Give it some space
A recent article about the Honor Committee debate should have included more details
Brevity, as Shakespeare had Polonius say, is the soul of wit. Brevity is not the heart of good journalism. That does not mean every town council meeting deserves a four-part series, but every story deserves enough space to get itself told. A recent story about a debate (“Debating societies argue single sanction in Honor-hosted event,” Oct. 11) did not seem to get that.
The single sanction, of course, is expulsion, the only punishment available for students convicted of honor violations. The single sanction is a big, divisive deal. The article cited a recent Honor Committee survey that showed a solid majority of students who responded support the single sanction, but also showed that many of them support it with some reservations. The number of students who support the single sanction is about the same as the number of students who say they would not report an honor violation or are not sure if they would. So it seems students are debating the issue not only among themselves, but with themselves as well.
In the article, Committeee Chair Stephen Nash said the dissension surrounding the single sanction makes it worthy of such a formal debate. “It’s certainly a fundamental part of the honor system,” Nash said in the article. “Conversation and debate always makes [the honor system] better.”
The Committee has made a big push to explain its workings to the students who are subject to its jurisdiction, and the debate seems like a good vehicle to increase knowledge of and discussion about the single sanction.
But here’s all the story said about the debate itself:
_Each debater received six minutes to present his argument, faced two minutes of cross-examination and four minutes to conclude.
The Washington Society argued the policy of single sanction is unethical. Fourth-year College student Krista O’Connell took the position that the policy represents an outdated institution and encourages students to lie. “The single sanction does not offer second chances or forgiveness,” O’Connell said. “It ignores Jeffersonian humanism.”
Third-year College student Ben Vander echoed this stance, claiming students force themselves to condone honor code violations because they have no other option apart from single sanction. “Six out of 10 students don’t report honor offenses,” he said, citing the Committee survey released last month.
The Jefferson Society representatives, fourth-year College student Owen Gallogly and Law student Philip Williamson, rebuffed the assertion that the single-sanction policy is outdated. “Even though times have changed, ethics have not,” Gallogly said.
To Gallogly the single sanction is an acknowledgment of certain University values, and to uphold single sanction fulfills a moral obligation to the community of trust. Moreover, it is a University tradition. “It’s the same single sanction from five years ago and it will be the same five years from now,” Williamson said._
Was that really as deep as the discussion got? Did it really fall into a contest between one side’s interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s values and the other side’s devotion to tradition? Did no one challenge Vander’s assertion that 60 percent of students do not report violations? That figure includes respondents who said they would not report an act of lying, cheating or stealing; those who said they are not sure if they would report such an act; those who said it would depend on the person involved; and another category labeled “other.” If no one challenged it during the debate, the writer or an editor should have made the discrepancy apparent in the story. Accuracy is a basic journalistic goal.
The story did not say what students thought of the debate. In fact, it did not say if there were any students watching the debate. Was the University Chapel packed or nearly empty?
Deadline pressure can make it easier for oversights and errors to get into the paper, but deadline pressure is not a pass writers and editors can wave to absolve themselves from responsibility.
Of course, part of the problem could be space allotted to the story. Newspapers have been shrinking story size, news hole and page size for a long time. If an editor tells a writer to keep the story under 400 words, that creates an obstacle to good reporting — but not necessarily an insurmountable one. Writers, editors and page designers can use space-saving bullet points and charts and other design tricks to get more information into shrunken space. It is not a panacea for shrunken news holes, but it can help. No matter how tight space is on the printed page, space on the Internet is virtually limitless. A truncated version of the coverage could go into print with a note that a more complete version is available on the web.
It’s important, particularly in the age of Twitter, to tell a story succinctly, to consider each word’s value to the telling. But it is even more important to get all the important stuff in there.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.