The Collegian Editorial Board recently asked in one of their regular columns (“Shame on you, Coloradoan,” Monday, Feb. 5): “What’s more important to a journalist than credibility?”
Even though it was a rhetorical question, I’ll answer it: Integrity.
While credibility is a journalist’s outward face, integrity is his or her inner self. It goes beyond “Have I reported the facts correctly?” to ask “Have I behaved ethically in all respects?”
Part of any code of ethics is the mandate not to flagrantly or needlessly flaunt just authority. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, upon which CSU’s Student Media Code of Ethics is based, cautions reporters to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”
This is precisely what the Collegian didn’t do while investigating a recent series of stories on the security of the CSU campus. Three reporters, under cover of darkness, entered multiple buildings, documented the contents of unlocked rooms, and then publicly admitted to doing so on the front page of the Collegian for three consecutive days.
There’s a term for their actions, and it’s not courageous journalism. It’s trespassing. Their actions needlessly violated the law, and it undermined the Collegian’s integrity, thereby damaging the credibility of all those associated with the paper.
By their own admission, Collegian staff entered buildings including Rockwell Hall, the Chemistry Building and the Clark Building between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. They admitted to not having keys and to being stopped by campus police.
The university’s Building Proctor’s Manual, available online, is very clear: “Default restricted access hours for all campus buildings will be 10:00 p.m. through 7:00 a.m.” and “ANYONE wishing to enter a building, classroom, or office during restricted access hours MUST have their own keys.” (Original emphasis).
None of the Collegian staff had keys, and therefore they trespassed on university property when they entered. Trespassing in public buildings is a violation of state law.
The Collegian’s claim that it “didn’t feel there was any other way” (Friday, Feb. 2) to investigate the story doesn’t hold up as a defense, either. There were obviously other ways to go about this.
For starters, the reporters could have contacted individuals who were authorized to access campus buildings late as night. I’m a graduate student in chemistry and am authorized to be there at all hours. I, or any of a few hundred other people, could have brought in reporters as our guests to test doorknobs.
Having a legitimate guide around these buildings would also have helped ensure that these reporters didn’t put themselves at risk by disturbing hazardous chemicals.
Students or staff who have valid after-hours access to the Rockwell Hall or the Clark Building would have been happy to do the same for those buildings, I’m sure.
Had Collegian staff done this, they could have stayed within the law, been safer, and better informed about the nature of the valuable unprotected equipment they saw. In short, they would have been more responsible journalists.
But did James Baetke, David McSwane, and Vimal Patel, as well as editor-in-chief Brandon Lowrey, who authorized the story, avail themselves of the legal option? No. They skipped steps, broke the law, and compromised their integrity in the process.
There are times when breaking the law may be necessary in the vital public interest, but those tests were not met here. Collegian reporters failed to pursue legal alternatives and have failed to own up to their clear violation of the law.
Before the Collegian takes other papers to task for ethical lapses, it should first admit to its own. Shame on you, Collegian.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry masters student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.