Archive for the ‘journofish’ Category

Swimming with sharks


This story has legs.

Exactly a year and a day ago, Nicole DeCriscio was editor of the student newspaper at DePauw University in Indiana.

Exactly one year ago, she was fired.

The circumstances were both suspicious and audacious, but the whisper-quiet senior’s first reaction was the most common one I’ve seen in 18 years of working with college journalists. She did nothing.

Eventually, she did something brave and rare. She defended herself. SMACK wrote about her twisted tale in a long post called Fishy at DePauw.

That story ended with SMACK using DePauw’s own rules to pay DeCriscio to speak at a college media convention in New York City – about how DePauw wrongfully fired her. It was a weird and wonderful weekend.

So what happened after? Well, despite DePauw officials dropping huge hints that she was jeopardizing her journalism career by, you know, sticking up for journalism, DeCriscio landed a job as a reporter for a small Indiana daily. Interestingly, DePauw boasted about this in a news release that mentions she was editor – but not that she was fired.

So all’s well that started stupidly, right? Sure, but at a cost.

SMACK exists to defend college journalists willing to defend themselves. Alas, few do. Even if it all works out in the end, there’s much to fear in the beginning and fret about in the middle. So DeCriscio asked us to post her story below. She wants college journalists to know the emotional toll  that being right can take – and that it’s still worth it…


A year ago today, I was fired as Editor-in-Chief from my campus newspaper, The DePauw, for alleged ethical violations that SPJ’s own ethics chair couldn’t fathom.

And with the exception of accepting interviews about what happened and speaking at CMA’s NYC16, I’ve remained quiet on the issue. That silence ends today.

The Background:

If you would’ve told me in August 2015 at the start of my term that a few months later I would be wrongfully fired, I would’ve called you crazy.

DePauw had and still has a long, rich history in producing strong, successful journalists despite the lack of a journalism school. I would have told you that the newspaper was completely independent of the university, and there wasn’t a story that we weren’t allowed to do. I was wrong on both counts.

While the newspaper had a standing contract with the university to rent the space for the newsroom and paid for production through advertisement sales and a fund set up in Barney Kilgore’s name, the university absorbed all of the tax liability for the newspaper, paid for a faculty adviser and had faculty members sit on a Publication’s Board that acted as a publisher for the newspaper.

That Publication’s Board selected the Editorial Board, and they were the ones to vote for my removal as Editor. And to sum up what happened, I was fired for writing a story with an unpopular opinion. (You can read about what happened here.)

The Experience:

I cried, a lot.

Like most college journalists, I spent more of my waking hours in the newsroom than anywhere else on campus. I did homework in the newsroom. I slaved over the campus newspaper twice-a-week from the start of my freshman year until I was fired. I was a staff member of The DePauw first and foremost, and then I was a student at DePauw University. My identity was not rooted in the university – it was rooted in that publication, so being fired meant that I lost not just my job, but my identity and my home. The newsroom was my safe space.

People thought I was still editor.

Because the campus newspaper never wrote a piece about my firing and the SPJ piece didn’t come out until well after my term would have been over, much of the campus thought that I was still Editor. And the Editor that replaced me made some judgment calls that I was continually questioned about because nobody knew I was fired. In fact, I had professors and peers who asked me the last week of school, seven months later, how things were going at the paper.

I was scared of backlash.

When I finally decided that I wanted to go on the record with SPJ’s SMACK on what happened. I was afraid of what the university or the key players would do to me. I prepared myself for things like a journalism professor intentionally failing me or the university withholding my diploma. And I prepared myself to fight those things.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional warfare that ensued.

The university didn’t have to do anything to me to make my life miserable. I had members of the DePauw community send me mean emails questioning me for speaking to a reporter. I was called a liar, among other things. Rather than looking to those who made the decision to fire me for answers, people blamed me for the spotlight that was cast on the university. Somehow, even though SPJ had determined that I should not have been fired, I was still “in the wrong.”

I was slandered, and the reasoning for my firing changed with every interview.

In the letter that they gave me, the reason for my firing was that I had “created a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest,” which they concluded was an ethical breach. After SPJ’s SMACK article on my firing, the reason was that they saw a pattern of uneven coverage from the onset and questioned my objectivity in the first two articles. The same coverage won a SPJ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Award. And finally, it was because I wrote the piece for another publication, which directly contradicted the letter I received when I was fired.

 I felt alone.

I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of support from other journalists that I know that were outside of the DePauw bubble. For a while. I had frequent phone calls and emails with Michael Koretzky and [SPJ FOI chairman] Gideon Grudo. Don’t get me wrong. There were people at DePauw who provided support throughout the ordeal, and a lot of recent alumni offered to do whatever I needed. But there wasn’t any concrete things others could do for me because nobody did anything to me. The only thing anyone could do was try to understand what I was feeling and offer moral support.

With the exception of a friend who worked at a newspaper two hours away, the only support I had from journalists were hundreds of miles away, and that felt isolating. Koretzky and Grudo knew how to help me cope with what was happening because they had experienced similar assaults on college media at Florida Atlantic University, but as they pointed out numerous times, it was so common at FAU that there was this built-in support network that I lacked at DePauw.

The experience tarnished my senior year.

Being Indiana’s Oldest College Newspaper, The DePauw has a lot of traditions, some of which are secret. That being said, there is one particular tradition in which the entire staff gets together, shares memories, talks about those who have come and gone and honors the seniors. The staff recalls first memories of the graduating seniors and says nice things about them. And in return, the seniors pass along advice and encouragement, saying things like, “It may not feel like it, but what you do matters” and, “Keep on fighting the good fight.” The seniors also talk about how, contrary to popular belief, there are jobs in journalism.

Because of my firing, I was never able to experience that tradition as a senior.

One Year Later:

The same people who made the decision to fire me told me that I had ruined my job prospects by the SPJ article coming out. While I knew it at the time because Koretzky told me, I now know they were trying to cover themselves. In fact, in the first 12 job applications that I sent out, I had in-person or phone interviews for four positions. From those interviews, I had one official job offer and one tentative one. I chose to keep looking for a position that I felt would be a better fit for me.

At every job interview, I was asked why I was fired and if I would do it again. And my answers were always the same: I wrote a column with an unfavorable opinion and yes. I was able to say, “Don’t take my word on the situation. SPJ wrote a piece about it. Want me to send you the link?” And at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would because the wounds hadn’t healed yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone who disagreed with SPJ’s thoughts on my firing.

The 13th application was lucky. Not only was I offered a position, but I accepted a job at a small paper in Indiana where I am the education beat reporter and a designer. Though, at a small paper, beats are really more suggestions, and I pick up a lot of stories outside of my beat too.

And the irony of it all is when talking to the editors who hired me, I found out that the article I wrote a year and 12 days ago, the article that resulted in my firing and led to all of the pain and turmoil, was the same article that was at least partially responsible for their decision to offer me the job. They said that the deeper level of thought and clear writing on a complex issue impressed them enough to hire me.

Now, when people ask if I would give some street preachers a couple sandwiches and write about it, I give them a yes, without a doubt. Because even in the limited retrospective view I have with a year’s distance, I can say that everything worked out, which is why, even after the hell I was put through, tonight when I get off work, I’ll raise a glass and toast to Old DePauw.

Fishy at DePauw


What’s a journo-fish?

Years ago, I read a bizarre New York Times science article called Sex Change in Fish Found Common. It began…

When a school of reef fish loses its single male, the largest female begins acting like a male within a few hours and will produce sperm within 10 days.

Wild, right?

But that doesn’t just happen in schools of fish. Something similar happens in schools of journalism.

Sadly, some journalists who become professors begin acting like administrators within days. Instead of sperm, they produce spin. I wrote about it last month, when several journos-turned-profs illegally closed a meeting of a Journalism Task Force.

Now it’s happened at DePauw University, an hour outside Indianapolis – and the birthplace of SPJ more than a century ago. A brand-new professor, who was previously an excellent journalist, helped depose a student editor for what she calls a “breach of ethics.”

Except it wasn’t. Even SPJ’s ethics chairman says so.


She’s a whale of a reporter.

The newspaper at DePauw is called, uncleverly, The DePauw. It’s 164 years old, but a new adviser started just this school year.

I met Meg Kissinger during her first week on the job, when I visited DePauw to lead a four-day training seminar for the newspaper staff. She was quite nice. Which, of course, makes what happened next quite awful.

Kissinger has spent 38 years on the job, many of them as an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist who specializes in covering mental health. (Check this out, it’s very cool.)

Kissinger graduated from DePauw in 1979, so it only made sense she’d return to train a new generation of kick-ass journalists.

Yet last semester, she – along with a group of school officials – removed The DePauw’s editor-in-chief for what they call “a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest.”

What did this editor do? She gave a preacher a sandwich.


She’s a pain in the bass.

In September, Nicole DeCriscio covered a familiar story: Crazy preachers who tour college campuses to verbally assault sinning students.

At DePauw, The Campus Ministry USA sent five members to harangue passing students as “baby killers, masturbators, porno freaks, feminists” and other interesting insults.

At most campuses, students mock the preachers, while campus cops roust anyone getting too agitated. When the drama ebbs, the traveling show moves on.

Not at DePauw.

DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ first visit, which so angered one woman, she threw hot coffee at them. Police officers even tackled a student and an administrator — both black men. Suddenly, the cops were the story, and the campus outcry was enough for DePauw’s president to call an “open forum” to talk about both the preachers and the police.

DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ follow-up visit the next week, which was anti-climactic. Prepared this time, students and faculty laughed at the preachers, and police sighed with relief.

Undaunted, the preachers tried one last time before migrating to another campus. Figuring the story was over, DeCriscio decided to do something different and dig a little deeper. So she wrote a first-person column called Why I Brought Brother Jed A Sandwich

I think that if they turned in their signs reading “You promote rape” and “Yoga pants are a sin” for something like “Ask me about Jesus Christ,” they would be far more effective. Each of them have a remarkable testimony that has the power to change the hearts and minds of others. It has the ability to bring others to Christ…I’m sad that my brothers and sisters in Christ at DePauw, which even include some members of the faculty and staff, failed to demonstrate Christ’s love.

That was too much for Kissinger. DeCriscio was fired 12 days later.


Carping on this letter.

DeCriscio was fired the old-fashioned way: She was handed a letter on stationery. (Click the image above to read it.) Her offense was explained like this…

You had already established yourself as a reporter covering the news of the events surrounding Campus Ministries’ visit to campus. By inserting yourself as an interested actor within the ongoing news story, you created a conflict of interest that was both avoidable and ultimately damaging to the reputation of The DePauw.

When I called Kissinger to ask if the editor was really fired for writing an opinion column, the conversation went like this…

Kissinger: The problem was, how could she  impartially oversee coverage of the story for the rest of the semester?

Me: But Nicole says the story was over. She told  me, “When I wrote the column about the sandwich, the  preachers had no intention of coming back to DePauw that semester.”

Kissinger: There’s no way of knowing that.

Me: Fair enough, but she says if they did come back, she’d just assign the story to someone else – which she can do, because, I mean, she’s the editor. Is this really a firing offense?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired.

Me: Uh…what?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired. She was suspended for the remainder of her term.

Me: What’s the difference?

Kissinger: Well, it’s not like she’s banned from the paper.

Me: She’s not?

Kissinger: She’s welcome to write any other stories for the paper. She knows that. She’s welcome to write a review for the paper, and she can cover another story.

Me: But if she wrote something so terrible that it got her fired, why is it OK for her to write something else now?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired, Michael. She was suspended because it was a conflict of interest for her to express her opinion. Really, that’s in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Except it’s really not.


He’s saying, “Holy mackerel!”

As SPJ’s ethics chair, Andrew Seaman‘s job is usually one of nuance and restraint. Many ethical conundrums require sublime parsing.

Not this one.

“I take issue with the adviser’s draconian approach,” he told me after reading the letter and Kissinger’s explanation. “I don’t think giving protesters sandwiches and drinks really interferes with Nicole’s ability to do a good story.”

Even if it did, “I still say the offense didn’t fit the punishment – especially for a student publication.”

As Seaman explains…

Student newspapers are laboratories for journalists in training. Unless an offense is on par with plagiarism, fabrication, and the ilk, professors and advisers should use perceived errors as educational moments.

But he doesn’t perceive any errors…

The SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.” Didn’t Nicole live up to that by explaining her actions? Really, Nicole could argue she addressed nearly all of the principles under the Code’s tenet to “be accountable and transparent.”

Seaman is stunned – and galled – that SPJ’s Code of Ethics was twisted into a reason to fire a student editor…

As someone who helped write the revised Code of Ethics and served as its guardian since its adoption, I can say DePauw’s actions are not keeping with the spirit of the document. In my opinion, everyone there overreacted, took Draconian action, and now are stuck defending those decisions.

Seaman’s conclusion: “In the grand scheme of things, the editor of a student publication took some protesters food and drinks. Is that really worth all this trouble? I don’t think so.”


The sole reason for all this.

If DeCriscio was fired – er, suspended – for violating SPJ’s Code of Ethics when SPJ’s ethics chair says she didn’t, something fishy is going on here.

DeCriscio thinks it was this…

The campus had decided to hate Brother Jed. Because I saw him as a whole person, I think it was the content why I got fired. Meg said the same thing would have happened if I wrote about kittens, but I don’t believe that.

My theory is slightly different: DeCriscio was also fired to protect an adviser who she says drank with her students in the newsroom.

When I visited DePauw last summer, I asked the newspaper’s editors what they did for fun when they weren’t doing journalism. The answer: “We drink.” How much? “A lot.”

The students told me drinking is a huge problem at DePauw, and they credit the administration with valiantly trying to keep it sane. But they also say it doesn’t make a dent.

“There’s nothing else to do around here,” the (under-aged) art director told me, waving a hand to indicate the entire town of Greencastle, Indiana.

The week I visited, I hung out with the editors on deadline – and watched many of them rush through production so they could go drink. The art director joked, “We should just start drinking in the newsroom.”

A few weeks after I left, DeCriscio said that’s exactly what happened – and Meg Kissinger drank with the staff.

“My staff first drank on deadline the Thursday before Brother Jed’s visit,” she says. “They started around 7. They also mostly hid it from me by putting it in closed water bottles. That was the night that Meg drank with them.”

Stunned, I asked DeCriscio for details.

“I saw her drinking out of a paper coffee cup,” she told me. “I overheard my staff say, ‘I hope Meg didn’t drink all our wine.’ It was wine. She also later admitted to me that she drank with them.”

(I’ve asked Kissinger about this twice via email, but her only reply has been, “Drinking did not factor in the decision.”)

The following week, now assuming they had the adviser’s blessing, the editors didn’t bother with water bottles. DeCriscio says…

“They went to pull out the wine around 7 or 7:30. I asked them to wait until closer to the end of deadline night. They waited an hour.  I was pissed that my asking them to wait wasn’t enough. I was pissed that the advisers hadn’t helped me put an end to it after the first incident. I don’t know how much wine they had coming into that night, but they left four large empty bottles in the trash.

DeCriscio isn’t straight-edge or a teetotaler. What infuriated her about the drinking was the shoddy journalism that resulted from it. But at DePauw, the editor-in-chief can’t fire staffers who were hired before her term – and the drinkers were staffers she inherited. So she complained to Kissinger and the publication board. She didn’t feel like her complaint was embraced.

“They called this kumbaya meeting with the editorial board and said, ‘This must stop’ because it’s against university policy,” DeCriscio says.  But there was no investigation, punishment, or monitoring. It was never mentioned again.

Interestingly, The DePauw also never mentioned its editor being fired (I mean suspended). DeCriscio finds that amusing.

“I did something so bad that I was fired over it, but what’s worse was that they didn’t follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and report on my firing,” she says. “It was swept under the rug.”

Maybe because under that rug were a lot of empty wine bottles.


In cod we trust.

SMACK likes to win weird. We’re not powerful enough to get a fired editor reinstated at a private university. We can, however, use the school’s own rules to pay for her to go to Manhattan.

Like many schools, DePauw offers grants to its students if they do something above and beyond. So SMACK asked the College Media Association if SPJ could present a session next month at its annual spring convention, just a few blocks from Times Square. We then asked DeCriscio to speak about what happened to her as editor.

Based on that, she applied for, and won, a $600 Student Research & Artistic Grant, plus $500 from The Hubbard Center for Student Engagement.

That’s enough for airfare, cab, hotel, and convention registration. So basically, DePauw is paying for DeCriscio to go to New York City to talk about how she got fired. I mean, suspended.

While she’s there, DeCriscio will interview student journalists about drinking in their  own newsrooms – because I doubt The DePauw invented that. Her report will appear on the College Media Watchdog.

We also asked DeCriscio to join the SMACK staff, where she’ll help choose winners of our own cash grants, called The Bayonet Awards. She’s said yes. Why? Just for the halibut.



Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn

© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ