Daily needs to review policy on personnel matters

by Bastiaan Vanacker

A few weeks ago, The Minnesota Daily’s board of directors suspended the Daily’s editor in chief, Todd Milbourn, for the remainder of fall semester. According to Daily President and board member Shanna Orr, the suspension is a “disciplinary measure,” of which further discussion is prohibited under Daily policy.

In a letter published Nov. 21, reader Tony Steinhagen accused the Daily of applying a double standard regarding confidentiality: It fails to discuss the reason for Milbourn’s suspension, while at the same time the newspaper is filing a lawsuit against the University’s Board of Regents for withholding the names of the presidential candidates that were interviewed by the board.

While this argument is not without merit, the analogy between the two situations is flawed. The Daily is not subjected to Minnesota’s open meeting law, as the Board of Regents allegedly is. The Daily, unlike the University, is not a public institution and is under no legal obligation to reveal information about its daily operations and personnel matters to the public.

But the simple fact that the Daily cannot legally be forced to disclose information about personnel matters does not prevent the Daily from choosing to do so on its own volition.

It can be argued that it would behoove an organization that claims in its mission statement to “provide coverage of news and events affecting the University community” to be less candid about the circumstances surrounding the suspension of its editor in chief, the highest-ranked person in the newsroom. This certainly seems to be an event that affects the University community.

Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University and one of the pioneers in the field of media ethics in this country, echoed a similar sentiment when I asked him for his opinion on this issue. He wrote in an e-mail that generally, “the paper has a duty to readers to inform them as thoroughly as possible about issues that relate to the paper – just as it would have a duty to inform about other issues in the university community that affect those in your reading audience.”

Orr pointed out to me that the decision not to make details regarding the suspension public was not an editorial one but was based on managerial judgment, Daily policy, the legal protection of the organization and concern for the privacy of the employees. Orr’s point is important; this decision was not made by the people who work in the newsroom.

However, the board and the human resources department should not ignore the obligation this newspaper has to the University community and to the students, who – through student fees – finance a portion of the Daily’s operating costs (though the Daily still generates far more income from advertising than from student services fees.)

Moreover, Daily employees have been barred by the organization’s human resources management from sharing any information regarding this matter with anyone. This causes the distinction between managerial and editorial decisions to become dangerously thin, if not nonexistent.

All this does not mean the Daily should have divulged every detail regarding Milbourn’s suspension. One could imagine reasons for not doing so, but the justification the Daily gave in this instance, that it simply never discloses information regarding personnel matters, is an easy way out. It might be Daily policy, but it isn’t a very good one. At the very least, the Daily should have explained why this policy is in place.

While it is possible that it was unwarranted to give the whole account, the Daily should have been more specific on the reasons for Milbourn’s suspension. Since Milbourn will resume his position in January, readers ought to know whether his suspension was related to a breach of journalistic ethics, and if so, whether safeguards have been put in place to prevent similar breaches from taking place again. The editor in chief is the standard bearer for journalistic ethics at a paper, and it is crucial to a paper’s credibility that he or she be above all suspicion of media ethical wrongdoing.

If the suspension was not directly related to journalistic ethics or editorial decision making, the Daily should at least have assured its readership that the suspension had nothing to do with a breach of journalistic ethics (and perhaps have made a general reference as to the nature of the charges brought against Milbourn) and move on. By allowing this issue to linger unresolved, the door is opened for the wildest of speculations.

When news outlets become the news themselves, things tend to get uncomfortable. It often means tough choices need to be made. But if a newspaper really wants to be accountable and to serve its audience well, it needs to hold itself to the same high standards to which it would hold others. A simple “no comment” is unacceptable – it is time the Daily reviews its policy.

Bastiaan Vanacker is the Daily’s readers’ representative. He can be reached at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]