Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bison: Legit Journalism or Good News Sheet?

Many of you have asked for a follow-up to our lingering concerns about the absence of investigative and editorial content in OBU's student newspaper.  Last month, in a list of concerns we're following, I mentioned The Bison:
Though the writing is very good and the production value is high, The Bison simply isn't what it once was in terms of journalistic inquiry into serious campus issues.  There are lots of impressionistic columns, general debates, and personal advice features, but there is no investigative reporting.  Editorial pages (with real editorials) have disappeared.  Journalists go berserk if you accuse them of censorship, but I don't know what else to call it.  I'll say it as nicely as possible: The gaps in news coverage and editorial content could lead a reasonable person to speculate that there is a) censorship, b) fear of censorship, or c) blow-back that creates self-censorship. 
Of particular not here is the fact that The Bison recently decided against printing an open letter to "The OBU Family" (edited for length) in response to a chapel sermon by an "ex gay" evangelist on the grounds that Save OBU endorsed the letter (which is simply not true) and that we tried to bully the paper into printing the letter.
A campus newspaper is more than an exercise for a handful of journalism and graphic design majors.  A free student press is widely considered to be vital to the transparency, health, and flourishing of any university community.  For much of OBU's history, The Bison has met that need.  In the early 1980s, The Bison editorialized strongly in response to the "heresy papers" controversy.  In the early 2000s, The Bison was a forum for a campus discussion in response to a chapel preacher's contemptible (or merely regrettable, depending on your perspective) comments about rape.  These are just some examples I know off the top of my head.

In spite of at least two Bison faculty advisors clashing with administrators, most people report to me that the journalistic and editorial quality remained high throughout the 2000s.  In fact, as recently as 2010 and 2011, The Bison printed letters of dissent against the new administration's policies and reported on the alumni petition.

Around that time, the investigative reporting and editorializing stopped.

Coincidence?  I don't think so.

I have corresponded via email with two Bison staffers from the last several years.  One complained that the paper is censored and the other swore up and down that the paper has complete editorial freedom.  Obviously, both can't be true.  So let's get to the bottom of this.

Either the issues we've discussed on this blog are not newsworthy or OBU's student journalists are being suppressed from reporting on and editorializing about them.  Perhaps every issue we've addressed may not be front-page above-the-fold news.  But at least some of the faculty, student, and alumni concerns about academic freedom and ethical administration are newsworthy by any standard.

The Bison's Twitter account (@BisonNews) has been inactive for over a year.  But on January 26, 2012, it asked what people thought of the Save OBU blog.  That's the closest Save OBU got to the paper's news or editorial pages.  For 18 months, Save OBU has sustained a popular blog that has discussed dozens of campus issues.  We've had 5 guest writers.  We have active Facebook and Twitter communities.  There have been more than 260 blog posts.  Yet nothing we've said or done is newsworthy?!

Look, we don't need the publicity.  This blog gets more readers each week than The Bison, anyway.  Of course, we would welcome more student interest and involvement.  But most of all, we would like to know whether or not students at our alma mater are still allowed to investigate and discuss important campus issues and policies.

Bison staffers already missed their chance to do right by the people who have been fired and demoted.  You could have asked the hard questions, and you didn't.  And you may not be able to prevent the next egregious over-reach.  But you --- perhaps more than anyone else --- can help maintain a culture of transparency and responsiveness on campus.

Start small.  Ask what happened with the bookstore's botched orders last fall.  Ask whether OBU's agreement with Tree of Life is working out the way faculty and students had hoped.  Ask what role faculty search committees have in hiring decisions, and what circumstances the deans and provost believe justify over-ruling a committee recommendation.  With all the coaching hires and athletic scholarships announced this year, ask whether OBU's largest-ever freshman class will face a higher teacher-student ratio or more courses taught by adjuncts.

If The Bison is now a good news sheet that only prints stories and opinions that the administration deems safe for consumption, that's fine.  Just be honest about it.  And if that's The Bison's mission at the new OBU, I suggest the student journalists P.R. staffers start submitting invoices to the Public Relations Office.  Other people earn a decent living to present the polished, official image of an OBU devoid of controversy.  You should, too!

If, on the other hand, The Bison is a still news and opinion organization, I, for one, would like to see a little more courage and truth-seeking.  It's only a matter of time until another religion professor gets fired unjustly.  Then it will once again be too late to make a positive difference on campus by insisting on truth, transparency (to the greatest degree possible), and adherence to institutional norms when it comes to the most important issues.  Even Cedarville University, a fundamentalist school, still apparently has a student paper with editorial independence.  If the same is true of The Bison, we wouldn't know it by the lack of investigative pieces that uncover issues and provide the news foundation for editorials on consequential issues.

"The Norm," the alumni petition, and Save OBU can only do so much.  Administrators can ignore Save OBU.  They can deal with the alumni petition by sending out a private email with talking points for trustees.  When students protest, as with "The Norm," they can simply wait until those students graduate and hope that new students never learn of the violations of academic freedom and assume their way of doing things is normal when, in fact, it is a significant departure from institutional norms.

But they can't ignore you.  Sure, administrators can refuse interviews.  They will, of course, decline to comment on personnel matters.  But it reflects very poorly on them if they never give any answers or explanations for their decisions and actions.  After all OBU has been through lately, it's clear that administrators either haven't been pushed very hard or they are censoring the paper.

Maybe the difference between the year past and previous years wasn't related to censorship.  Maybe The Bison had a fundamentalist yes-man student editor who chose not to pursue important news stories or run real editorials.  I simply don't know.

But I hope next year's Bison staff will receive this message with humility, grace, and a sense of journalistic responsibility.  If your hands are tied, that's understandable.  It would surprise no one to know that Dr. Robinson, Dr. Norman, or Dr. Whitlock are blocking the paper from being anything more than a good news sheet.  Just say so, and your readers can lower their expectations accordingly.  But if you have editorial independence as you should, you need to step up your game.  Simple as that.  The entire OBU community deserves better.

In an upcoming post, I'll share the story of how The Bison blamed Save OBU for its decision not to publish a letter to the editor in response to a controversial chapel sermon this spring.


  1. I think the majority of OBU Alumni ignore Save OBU.

    1. Different anonymous.

      They don't if they know about it.


We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.