September 26th, 2012
With Bryan College censorship, balancing seeking truth with minimizing harm
By Sonny Albarado, 2012-13 SPJ President
Events moved faster than I could write my first Freedom of the Prez post.
I’d planned to let you know SPJ is aware that the president of a small, Christian college in Tennessee ordered a student journalist not to publish a story about a former professor whom the FBI arrested over the summer in a child-sex sting.
The student editor, Alex Green, published the story on his own and distributed it on the Bryan College campus, which was courageous in my eyes. I learned about it from Jim Romenesko’s blog.
I asked Vice President of Campus Chapter Affairs Neil Ralston and President-elect Dave Cuillier to do some fact-gathering so I could decide what SPJ’s official position would be.
Meanwhile, Bryan College President Dr. Stephen Livesay issued an apology Wednesday afternoon, which you can read here.
I’m glad to see Dr. Livesay acknowledge that his action to stop the story’s publication “may have been a mistake.”
I also appreciate his openness about the administration’s thinking in stopping the story’s publication, though I disagree with it.
In a sense, this incident provides a case study in applying SPJ’s Code of Ethics, because the Code was intended to help journalists balance competing ideals as they make decisions in their reporting.
The competing ideals here:
Seek truth and report it vs minimize harm.
Alex Green, editor of the Bryan College student newspaper, the Triangle, sought out the truth behind the abrupt resignation of a respected scholar and teacher.
In his explanation about why he chose to publish his story despite Dr. Livesay’s directive, Green said he’d presumed that the professor jumped to a better job. But when the explanation he got from the school indicated the teacher left to “pursue other opportunities,” Green began trying to learn the real reason.
Green’s discovery of the professor’s arrest records in a neighboring state as well as the FBI’s press release led to the story he published and distributed on Monday.
Dr. Livesay’s apology and explanation on Wednesday shows a deep concern for the human impact of such a story (minimize harm), not just on the alleged perpetrator but on the campus community.
I admire his sensitivity and commitment to the principles under which his school operates, but I don’t agree with his news judgment.
In this case, seek truth and report it outweighs minimize harm.