February 14, 2010

Self-Identification and Student Journalism

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A recent situation with a columnist and a member of the Student Assembly reinforces the need for clarity in self-identification for student journalists.

Mike Wacker ’10 is a Sun columnist whose “Wack Attack” column appears alternate Wednesdays. Wacker recently arranged to speak with Andrew Brokman ’11, an at-large representative in the Student Assembly, to discuss something that came up during an S.A. meeting. During their conversation, Wacker started taking notes; Brokman then told him that it was not on the record.

This dispute arose over the nature of the discussion and whether it could be attributed to Brokman. Brokman told me via e-mail that he thought Wacker was coming to him not as a columnist but as a concerned constituent. He was under the impression that their discussion was to be a private one between representative and student, and nothing more.

There is some uncertainty here; Brokman also runs One Cornell Media, an alternative web site for Cornell news. In a Feb. 3 blog post on One Cornell, “Some Forms of Discrimination Should And Could Be Prohibited,” Brokman quoted “a Sun Op-Ed” to buttress his argument. As it turns out, he was quoting Wacker.

He quoted from Wacker’s column (without a link), but that alone does not indicate he knew the full extent of Wacker’s responsibilities with The Sun or the purpose of their sit-down meeting. After reviewing some correspondence between the two of them, I noticed that Wacker used his Cornell e-mail address — not his cornellsun.com one — and said he wanted to have a “deep dialogue” about the issue. (I don’t mention the particular issue, or what they discussed, simply because it is not relevant to this column.)

Wacker did not identify himself as a columnist in the e-mail. It seems as though he figured Brokman should have been on notice of that; Brokman, however, said he was not aware of it. To their credit, they were very forthcoming about the nature of their interaction, and I believe that this was an innocent mistake.

Mistakes like this, however, can be easily averted with more vigilant behavior. Sun reporters and columnists alike need to be as transparent as possible. They should identify themselves as such in introductory e-mails and other interactions. Sun staffers are given cornellsun.com e-mail addresses; they should try to use them in their work instead of personal accounts.

While self-identification is important to preserve the integrity of a reporter-source relationship, The Sun’s journalists do not necessarily have to introduce themselves as such when obtaining information normally available to the public. However, it is never a good idea for a reporter to pose as someone he or she is not in order to get information for a piece.

The role Sun staffers play as student journalists can further complicate things. Professional journalists generally have few other roles in their lives; they report stories and their personal lives are separate. As college students, however, the likelihood is higher for Sun journalists to be part of campus groups and organizations; the chance of them being involved in what the Sun covers is quite high.

This increases the need for self-identification; it is not fair for a reporter to use membership in a group or organization to obtain information. While any reporter should be encouraged to cultivate sources and call on connections to get information, those should always be done transparently. It should be clear that the information requested is in the context of a Sun piece.

This element of notice is important. Sources should not be tricked into revealing information. Although, once it is established that the reporter is a reporter, there is a very strong presumption that the information discussed is on the record. Sources should assume when they are talking to a reporter that the information they are giving is on the record and for attribution. This includes phone calls, e-mails and informal in-person interactions.

Sources, though, are free to negotiate the terms of their sourcing with reporters before speaking. Nothing forces a source to speak to a reporter; if they want to give information on the condition that it is off the record or on background, both parties should agree about that before discussing the information. It is very easy for a reporter and a source to do so at the outset of any discussion.

While there was some confusion in the terms of the meeting between Wacker and Brokman, their example can serve as an important refresher in the reporter-source dynamic, for both The Sun and the people on which it relies for news.

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 [email protected]. The public editor column appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli