Last year, college media faced a crisis both practical and moral. Wesleyan College’s newspaper was defunded by the school’s student government for an opinions article critical of the Black Lives Matter movement; the Redlands College Bulldog was forced to become independent from the school after publishing an article questioning the role of a new scholarship; and, most famously, a photojournalist from the University of Missouri was physically blocked from reporting on protests by student activist group Concerned Student 1950.
Occidental student media was not immune to this pushback. During our coverage of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center occupation last fall (inspired by the student movement at the University of Missouri), the Weekly received significant criticism from Oxy United for Black Liberation (OUBL) organizers and other students — not only questioning our ability to accurately report on a diverse community, especially on issues of race, but also on the value of neutral media in general. And though this feedback made us seriously examine both the quality of our work and the core journalistic principles that guide it, reporting on the occupation ultimately reinforced our belief in objective journalism while also giving us a greater understanding of its limitations.
The night before the initial Occidental rally on Thursday, Nov. 12, the Weekly received an email from an OUBL organizer requesting that we not have reporters and photographers present in order to allow people of color to create their own narrative. Later, during the occupation, editors received another message from the OUBL organizers stating that they would not allow us to interview protesters. In addition to expressing a lack of faith in our ability to report on issues of race given that they felt the Weekly had not done so well in past articles, the organizers also stated that they rejected neutral journalism as a practice that wasn’t inclusive of the narratives of people of color.
This is not the first or last time the Weekly has faced criticism, but it was the first that really challenged our belief in neutral media as a public good that is integral to the democratic process. The argument that balanced reporting is inherently inequitable is a powerful one; presenting the viewpoints of marginalized groups on an equal platform with their oppressor, thus implying that the oppressor’s opinion is equally as valuable, puts the former at a disadvantage. Painful still was the thought that even if neutral journalism were valuable, we had done it badly and hurt the community in the process. These concerns prompted many nights of both personal and institutional soul-searching.
Yet it was the occupation itself that ultimately convinced us of the importance of neutral journalism. To achieve progress at the college — or in any area of society — the community first needs to decide what is and isn’t working. The relevant parties to the conflict aren’t likely to come to these decisions unless they agree on a basic set of facts about the situation at hand. In the case of the occupation, it was important for the student body and the administration to understand three things: which practices were causing harm, who was responsible for creating and implementing them, and what could be done to improve them. Thus, we thought it was necessary for the Weekly to include the thoughts of both the marginalized and non-marginalized groups.
Though it was crucial to highlight the voices of students who felt unheard, it was also important to include the opinions of President Jonathan Veitch and other college officials, who have a significant impact on the workings of the college. For the student body to make actionable demands, they must have intricate knowledge about Occidental’s functioning that is generally inaccessible to most people. A newspaper has the resources to make this information readily available. Moreover, it preserves the words of those in power, allowing us to hold them accountable in the future.
Fact-checking the statements of every source — impossible if the media does not get the perspective of all involved parties — is also necessary in providing a set of basic facts on which to build our opinions. During the occupation, for example, it was widely speculated by students that Veitch called LAPD on student protesters surrounding the Samuelson Alumni Center. This was not true; a member of the Board of Trustees had a medical emergency and called 911. The responding LAFD officers called LAPD because they couldn’t get through the protesters to administer medical treatment. Both the officers at the scene and officials from the LAPD northeast headquarters separately confirmed this sequence of events to us. Even so, we continued to hear the administration criticized for allegedly calling the police on students, distracting from other more deserved critiques and impeding discussions about how to best implement OUBL’s demands. A newspaper committed to neutral reporting is uniquely suited to vet inconsistencies between the stories of conflicting groups.
Still, neutral journalism has its drawbacks. Objective reporting should be seen as an integral part of a diverse media landscape, and it is critical in understanding problems in our communities and developing solutions for them. Equally important, however, is learning about the lived experiences of community members. Telling these stories — especially when they belong to marginalized people — is perhaps most effective when done in publications that don’t champion neutrality and allow people to fully control their own narratives.
And even in situations in which balanced reporting is appropriate, it’s not always done so in a respectful and inclusive way, sidelining the stories of marginalized people and using stereotypical language. Part of the reason for this is the lack of diversity in traditional news organizations. Many, including the Weekly, are primarily white, effectively limiting both the stories that are told and the way they are presented. It’s difficult to cover what a community cares about if its members are not properly represented in the newsroom. As long as inequality and oppression exist, no one, not even the most experienced reporter, can completely shed their prejudices to be entirely objective. As with progress, perhaps we should see neutrality as an end to work toward and an achievement in itself, even if the goal is never quite reached.
Lauren Rewers ’16 and Drew Jaffe ’16 were Editors-in-Chief of the Occidental Weekly in the ’15-’16 academic year.