Better late than never
The Cavalier Daily should follow up on its coverage of last semester's open honor trial
OPEN HONOR trials are rare things. I read in The Cavalier Daily that there have been only three of them in the past decade. At the most recent open trial, conducted last semester, two third years were expelled because a jury believed they cheated on a biology exam. The Cavalier Daily reported on the trial, beginning with tweets and working up to a 648-word story. So short a recounting of such a significant event was bound to generate some unhappiness completely apart from complaints about the outcome and those overarching complaints about the honor system that spring up periodically.
Charles Harris, who describes himself as a former chairman of the Honor Committee, wrote to complain about “both the length and the quality” of The Cavalier Daily’s coverage. Harris also complained that the story referred to the Counsel for the Community as “the prosecution.” “I think this is a grave error on the part of the author,” Harris wrote. “The Counsel for the Community are perhaps in some ways similar to prosecutors in that they are presenting the case that is adverse to the defense, but the similarity ends there.”
Matt Cameron, editor-in-chief when the story was published, rebutted Harris’s second point by arguing that “Counsel for the Community” was equated with “prosecution” for clarity. As Harris himself pointed out, his intimate knowledge of the honor system and the differences between the roles of the Counsel for the Community and those of prosecutors in the state and federal court systems makes the comparison seem misleading. But it’s likely only a very few Cavalier Daily readers are former honor chairs and law students with three years’ experience with the system. “We included ‘the prosecution’ as an easy-to-understand, if slightly imperfect, description so that those who aren’t honor insiders would have a better grasp of who was presenting which argument in the trial,” Cameron wrote in an email. Cameron’s goal is laudable, but it could have been accomplished without the confusion-producing term. Instead of referring to “the Counsel for the Community, or prosecution,” why not “the Counsel for the Community, which presented the case against” the students accused of violating the honor code? That uses more words, which is something writers should try to avoid, generally speaking, but it seems much clearer.
Harris’s larger point was The Cavalier Daily didn’t adequately explain what happened at this trial and missed a rare opportunity to explain how the system works. “The article did not spend many words laying out all the facts or clearly discussing the arguments made on each side of the case,” Harris wrote. “I believe The Cavalier Daily could have performed a great educative service in providing a far more thorough account of how the process works generally and how it worked [in this case].”
Cameron agreed the trial presented an opportunity, but he doesn’t think it’s been missed. “The honor system and, in particular, the novelty of an open trial do merit substantial analysis and explanation,” Cameron wrote. “The place for such lengthy reporting, however, is not in a news story but rather in a long-form feature, or what The Cavalier Daily calls a ‘focus’ story. News stories are written on a very tight deadline and are also subject to stringent length constraints, generally in the vicinity of 500 words. Therefore, were we to attempt a comprehensive outline of the honor system and the open trial process in a news story, we would either lack the time to conduct adequate research or would have to cut out important details. I anticipate we will explore, and hope we will be able to execute, such a long-form focus story about the honor system when we resume publication in the spring semester.”
It will be good if The Cavalier Daily follows through on Cameron’s anticipation and hope, but he won’t be in charge of the paper this semester. Cameron’s certainly right that a deadline-driven story covering an open trial is not the place for an in-depth explanation of how honor trials work. But, if the paper is covering honor as it should, someone on staff should know enough about the process and have enough contacts in the system to put a focus story together. It shouldn’t be too difficult to research and retell the history of the other open trials held in the past decade, since there were only two of them. Ideally, a story about those things would have been ready to run the same day as the trial coverage. Cameron’s concern about fast and accurate coverage could have been served while Harris got the “great educative service” he was looking for. That would have been best, but it didn’t happen. So Cameron’s plan to follow up with a focus story is best remaining option. Better late than never.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.