A Journalist’s Tale

Alex Green was just doing what he was trained to do. As a journalism senior journalism major at Bryan College in Tennessee, he was doing what every journalist is trained to do — reporting the facts.

Apparently, this doesn’t fly at Bryan College:

Alex Green, editor of the student newspaper at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., heard over the summer that his Biblical Studies professor was leaving the school. He emailed the teacher, David Morgan, and got a confirmation — and, somewhat oddly, an attached statement from the Christian liberal arts school’s president that said the prof was off “to pursue other opportunities.”

The student editor later learned there was more to the story: Morgan had been arrested in June and faced charges after “after having attempted to meet with a minor child” at a gas station. Green wrote a story based on public records and was prepared to run it in last Friday’s Bryan College Triangle. Then school president Dr. Stephen Livesay ordered it killed.

But like I said before… Alex was doing what he was trained to do: tell the story.

He printed his story and a sidebar and distributed them on Monday […] “I placed them around campus and at the doors of dorm rooms and at public areas around the school,” he tells Romenesko readers. “They were primarily in the main administration building, the library and the student center”.

Green knows he could be expelled for distributing the story…

The Jim Romenesko link above includes Alex’s article. It is not libelous or editorialized, and all attributions are in place. In fact, his top attribution comes from an FBI press release. So why kill it?

I understand that Bryan is private college, so the same legal rules may not apply… but this story hit home for me personally, because as editor of my own student newspaper, I remember a similar instance.

One of my reporters, Josh, had been working on a story about safety on Facebook, and got the Chief of the campus police on the record saying “We have been monitoring [Facebook] very closely…” Further investigation found several officers with Facebook accounts, and Josh mentioned all of this.

The papers went to press, were distributed all over campus… and the next morning were nowhere to be found. But we had angry messages from the police station. They wanted a retraction, we refused to print one, we wanted our papers back, they never acknowledged knowing where they were.  The story was picked up by some national sources, and even seems to have had a role in the university’s “red status” from a free speech in education lobby. (NOTE: There was never any hard evidence to accuse the campus police department of the disappearances, and I am on the record as saying that it is not necessarily the case)

This isn’t the only story I remember:

  • I had phone calls from the presidents of campus organizations asking to have their members’ names left off the on-campus arrest report.
  • I had constant accusations of “misquoting” when I had someone on tape.
  • We had Student Government Association members request a secret ballot when the newspaper and television station was present, so that senators would not be seen voting to deny a gay rights organization recognition on campus.
  • We had people on campus (students and teachers) accuse us of “inventing a race problem” because we chose to report on racism among students.

People have issues with journalists. They do now, and they did then. Sometimes it’s because of accusations of bias — but I think more often than not, it’s because we reported the truths that they didn’t want to face.

In the meeting where we first decided to report on the racism on campus, my co-editor declared “The point of all this is to make a difference”. But our faculty advisor corrected him:

“No. The point of all this is to tell the story.”

Alex Green knew it. And that’s exactly what he did.