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Is silence golden?

Christian college newspapers feel the pressure when they report on contentious issues

Is silence golden?

(Krieg Barrie)

Tom Dodge/Columbus Dispatch

Zach Schneider holds his newspaper near Cedarville University in 2014.

Student newspapers at private Christian colleges traditionally have three main functions: news coverage, student learning opportunities, and college public relations. The newspapers provide information and chances for journalists-in-training to apply what they learn in class—but what if they want to cover controversy?

Since articles, especially online ones, reach donors, alumni, and parents, some administrators do not allow student journalists to publish controversial stories. Some editors push back and become resentful. Some come to think they don’t have the right and obligation to ask hard questions.

Liberty University in Virginia has had a tumultuous 2016, with President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsing Donald Trump, and Mark DeMoss, former chairman of the executive committee, resigning after publicly critiquing Falwell. But Liberty Champion, the university’s newspaper, did not cover the disputes. Quinn Foley Barefoot, assistant news editor from 2015 to 2016, confirmed that Liberty Champion ran no news articles about these controversies and instead published only an opinion piece from, and an interview with, President Falwell.

Liberty Champion also did not cover a recent legal dispute in which the university sued a local family over land disagreements. The Moorman family claims Liberty desecrated the graves of its ancestors during a university construction project, and the family wants to exhume the bodies buried on land now belonging to Liberty. Joshua Miller (Liberty class of 2017) and another staff writer, along with a Liberty alum and two others involved with the court case, said student journalists tried to cover the cemetery controversy, but the school ordered them to stop. Liberty administrators and Champion faculty adviser Deborah Huff did not respond to my repeated requests for comment.

“College papers can’t really say anything too negative about the campus,” Champion reporter William Young said: “To critique the school, I mean, probably not. We don’t want to say anything bad about the school anyway.” But Dustin Wahl, who directed “Liberty University for Marco Rubio” efforts, said, “Many students mistake questioning authority for disrespecting authority. … In Liberty’s case, the clearest factor in weak student journalism is likely the popular belief that it’s wrong to criticize fellow Christians.”

Biola University’s student newspaper The Chimes has tackled tough stories. Student journalists covered a scandal this year when a student found a swastika drawn above his dorm room door. The Chimes also ran a story about the Queer Underground, a support group for LGBTQ students on campus. In 2013, when administrators at the California school did not allow students associated with the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) to show graphic images of abortion at campus entrances, Chimes reporters covered the controversy.

The newspaper published a column about the dispute by Biola President Barry Corey but would not publish a response by CBR Executive Director Gregg Cunningham. Cunningham said the administration position was “no dialogue, it was going to be a monologue.” But Biola staff member Jenna Loumagne said The Chimes only allows pieces by undergraduate students, along with occasional columns from faculty and staff members.

Michael Longinow, the newspaper’s faculty adviser, said reporters are free to cover controversy: “If it’s more misguided journalism, sensational journalism, or gotcha journalism, it’s off-limits because it’s bad journalism, not because the topic is off-limits.” Chimes Editor in Chief Grace Gibney said she has “met editors in chief of other private Christian campuses and heard horror stories of media relations teams from the administration stepping in about what they can and can’t publish. [Longinow] lets the editorial staff and myself decide for ourselves.”

Cedarville University in Ohio has had a roller-coaster ride with press freedom. In 2009 the official student newspaper, Cedars, published controversial articles including an opinion piece critiquing a panel on how students should dress modestly. Administrators had the university’s public relations department screen every article. The newspaper staff went on strike and shut down the newspaper for a year.

It came back in 2010, but some students launched an independent newspaper, The Ventriloquist. Zach Schneider, Ventriloquist editor in chief for two years, said its goal was “to provide a platform for ideas that could not find … sound articulation elsewhere on campus.” In February 2014 a self-described gay student, Avery Redic, recounted in a column how a Cedarville administrator had banned him from leadership roles on campus because of his sexual orientation. Redic said he was not sexually active.

Two months later, Schneider stood outside a campus centerpiece, Jeremiah Chapel, and prepared to pass out copies of the new Ventriloquist issue to students. Schneider says Cedarville Vice President for Student Life Jon Wood and President Thomas White confiscated the copies from him. Cedarville public relations head Mark Weinstein confirmed that White said his objective was to “prevent unauthorized solicitation when it was brought to our attention. … A person must have permission for soliciting, displaying, or recruiting on campus.” White noted that students could still read articles at The Ventriloquist’s website.

Two years later, The Ventriloquist no longer publishes, and Cedars stories no longer go through the public relations department.

Some pushback against student newspapers comes not from advisers or administrators but directly from students. At Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, 2015-2016 Moody Standard Editor in Chief Margaret Tazioli came under fire for running a column in which a female student named a professor who she claimed discouraged her from pursuing a theology major because she was female. Moody student Cole Burgett wrote to Tazioli calling the article “sinful” because it challenged Christian authority.

Tazioli said she made “some editorial decisions that top administrators at the school were not very happy about,” but she also received support from Tim Arens, Moody’s dean of students: “Even when we ran articles that made his job more difficult, he still worked with us through it and used it as a leadership opportunity for the editors involved.”

Other students also criticized Tazioli when the newspaper published an article about feminism by Tyler Huckabee, a former editor of Relevant. The criticism quickly became personal. “They weren’t just questioning my ability to do this job,” said Tazioli: “They were questioning if I was saved.”

Some campus newspapers do run sensitive stories. When a student at Wheaton College in Illinois last year secretly videotaped three female students in the bathroom of their college-owned apartment, the student newspaper, The Wheaton Record, interviewed him in jail. The interview (by Kirkland An and Abigail Reese, the current and former editors in chief of the Record) ran on the front page under the headline, “I hope you can forgive me”—the arrested student’s own plea from prison.

At Geneva College in Pennsylvania, Dani Fitzgerald, editor in chief of The Cabinet, said students make decisions on what to publish without any prior review from administrators, faculty, or staff: “Everything we do is completely produced by students. The Cabinet truly is a student-run publication, and it’s the only publication at Geneva.”

At Gordon College in Massachusetts, adjunct faculty member Eric Convey has been part-time adviser to the student newspaper for more than a dozen years. He reads sensitive stories prior to publication but sees no obligation to “toe any administration line,” and attributes his hiring to the college administration’s sense that a part-time adviser could exercise more independence than a full-time professor or staff member.

At other Christian schools, the three roles of a small college newspaper remain in conflict, and what Christian psychologist Diane Langberg says resonates with some student editors: “I fear many of us have confused Christendom with Christ. They are not the same. … Institutions, organizations, ministries, systems are not Christ. … We let ourselves feel that Christendom is safe, and we fail to see and assess and discern. Instead, we listen and follow or we remain silent.”

—Ciera Horton, Margaret Tazioli, Abigail Reese, and Kirkland An are graduates of the World Journalism Institute

One college’s controversy

Tom Davis, Bryan College’s former director of public information, says Stephen Livesay, president of the Dayton, Tenn., school, thinks “Christian media should be a mouthpiece for authority.” Livesay puts it differently: “Christian media should be servants of God and report objective truth. … Christian media should reflect God and His reality, including truth, beauty, and the Fall.”

That difference in perception shows how college newspapers become part of the battle when administrators, professors, and board members have differences. In 2014 Triangle, the Bryan newspaper, covered a faculty vote of no confidence in Livesay, who retained his position with support from most board members.

Last September college administrators introduced a new faculty-administration guide stipulating that Triangle’s faculty adviser—at the time John Carpenter—was to oversee the deletion from the campus newspaper website of all articles and links more than six months old. Critics of Livesay said he wanted to cover up the bitter battle from the year before.

Carpenter is a deacon of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton. Its longtime pastor, Carter Johnson, whose three sons graduated from Bryan, emailed Carpenter on Sept. 29, “I’ve been praying for you throughout the morning.” Johnson says Carpenter did not want to delete the stories, but “felt that if he didn’t do it, he would lose his job.” Johnson says Carpenter told him he would give passwords to the administration but would not do any purging himself.

Carpenter, whose three oldest children are Bryan students, did not respond to WORLD’s calls but emailed this: “On Dec. 21 Bryan College and I entered into a mutually agreed separation. … My conscience is clear.”

Others, including former Bryan College IT employee John Glenn and Ashley Coker, Triangle’s editor in chief last year, also opposed destruction of past Triangle content. In October, Kevin Clauson, Bryan’s vice president of academics, announced a stay of execution: Articles “published in previous academic years … are not being deleted but are only being moved to the archive section.”

Livesay says the plan is to keep recent articles accessible on the website while older articles move to the archives: “The old articles remain readily accessible via the homepage of the website but under the tab titled ‘Archives.’ … This regular cleanup and updating will happen again this fall since some of links/articles on the right side of the homepage are now 10 months old.”

What’s in the newspaper has been a source of controversy before. Syndicated columnist Mike Adams charges Livesay with “sanitizing a sex scandal” from June 2012 and stopping the college newspaper from publishing a story on what really happened. The undergraduate editor self-published the spiked story and in 2013 received an ethics award from the University of Oregon.

Livesay in 2014 said: “I now regret not being more transparent with the Bryan College family. I was motivated by a desire not to heap burning coals on an already broken man. Today I know that the Bryan community would have been better served if I had shared more of the story.” —James Bruce and Savannah Petrie

Ciera Horton

Ciera Horton

Ciera Horton is a WORLD intern.

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 08/19/2016 01:39 pm

    This is a great article.

    I got my Bachelor's degree at a Christian college.  I found that it tended toward autocracy.  I started there when I was 22, so maybe it was my more mature perspective, but I felt like I was made to live in a bubble designed to protect the college from my own sinfulness.  They didn't want anything embarrassing to happen on campus.  So I can see how a Christian college newspaper might have some problems with the administration, which has a vested interest in preserving itself through the college's public image.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 08/25/2016 05:11 am

    Good article thanks. Yes this is how many evangelical schools, and churches, and even parents think that you raise kids, or educate and function. One curious thing about Liberty University. As Falwell trumpets his love and suspport of the 2nd Amendment he then allows the 1st amednment to be trampled on at his own school. But even worse the message to the world is that conservative politics = the Gospel. This also requires control of how they are perceived in the world. How different is this from countries that also suppress freedom of the press. In the name of What?