the right thing to protect the privacy of a man charged, but not convicted, of a crime. ... If we have upset or offended anyone relating to this situation, we apologize.”
Journalism is about making difficult decisions.
Sometimes it’s about publishing stories you wish you didn’t have to, the ones that make your community look bad or the arrest of someone you know or the fact that your kid’s school got bad test scores. But journalists cannot pick and choose. They cannot treat some people or situations differently because they have a personal connection.
And they have to see the story through. If Morgan is proven not guilty, then that should be news as well.
Green learned a hard lesson about making those difficult choices.
After he distributed the fliers, he said he realized he’d hurt people. He also realized that journalists have a tremendous platform but that there are enormous consequences.
“Free speech can be dangerous, and I don’t think I understood the gravity of it or the power of it,” Green said.
Green took a bold step. He did the right thing. He may not realize it, but he illuminated something essential about the role of the press. If he keeps showing such guts, he’ll make a fine journalist.
Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at email@example.com. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.