While our staff has received an overwhelming amount of support recently, we have also seen some concerns and confusion come up surrounding the article we released last week. As part of our goal as a student publication, The Cauldron aims to educate the Cleveland State University community on the purpose of journalism and its ethics.
In alignment with that priority and with the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics, I wanted to provide an opportunity for students expressing their concerns to get some answers. SPJ’s code is the most highly respected ethical guide in the profession, and it’s what we follow with every decision made in our newsroom.
The code has four major points: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent.
Explaining ethical choices and encouraging a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices and coverage is a part of the code, as is responding to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness. If you’ve reached out to us over the last week or have commented publicly about our reporting on a platform I could view (for transparency’s sake, I am typically the one running The Cauldron’s social media accounts), you’ve likely received a reply thanking you for your feedback and offering to answer any questions you have. We’re keeping the door open for you, and, hopefully, this letter will answer most of the questions or concerns that our readers might want addressed.
The Cauldron has not typically covered criminal court proceedings in the past, so I realize this may be somewhat surprising for our readers. Until now, there has not been a situation that has allowed for real coverage (at least in my time here) – whether that’s because we didn’t know about past cases in relation to our community or because police reports didn’t result in real charges to make news coverage possible. Often, Cleveland State redacts the names of individuals on police reports, so it’s not always an option for us to follow up if an incident results in charges being filed.
However, this time, we were made aware of an ongoing court case that affects our campus. Coverage has been a discussion since the beginning of this semester. While in Washington, D.C. for the college media convention we recently attended, our staff went to different sessions, spoke with lawyers who specialize in media laws and sought advice from media professionals, advisors of other student publications and student journalists from across the country specifically about how to approach this topic.
Legally, we knew we could move forward. Criminal court records are public information. Anyone can view the court docket with a quick search of the county court records.
After that was determined, research moved to the industry standard for judicial coverage and the ethics behind it. Industry standard is to name the accused once there are charges because that’s what the ethical code suggests. The only time a defendant goes unnamed is if they are a minor or if their name is unknown.
It’s different if charges are not filed. Per SPJ, a journalist should balance the public’s right to know with a suspect’s right to a fair trial and consider the implications of naming someone before they face legal charges. However, in this case, the charges are there, so that is what we said.
We understand that there are concerns that we published court coverage before a verdict was reached, but judicial coverage is part of journalism, as long as it is fair and unbiased. We did not, and will not, claim that anyone is guilty before courts reach a decision. That is not our place. That is not our job.
Our job is strictly to report the facts, and the fact is that there are rape and assault charges filed against a Cleveland State student who is in a position that represents the university. It would be irresponsible for us as journalists to not release as much factually correct, verified information as is on-record and known to us.
We will continue to verify information that is sent our way and to diligently seek out the subjects of our news coverage to allow them to respond to any criticisms or allegations that come up, per SPJ standards. We are still following every step of that process as coverage discussions move forward.
Regardless of the verdict, when it is decided, it will receive just as much coverage as our initial reporting.
The public has a right to know when charges are filed against someone in their community. This is something you will see in every news outlet across the country because it’s part of our job – nothing more and nothing less.
Ethics differ across every profession. We understand that not all of our readers are going to know journalism ethics and industry standards. That’s why we try so hard to keep the communication lines open. You have every right to question what we do, and we aren’t doing our jobs properly if we can’t explain to you why we make the decisions we make in the reporting process.
To that end, I would like to re-extend this offer to everyone at Cleveland State: Do you have questions? Do you have feedback? Is there a term or concept in journalism that you don’t quite have a comfortable grasp on? Ask me. My job as the Editor-in-Chief of this publication is to serve the community by providing information that the people at Cleveland State need to know.
Send us a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Shoot us an email. You deserve factual, transparent and honest reporting. That can’t happen if we don’t allow communication to go both ways, so our inboxes are open. You’re always welcome to use them.
Kourtney Husnick/ Editor-in-Chief