Ethics Question: Is Student Leader’s Confederate Battle Flag Newsworthy?

The Ball State Daily News recently reported on a pair of incidents with racial overtones involving student leaders at Ball State University.

The top-notch campus pub first revealed that Ball State’s student government president had posted a series of denigrating tweets about Asians on his personal Twitter account. After his resignation, the paper published a story confirming the female student selected to replace him owns a Confederate battle flag and in the past has been identified by the nickname “Ku Klux Chloe.”

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In a quick Q&A, Daily News editor-in-chief Adam Baumgartner kindly discussed the staff’s decision-making process related to their coverage. The biggest ethical issue, Baumgartner acknowledged, centered on the battle flag.

What are the toughest ethical decisions the paper has made during your coverage so far?

3I would say the toughest ethical decision we have made thus far was deciding whether or not to run the story about the new SGA president having a confederate flag. The story about the former president’s tweets was kind of a no-brainer. It was recent, we had proof of the tweets and as the night progressed we gained statements from him and his staff.

The situation with the new president was different. The tweet people showed us in which she referenced her Confederate battle flag was from last academic year, before she was in her position as president or vice president. Furthermore, though she is a publicly-elected official, she is also a student in a student-leader role. She is not a governor or a senator. She is the student body president.

But I knew I had to ask her about the flag. So I did. And she spoke very openly and candidly, if not nervously, for several minutes without interruption. Almost all the information in the story came from her– the only exception is the information from the Museum of the Confederacy and the statements from the president of the Black Student Association.

I knew I had to ask her about the flag. So I did. And she spoke very openly and candidly, if not nervously, for several minutes without interruption. … Whether people are fine with the flag or they find it offensive, they need to know the facts to draw their own conclusions about the new president’s ability to represent them.

Even the nickname “Ku Klux Chloe” I learned of from her. It became clear after that interview and a follow-up later that I had to write the story. Doing so would offer her the best platform to address the rumors that were already spreading among several groups on campus. It would offer her the opportunity to defend herself.

But more importantly, it would offer perspective to the student body. Whether people are fine with the flag or they find it offensive, they need to know the facts to draw their own conclusions about the new president’s ability to represent them.

We didn’t go digging for controversy. People gave us the tweet. She gave us the confirmation and then some. In short, simply running the story was a struggle, but the more I and my staff considered the situation, the more most of us felt it was our responsibility.

How did the paper determine the relative news value of the president’s tweets?

After receiving the former president’s statement and a statement from his staff, I never really questioned whether we should run a story about his tweets. The president was receiving a hefty stipend to perform his duties. In his role, he was often a direct link between students and administration, and the organization he led oversees a budget that this year is more than $91,000. Most importantly, he was elected into this role.

Yes, the tweets were private, but his account is public. The student body has the right to hold him accountable. As I said before, it felt like a no-brainer.

Along with the main stories about the controversial tweets, I noticed you published a separate standalone Q&A with the now former SGA president. What was your thinking with this part of the coverage?

2After my initial interview with the former president, I gave the transcript to the Emma Kate Fittes, our news editor, and Aric Chokey, a chief reporter, who wrote about his resignation. It was a good story, but it missed some very human moments. After reviewing the transcript with Emma Kate and a couple other people, they actually recommended we run it as a Q&A. We considered the context and deemed it appropriate.

Readers valued it, and the former president recently said he appreciates how we covered the story. He had been hesitant to have a conversation with us, but he ultimately spoke with us so he could offer his side of the story. He was counting on us to present his words accurately. What better way to present his words than by simply running them?

What advice would you offer other student outlets dealing with this type of coverage?

To any of my fellow student journalists, I would say simply never to be afraid of asking questions. It is our job to ask questions. It’s our responsibility to report the answers. These stories would not have happened had the staff of the Daily News not simply asked “Can you comment on the situation?” Had we not asked that simple question multiple times, we would have had little to report on but rumor and speculation. We probably would have had nothing to run. Because we asked though, we could feel confident we were representing the people in the stories fairly and accurately.

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2 Responses to “Ethics Question: Is Student Leader’s Confederate Battle Flag Newsworthy?”
  1. I definitely think that ethics should be considered when dealing with a student population, but they can’t go digging into everyone’s moral code.

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  1. […] Ball State University, a student leader who owns a Confederate flag and has been called Ku Klux Chloe was determined newsworthy. What do you […]