Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

In The Newsroom: The Reporter

It is an honor when readers challenge editorial decisions made by The Hoya. Even when the objections are unfounded or misguided, they’re reflective of the presumption that journalism serves a higher purpose rooted in basic values. To me, that’s evidence of a worthy endeavor.

Someone once observed that lay people will say, “I’m not a doctor, but …” or “I’m not a lawyer, but …” yet few people are inclined to preface a critique of the news media with “I’m not a journalist, but …” In the aforementioned sense, that’s flattering. However, it does overlook the nuanced standards and considerations that weigh on the minds of editors. Talent for technique must be accompanied by training in journalistic judgment, which is why your typical boob with a blog hasn’t earned the credibility and respect owed to news professionals.

These factors explain why I’m reluctant to call students like myself who participate in journalism “journalists,” just as I’m reluctant after cooking dinner to deem myself a chef. Journalism is a trade; journalists are its credentialed practitioners. Perhaps due to the blue-collar origins of the American news industry or the accessibility nowadays of online publication, people tend to forget that rules governing journalism are just as established as those for law or medicine. Rampant malpractice provides no refutation of that fact.

At The Hoya, editors are constantly evaluating content. They meet with an advisor every Friday to review the week’s output, they are held accountable by a non-staff ombudsman as of last fall and they have a Board of Directors to monitor long-term trends. But under the gun of the rapid news cycle, editors often make calls based on habit and instinct. Amid such a hurried process, we at The Hoya sometimes shortchange a question as essential as “What’s news?”

Every Friday, The Hoya produces a long-form news feature for the front page of the guide. I wrote such a piece Feb. 21 of this year, “The Wolf of O Street,” which profiled a business student who has ruffled some feathers on campus as a result of outspoken ambition and several missteps in personal branding. It was neither a hit piece nor a puff piece, but rather my attempt to tell an intriguing story that many knew of but few fully understood. With the Occupy Movement only a few years in the rearview, “The Wolf of Wall Street” in theaters and pre-professionalism gaining ground on campus, the subject of that story had timely implications.

The article turned out to be one of The Hoya’s most popular of the year. While readership is an undeniable plus, it is by no means the sole determinant of editorial worthiness. “The Wolf of O Street” riled many readers, many of whom questioned why we had given a student of debatable scruples such publicity. Several acquaintances approached me to ask, “Why highlight this person when so many others are deserving of recognition?”

When confronted with that question, I don’t think I could claim that, on Feb. 21 of 2014, the student I wrote about was the single worthiest person to be profiled in the paper. But I also believe critics of the piece failed to grasp the full extent of what makes something fit for print — a subject editors sometimes neglect to consider, too.

Here’s my take on what contributes to news value:

  • News is momentous. The biggest stories have lasting consequences. An article like “University Mulls Satellite Residence” (A1, Sept. 10, 2013) warranted a front-page banner headline because it marked a decision that would affect the direction of university growth for decades. When you flip through our archives, the biggest headlines are often still relevant years later.
  • News provides accountability. There’s a saying that news is what the subjects of a story don’t want reported, and everything else is promotion. That may be an exaggeration, but the basic idea holds true. Last year, the organizers of Relay for Life objected to a page-one graphic depicting diminished fundraising over the last several years (“Fundraising Slump Continues for Relay,” A1, April 16, 2013). Their reasoning was that such coverage casts a negative light on a meritorious effort. In truth, we would have done a disservice to their cause and our readers had we followed that sort of standard. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, especially when that light is unflattering.
  • News mitigates confusion. The value of breaking-news coverage is not to feed on excitement, but to add clarity to developing stories when falsities tend to spread rapidly. Although there is an urgency to deadline reporting, news outlets go astray nowadays when they race to break stories and misreport key details as a result, which notably occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Such recklessness undermines the purpose of rush reporting
  • News is compelling. Editors follow a guideline of giving readers a balance between what they want to know and what they ought to know. Contrary to what you might expect, we at The Hoya often get so caught up in journalistic duty that we lose sight of an article’s entertainment value. I recall a story about a Georgetown Medical Center discovery that “Broccoli Counters Radiation” (A7, Nov. 12, 2013). Our advisor, upon seeing this storied buried in an inside page, told us, “This article screams readers.” Offbeat articles can indeed belong on the front page if they offer reader interest and substantive value.
  • News is novel. Year after year, we cover the Rhodes Scholars and the Big East MVPs and the Dorothy Brown Award winners. That’s the responsibility of a newspaper of record like The Hoya, but we also make an effort to highlight phenomena that are unfamiliar, such as “The Wolf of O Street.” It is particularly important to draw attention to demographics that are not as vocal or visible on campus.
  • News discriminates. Inherent to editorial judgment is the fact that we pick and choose what to cover, which is surprisingly unobvious to some readers. During the student government campaigns last year, we ran a front-page feature noting that one candidate would be one of the first openly gay presidents at an American Catholic university and the first at Georgetown (“GU May Elect First Gay President,” A1, Feb. 15, 2013). Some objected to the absence of a similar story for another candidate who would have been the first black student body president at Georgetown. That is no doubt an important first, but the possibility of a gay candidate on this campus in this era was more significant. News consumers tend to focus their criticism on how stories are covered, overlooking what can be the weightiest editorial decision: choosing what to cover and what to ignore. There is tremendous responsibility — and thus room for bias — in determining what sources not to approach, what statements not to quote or what facts not to include. During elections in particular, it is neither practical nor desirable to report on every candidate equally, but that authority is easily abused. With that said, readers would be wrong to take every article as a tacit endorsement.
  • News is reportable. With an unpaid and overextended staff, The Hoya is a newspaper of limited means. It’s fitting that the selection of content for each issue is called “budgeting” because we genuinely can’t afford to pursue some stories. We try not to be unambitious, but practicality inevitably limits what we can cover.
  • News promotes justice. It would greatly reduce the margin for bias if reporters only had to cover events. But part of the civic function of journalism is determining editorial worthiness based on the injustice of a situation. When The New York Times runs a major investigative report on youth homelessness or when The Hoya covers the plight of contracted service workers on campus throughout 2012 and 2013, there’s an inherent political statement involved. Likewise, when we decided to cool off our coverage of William Peter Blatty’s objections to Georgetown’s Catholic orthodoxy, we determined that his accusations lacked the credibility for continued reporting despite high reader interest. While coverage is not an implicit endorsement, it is also impossible to depoliticize editorial decision-making.

Readers should continue challenging content decisions in The Hoya where they see fit. As I’ve written previously, when people stop criticizing, they’ve usually stopped caring. But it is nonetheless distressing to hear allegations that we ever lust for controversy, which is such a tragically dumbed down notion of what warrants news coverage. Journalism strives to promote an educated, and sometimes entertained, citizenry. Please call the news media out for failing to deliver on that ambition, but I’d urge you against thinking that the overwhelming majority of journalists aspire to anything less.

Danny Funt is The Hoya’s former Editor in Chief and a senior in the College. Leavey 421 is a weekly catalog of goings-on and random musings in The Hoya’s offices.

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