Walking a fine line

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

Allegheny College is losing a treasure this week.

Director of Campus Communications Kathy Roos retires on April 29, 2016, after 19 years of service.

When I first met Kathy four years ago, I joked with her. You work for the dark side, I said. Public relations and journalism use the same skills for distinctly different objectives. Both tell stories. Sometimes we’re on the same page. Sometimes we’re not.

In my career as a professional journalist, I’ve encountered many public relations professionals who assume an adversarial or hostile approach to members of the media with whom they need to work. I can think of software giants who hire entire firms to craft their image and message, complete with stylists and wordsmiths who want to manage press conferences and photo opportunities. Politicians, the United States military, sports teams and colleges and universities all have public relations professionals on the payroll to help members of the media see things their way.

Kathy and I have both been around long enough that we realize that a working relationship can be built on respect and professionalism without thwarting our separate—and often disparate­—objectives.

In the four years I’ve had the privilege to work with Kathy at Allegheny, she’s been nothing but a pro—and unceasingly kind.

I often gauge people by the way they treat students, particularly student journalists at The Campus newspaper.

Kathy reads the student newspaper and has sent email messages complimenting the students on stories. I pass these messages to the students, where they serve as a kind of salve on the sting of remarks and rebukes they also receive.

This is an indication of a consummate communications pro. She can do her job while working with and respecting members of the media.

Last year, Sam Stephenson and Meghan Hayman won first place in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. This was a first for The Campus and a high achievement. The students earned the award for their coverage of the Kirk Nesset arrest.

Kathy wrote the press release and didn’t go into the details of the story that won the award. She highlighted the students’ accomplishment without citing the title of the news story, which would have brought renewed, potentially negative attention to the college.

In August 2013, Kathy responded to a request from community members and The Campus. A number of Meadville residents asked if the paper could include notices of campus events so they could attend. Kathy began compiling a weekly calendar of events at Allegheny College, which now fills a third of a news page in The Campus each week.

Two weeks ago, the student journalists hosted a surprise farewell party for Kathy in the newsroom, complete with balloons, cards and pizza. Christina Bryson, the editor-in-chief, offered her a prized Campus coffee mug, a gift of gratitude and respect.

Kathy, in turn, offered her congratulations to the students on their 2016 awards and commended them on their improved coverage.

I wrote part of this column Monday morning in the Market House Grille. I looked up to see a man tucked under a ball cap at a table next to the big frig. He was reading The Campus and I watched him study the page with the calendar of events.

Thank you, Kathy.

Since I arrived at Allegheny College, my goal has been to raise an awareness and understanding of journalism and its role on campus and in our community and democracy. I believe Kathy and I have been partners in this endeavor. We know and respect the limits of the partnership and honor the instances when we can collaborate.

Kathy attended every Ida Tarbell birthday party The Campus staff hosted. She wrote excellent releases for all the journalism in the public interest and Campus events, particularly our annual journalism conference and multimedia workshop. She wrote press releases that served faculty, staff and students from all parts of the Allegheny community.

Her good work brought local, regional and national media attention to the college.

Most mornings I look out my kitchen window and see Kathy and her husband of 42 years, Bob, walking to campus, often hand-in-hand. Bob, a professor of computer science, will retire, too.

On Monday morning, the smell of fresh-cut grass hung in the air as I backed my car out of the driveway. I saw Kathy and Bob walking down the brick road.

I stopped the car and jumped out. Not many more days, I called to Kathy.

She held up her right hand, showing five fingers.

I crashed their morning walk for a short distance, savoring a few moments of conversation.

I will miss Kathy Roos. The Campus journalists will miss her.

She walked the fine line between our two worlds with professionalism, dedication and respect. And she always walked that line with a gentle reverence for the integrity of words and importance of impeccable communication.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Reporters at The Campus learning to be respected not loved

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

Each semester, I show the movie, All the President’s Men, in news writing class. It’s the story of two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who uncover illegal activities in the Nixon administration.

Their reporting led to the arrest of White House officials and the president’s resignation.

Their editor, Ben Bradlee, who died last year, stuck with the story and the reporters, despite threats and intimidation from powerful government officials.

Journalism is not a popularity contest. In pursuing facts, journalists frequently come under fire, literally and metaphorically. Organizations, governments and individuals often blame the messenger.

Or kill the messenger, as in the beheadings of journalists: the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl in 2002 to the recent murders of Japanese and American journalists by members of the self-declared Islamic State.

The students at The Campus at Allegheny College have already experienced some of the harassment, threats and scorn that professional journalists encounter.

In my two and half years at Allegheny, The Campus kiosks that display the newspapers have been vandalized multiple times. Newspapers, a kiosk and distribution racks have been stolen. A student spit on a student journalist walking to class in the aftermath of one unpopular, yet accurate story. After that story, students entered the newsroom and tossed it while a student journalist had 9-1-1 on speed dial. Once, the threats against a student journalist were so egregious that the students’ parents were going to remove the student from campus and I alerted campus security.

Last semester, the administration asked The Campus staff to remove a story from its website. The story and quotes were accurate. The editors cited journalistic integrity and the law in their refusal to remove the story. This semester, the staff received another takedown demand, from a student, along with threats of legal action.

In each instance, the students and I have the opportunity to learn from these situations. We review the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. We consult with the Student Press Law Center. The students respond with professionalism and thoughtfulness, often in the face of tough pressures and uncivil accusations and language.

As a matter of policy, the paper runs corrections when there are factual errors and the staff corrects the errors online, making note of the updated text. The student journalists also encourage dis to write a letter to the editor or an opinion piece to express their views.

Each challenge also offers a chance to raise awareness and educate people about the rights and responsibilities of the press and its journalists.

The Campus staff has been accused of slander. Slander is verbal defamation, so a print story cannot be slanderous. They’ve been accused of libel. Libel is the publication—in words, photos, pictures or symbols—of false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation, according to the Student Press Law Center. Stealing newspapers is considered prior restraint under the law. Forcing a journalist to take down a story without cause is also prior restraint and censorship.

The students understand the risks of standing on principle. They risk losing funding. They risk the scorn of their peers, professors and administrators. They risk threats and intimidation. As most journalists do during their careers.

On Saturday, I watched the movie Selma in Shafer Auditorium.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of a free press and the role it plays in our democracy. When President Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t enact voting rights legislation, King took action. In Selma.

In the film, he said he wanted the events to be on the front page of the newspaper when it hit the president’s desk each morning.

When the protesters began the march across Edward Mettus Bridge, reporters, photographers, broadcasters and TV cameras were waiting. The journalists documented the police brutality and unwarranted violence against people asserting their rights to peaceful protest and assembly.

In one scene, the actor portraying New York Times reporter Ray Reed calls in the details of the story from a phone booth, the tear gas dissipating in the air.

In the film, King and his aides note that the pictures were going around the world. That the NBC broadcast would reach 70 million homes.

With Selma and the war in Vietnam, journalists brought the news, the violence and the injustice into the living rooms and kitchens of Americans across the country. Confronted with the facts and images, citizens could no longer sit on the sidelines or feign ignorance. The press coverage of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement galvanized Americans who took action and helped change the course of history.

As in All the Presidents Men and Selma, journalists shine a light in dark places. They bear witness. They record and report stories—at times at great risk.

There is a big difference between professional journalists and The Campus staff. At The Campus, the journalists are students. They are learning. They deserve the same rights of all students at Allegheny: the right to learn in a safe and civil environment.

Allegheny College has a new minor: journalism in the public interest. Public interest is a crucial component of the minor—and all journalism. The student journalists are learning and striving to practice journalism in the public interest.

They will make mistakes, as we all do. They realize they may lose funds, friends and favor in the course of their work. They have shown they will not sacrifice their self-respect nor will they compromise the paper’s integrity. They take great pride in their service to the campus and Meadville communities.

This year at Allegheny, we celebrate the college’s bicentennial and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. On March 6-7, 2015, Allegheny hosts a journalism conference, “Honoring Ida: Celebrating the Legacies of Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.”

More than a century before Selma and Watergate, these women were also threatened and maligned in the course of their work. And their journalism—their pursuit and publication of the facts—also changed the course of history.

No woman on The Campus staff is yet the next Ida Tarbell or Ida B. Wells-Barnett. One day.

No man on the staff is yet the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. One day.

The late Ben Bradlee said it well.

“We’ve got a lot of jobs to do but one of them is not be loved. We don’t have to be loved. We have to be respected, I think.”

To learn more, about journalism ethics and law, visit: www.spj.org; www.splc.org

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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