Daily Kansan News Editor Doubles as KU Student Senator: Conflict of Interest or Beneficial to Paper?

A trusted source has written me to express concerns about a potential conflict of interest surrounding the involvement of University Daily Kansan news editor Allison Kohn in the University of Kansas student senate.

In response, the Kansan editor-in-chief cites it as a workable arrangement once certain safeguards were in place– one that benefits the paper and by extension its readers in a number of ways.  Similarly, while Kohn confirms “there is definitely a possibility for my worlds to collide,” she says the senate-editor split has been personally enriching– “help[ing] me develop my ethical fitness, a necessary journalism skill that is often emphasized in my courses at KU.”

The situation in general raises interesting larger questions: Within collegemediatopia, do these types of dual-dueling roles represent a problem?  Is it more a perception issue than actual trouble?  Are there ways to get around the main conflicts on a day-to-day level?  How much, and what type, of transparency should be instituted?  And when is it OK– if ever– for student media and student government to join forces?

According to the concerned source who contacted me, “The current news editor of the Kansan, Allison Kohn, is also a student senator in the KU student government.  And not only is she a senator, but she was the campaign manager for the student coalition that won elections in April and is currently in power (comprising all senators but one).”  In a story last March, the Kansan briefly featured and quoted Kohn speaking as the campaign manager.

More from the source: “In the fall, [a pair of Kansan editors] hired Kohn as a weekend editor.  [The editors] stipulated that she won’t be allowed to copyedit, write or review any stories remotely related to the student government.  But as news editor, all stories are supposed to go through her.  And she has input at the meeting that budget the stories for the next week.  I think that people should at least know that the student government has a huge plug in the Kansan right now. And I’ll tell you right now the Kansan isn’t going to report it.

“For years, the Kansan has been very independent from the KU student senate.  In 2010, its editors fought back hard and got the Chancellor on its side when the senate tried to cut a mandatory student newspaper fee.  But now, I feel there’s a huge conflict of interest. . . . This dual role of Kohn’s undermines the independence and compromises the integrity of the Kansan.  Even if she genuinely separates both roles, the perception harms the mission of the Kansan.”

The Kansan staff page lists Kohn as news editor– to clarify, the headshots of a number of other staffers are also missing from the page.

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Meanwhile, KU student senate voting records from a meeting earlier this month list Kohn as an active participant, voting on each of the 14 featured items.  (I have whited out an ID number that follows her name, in case it might be private.)

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In an email response, Kansan EIC Hannah Wise writes: “The Kansan is a student publication that is ultimately designed to help further student journalists’ careers by giving them newsroom experience earlier.  It goes against the purpose of the Kansan to turn away a student based on them holding a role in student government or any campus group for that matter.  Now, we do balance Allison’s role in student senate in a couple of ways: first off, she and the associate news editor work very closely with each other and our managing editor of news Nicole Wentling to ensure that all news coverage is balanced and that we are writing about a variety of subjects.  This especially includes student senate.  We have a reporter dedicated to the senate beat and we all keep an eye on what is on upcoming agendas that will be newsworthy to the student body.  Because of these additional conversations in the news meetings and our budget meetings in general, I feel that any conflict of interest that may or may not exist is diminished and does not affect news coverage.

“The arrangement is one that I found while mining through documents from past Kansan editors. I found that it is natural for enterprising journalism students to run and be elected for student senate, especially as freshman and sophomores.  These positions come with the agreement you will hold the position for a year.  The Kansan is a unique campus entity that some students do not find their home at until they take what we call the advanced media classes, which generally require that students work in various positions at the Kansan for their class credit.  Essentially, this is how Allison became more heavily involved in the past year.  She was the weekend editor last semester while also being a nightly copy editor.  She really showed her knowledge of news, organizational skills and an ability to work and communicate well with reporters.  All things that I found would be valuable in a news editor.  What I found from past Kansan editors who encountered a similar situation was they simply asked the student editor to not campaign in the upcoming student senate elections (held in April) if they wanted to continue to work at the Kansan.  So, that is the plan.

“I think in the long-run, it benefits the Kansan by having staff members with a more firsthand knowledge of student senate and its inner-workings because jumping into covering that beat can be very difficult for reporters to navigate the magnitude of people and committees involved in such a wide-reaching campus organization.”

In a separate response, Kohn writes: “As Hannah mentioned, I was reelected as a student senator in the second semester of my sophomore year. I represent the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and I am one of 28 senators for the College. I am a double major in political science and journalism, and ran as a representative of my political science degree. Once elected, senators serve for a full academic year, meaning that I am reaching the end of my second term. I have no plans to run for a third term, and am not affiliated with either of the coalitions campaigning for student senate seats. This was a guideline Hannah and I discussed during my interview to be news editor back in November, and something I will continue to abide by.

“Serving as a student senator for almost two years has been an enriching experience and I do not regret any minute of my time on senate. However, I do agree that there is definitely a possibility for my worlds to collide. However, as Hannah mentioned, I have an associate news editor and a managing editor I work closely with to ensure that the news section of our publication remains neutral and reports on only relevant student senate information. I like to think that my participation in both organizations has helped me develop my ethical fitness, a necessary journalism skill that is often emphasized in my courses at KU.

“As a student senator, my primary goal has been to serve as an advocate for those in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as an advocate for other student groups on campus. I’ve gained valuable leadership skills and I’ve been given an opportunity to connect with a diverse population of students and administrators from across the University.

“As a news editor, it is my primary goal to ensure our publication is informing and educating its readership, while raising relevant and timely issues of concern and acting as a vehicle of student expression. As a second semester junior, I like to think that I do my absolute best to avoid any bias that may arise from my position on senate. I want to pursue a career in journalism, and I firmly believe that this experience has helped me build a better understanding of the possible ethical dilemmas in the newsroom and the importance of neutrality and truth-seeking.”

Related

Snow Day Be Damned: Daily Kansan Staff Hard at Work Amid Storm

Kansan Football Reporter Warned About Asking Questions at Press Conference with Head Coach

Kansas Football Coach Tweets Angrily About Daily Kansan Coverage of Team

Daily Kansan Online Redesign: ‘This Isn’t Your Momma’s Website’

Comments
3 Responses to “Daily Kansan News Editor Doubles as KU Student Senator: Conflict of Interest or Beneficial to Paper?”
  1. Jyllian says:

    When I began at my school paper I had a dual role as managing editor and student body president. While we took care to always report my role in the paper, it cause a ton of trouble in story editing and story pitches. I have since left the student government and am editor of the paper. While it is nice that we are on somewhat friendly terms with the student government, we now have a policy that employees cannot be members of student government, nor can they be officers in any other student organization.

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