Coaching student journalists

MARC ALLAN | | Public Editor

When the news broke that former Butler student Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig had been captured by ISIS in Syria, one of the things Collegian Editor-in-Chief Marais Jacon-Duffy and reporter Cassie Eberle did was consult with the paper’s faculty adviser, Loni McKown.

McKown has no say over what goes in the paper. Typically, she finds out what is in The Collegian on Wednesdays, like the rest of us. But she encourages staff members to talk to her when they are working on a story that is controversial or complex.

In the case of the Kassig story, McKown said, she and the writers discussed the ethics behind what information to leave in and what to take out. Jacon-Duffy had talked to some of Kassig’s friends and classmates—in fact, she had taken a political science course with him. She intended to put that information in the paper. But then Kassig’s family, afraid for his safety, appealed to the Butler community to avoid talking about their son.

The Collegian complied.

“I didn’t make that decision,” McKown told me. “What I do—and most of my advising is this—I ask a lot of questions. Did they read what the family asked? Did they review the (Society for Professional Journalists) code of ethics in considering their decision?”

McKown is in her fifth year of teaching journalism at Butler and serving as The Collegian’s adviser. She was an adjunct professor for a year before that. Before coming to Butler, she spent nearly 30 years as a reporter, including 20 in print journalism and five as an investigative producer at WISH (Channel 8).

She said she approaches her role as adviser like this: “You are a teacher, you are a mentor and you are a coach. You are a challenger, a devil’s advocate and an ethicist. You are a critic, a cheerleader and a staunch advocate.”

Especially a coach. Among the major stories through which she has guided students is Ryan Lovelace’s lengthy investigative piece last year about Allan Boesak, the director of the Desmond Tutu Center. As part of that effort, besides recommending multiple revisions, she asked a former investigative reporter and a lawyer for the Student Press Law Center to read the piece before publication to make sure the story was told thoroughly. A year or so before that, she helped Hayleigh Colombo organize a multi-part series on parking at Butler.

To use an analogy, The Collegian’s editors and reporters build and drive the car. The faculty adviser serves as their GPS navigation system when necessary.

To use McKown’s analogy, student journalists practice their craft the way the basketball team practices before big games. The difference is that in basketball, the coach decides the plays.

“Coaching in journalism is a way to help students develop and learn to grow on their own,” McKown said. “Mostly through asking questions and getting them to think about things they haven’t thought about before.”

She said student journalists also have a difficult job.

“The Collegian staffers are students at Butler, and they love Butler,” McKown said. “So when they find a problem or an issue or concern they want to report on, on one hand, they feel bad about having to do it. But they also do it with a bigger purpose in mind, and that purpose is to shed a light so the problem can be fixed or the issue be resolved. That is a big part of the public service role of The Collegian.”