Letter from the Editor: Criticizing the media is ‘in’, but accountability is out

NICK FISHER, Executive Editor

“Gotcha journalism.”

This is just the latest in a long list of ways to criticize media coverage, and even this week the Republican National Committee dropped a debate scheduled on NBC because of rampant “gotcha questions,” according to the RNC’s letter.

It’s gotten to the point that if one doesn’t like the question, one can just simply chalk it up to a “gotcha” question and move on; no accountability needed.

Obviously, this form of attack-journalism does exist, and it is most prevalent in political coverage. Journalists can phrase questions in a way that will feed off of even the slightest weakness in a candidate, and that minute slip-up will become a glaring headline all across the country within the hour.

But just because a question is tough does not mean it’s a form of pernicious entrapment. Just because a journalist holds someone accountable for what they’ve said or done does not mean it’s “gotcha journalism,” or “not real journalism.”

The latter accusation, that something is “not real journalism,” is one that often plagues less-prestigious media. As executive editor for the Northern Iowan, I’ve heard this emotional accusation slung rather loosely and somewhat often against our metaphorical wall with probably no real substance ever behind it. It’s true that we at the NI have been criticized numerous times in my first semester editorship, whether it’s an accusation of bias, factual inaccuracies or something as truly heinous as typos or liberal use of profanity. I’ve heard my fair share of it all. And I’m sure this happens under every new editor; I’m not special.

But let’s take a step back and reflect upon what is probably never actually read in our newspaper, and it’s right on our front page. Underneath our masthead, the NI’s mission statement reads: “[The Northern Iowan is] the University of Northern Iowa’s independent, student-produced newspaper since 1892.”

In the spirit of teasing this apart, it should be clear that first word to stand out is “independent.” The NI is independent; we are not dependent or contingent upon the will or influence of the university, administration or any other party that has a vested interest in this institution’s image. In fact, I’ve always interpreted this to mean that it’s our duty to be independent — to be skeptical and challenging.

That is not to say that we’re looking to exploit the university for its “gotcha” moment. We at the NI care very deeply about UNI. Because we care, we strive to cover the news that’s important, as fairly and extensively as possible. And this brings me to the next important facet of our mission statement.

The NI is student-produced. For me, and for the rest of the current editorial staff, this means that the paper is produced by students and, implicitly, for students. I will concede to those accusations of bias that, if we do have a bias at the NI, it certainly sways toward the interests of students. That would be a bias I’m particularly proud of. No news outlet can ever be truly objective, so I’ve always felt that it’s important to know where your values lie.

As for criticism of our uncharacteristic use of profanity (generally on our opinion page), I’d be happy to address a letter to the editor if there are impassioned concerns. But, for the sake of space, I’ll say here that students are adults, and that I believe we can handle a little profanity when it is essential to making a point.

Now, the other connotation of this student-produced notion is more explicit. Essentially all content at the NI is controlled and dictated by student engagement, and I think many of the remaining concerns raised by neigh-sayers can ultimately come down to this fact. The NI is produced by the students.

In the past, those in my position have interpreted the mission statement in many different ways, but I’ve chosen to focus on this final point: where there are students there is (or at least should be) a learning space.

I’ve always been proud of UNI because of its clear dedication to student learning. The teachers teach, rather than hide in their research, and I truly believe we as students our better off for it. I’d like to think I’ve applied this concept quite well to the student newspaper.

If the newspaper is produced by and for the students, then there should be an environment that promotes and encourages learning. I’ve spoken with our mentor/advisor here, Laura Smith (who is always here to guide us and, perhaps more often, to reign us in when we get over-zealous), and she articulated our interpretation of the learning environment in terms of an apt metaphor: the NI is a sandbox. It’s a welcoming, learning space for students to explore their journalistic interests and to learn without being held too close to the flames.

This means that, despite our best preparation efforts, both the editorial and reporting staff can make mistakes — that’s part of learning. Although I’d like to stand firmly behind every story and every editorial liberty we’ve taken, I’m not going to pretend we don’t make mistakes.

So if you feel inclined to point out some concerns with our news outlet, and give us our “gotcha” moment, you have every right to do so. But I did want to provide a bit of context to some of the unique things that are going on behind-the-scenes here

By the same token, if you do have concerns with our work, we are open to criticism (notice how I didn’t include “constructive”), and I’d encourage our readers to submit a letter to the editor. We tend to publish and respond to these as expediently as possible, and we’d be happy to hear from active and passionate readers.