March 7, 2010

Sun Elections: Process and Practice

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The Sun elected its 128th Editorial Board on Saturday, ending the six-week “compet” for new editorial positions and officially setting the hierarchy for the next year. At this important nexus of past and present for The Sun, I will comment both on the general implications for the paper and the process itself.

I would like to recognize the members of the 127th Editorial Board for their hard work, dedication and willingness to learn. I am particularly indebted to Sammy Perlmutter ’10 and Emily Cohn ’10, the previous associate editor and editor in chief, for creating the public editor position and allowing me to provide Sun readers with a window into the editorial process. They were my main contacts throughout my own reporting; they were always helpful, and they showed capable leadership.

I think the last editorial board was able to make good strides toward improving the quality of the paper. Mistakes were made and individuals were irked, but lessons were also learned. The outgoing board left big shoes to fill, but I think the 128th is capable; they are up to the task of continued improvement. There are also a few ongoing projects that, if implemented well, will elicit marked changes for the better. I hope to explore some of these projects in future columns as more details become clear.

And on a personal note, I will soon meet with the new editor in chief, Keenan Weatherford ’11, and associate editor, Tony Manfred ’11, to discuss and refine the ongoing role of the public editor in the upcoming year. I hope I can continue to address reader feedback and mediate problems when they occur.

Moving on, Saturday’s elections were a test of endurance for Sun staffers. Goldwin Smith played host for eight hours as staffers debated and voted. I was there for the election in its entirety, but I did not vote.

The Sun’s election procedures are pretty standard fare. One position at a time, candidates sell themselves and the votes are cast privately. The races proceed in order down the masthead; editor in chief first, followed by managing editor, etc. Outgoing editors can make endorsements for their replacements, and the voting body can discuss the candidates. Generally, things are smooth and fair, with an eye toward informed decision making.

The major and obvious drawback of the procedure is how the voters discuss the merits of the candidates. Each candidate for a particular editorship is allowed to address the voters without the other candidates present. Once they finish speaking, they all wait outside the room while the voters can speak freely about the candidates, for or against, before voting. The voters are encouraged to keep their comments to the merits of the candidacy at hand. All comments are cloaked with a policy of confidentiality; what is said is not supposed to leave the room.

Such a discussion should be helpful and informative; allowing voters to share their perspectives serves the process. Not every candidate is a known quantity to every voter, so the process allows unfamiliar voters access to knowledge to make a more informed decision. Those with knowledge thus need to be able to speak freely and openly, to assure that the best information is propagated.

It all sounds very neat when idealized, but in practice, it never ceases to amaze me how an intelligent group of voters can go so quickly off the rails. Thoughtful discussion devolves into poisonous, unproductive groupthink, whereby voters seem to lose sight of the big picture and focus on nitpicky, largely irrelevant details. Furthermore, some interpret the policy of confidentiality as giving them license to natter and blithely trash their peers without recourse.

I will refrain from going into further detail out of respect to that confidentiality. Saturday’s election exhibited the characteristics I mentioned on discrete occasions, but the appearance of those characteristics is not exclusively endemic to The Sun. The process, if undertaken by any group, best serves its ends if its participants prioritize broader perspective and civility.

All told, this change of the guard officially recognizes the new editors and relieves the old editors of their duties. Compet is over, and it’s time to get to work.

Rob Tricchinelli is a second-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli