Public Editor responds to ethical concerns

MARC ALLAN | | Public Editor

Early Friday evening, I received an email from Elizabeth Mix, chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of art history. She said Marais Jacon-Duffy, The Collegian’s editor in chief, had interviewed her earlier that day.

“We started the interview and she was taking notes; I said I was surprised she wasn’t recording me,” Mix wrote. “She then said that she was (pulled it out from under the table) and said she ‘likes to be sneaky about it.’ Am I crazy or is this a serious breach of journalistic integrity? She never asked me if it was OK she was recording me, and, had I not asked, she never would have told me.”

That email set off a chain of emails among Collegian faculty advisor Loni McKown, journalism school chair Nancy Whitmore and College of Communication Dean Gary Edgerton. 

In the end, McKown said, she referred to The Collegian staff manual, which says: “The editor in chief may be terminated for failure to perform duties, violation of policy, legal or ethical violations, or reckless disregard for standards of journalism.”

McKown saw disregard for the standards of journalism in Jacon-Duffy’s actions. She also cited the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which recommends avoiding surreptitious methods of gathering information. She advised Jacon-Duffy that stepping down would be the right thing to do to protect the reputation and credibility of The Collegian.

Jacon-Duffy did offer her resignation Monday afternoon, but The Collegian staff unanimously chose to reject her resignation and keep her in charge for the remainder of the semester.

I applaud the staff’s loyalty and independence, but I disagree with the decision, and I’ll explain why momentarily.

But first: Technically, what Jacon-Duffy did is legal. Indiana law allows recording of conversations as long as one person involved in the conversation knows that the recording is taking place. And Mix continued to talk to Jacon-Duffy after the recording device was out in the open.

But hiding a recording device is a serious breach of trust. And to say she “likes to be sneaky about it”—even jokingly, which Jacon-Duffy told me was how she meant it—magnifies the problem. (Mix told me she did not take this as a joke at all.) Because the next questions are as follows: How many other times were you sneaky about it? What else are you sneaky about? What tone does this set for your staff?

And the question after that is: How can we ever trust you again?

Jacon-Duffy said when she got to the interview, she took her phone out of her purse and put it on her thigh. “I wasn’t intending to hide it,” she said through email. She also said, “I have never intended to be secretive or deceptive as a reporter, editor or in any aspect of my life.”

I believe her. She demonstrated her ethics during the initial coverage of Peter Kassig, when she complied with his parents’ request that no one from Butler talk about their son, who is being held captive in Syria. Jacon-Duffy could have reported on what she’d learned about Kassig. In fact, she’d had a class with him.

But she chose to hold back the information. She treated his safety as more important than her scoop. And that, I think, is more indicative of her ethics than this current incident is. It also says something about her ethics that she offered her resignation for the good of the paper. And overall, I think she proved herself this semester as a capable editor.

All that said, there is a stark truth in journalism: Once a journalist’s integrity is in doubt, he or she is effectively finished as a journalist. That is why the staff should have accepted her resignation.

On occasion, reporters will interview subjects who request they not be recorded. But that is incredibly rare. My experience—and I have been doing interviews for more than 35 years—is that people want to be recorded so they are quoted accurately and so there is a record in case they feel they were misquoted. I asked Mix if she would have allowed the interview to be recorded, had she been asked. She said yes.

Jacon-Duffy clearly wanted to quote Mix accurately, which is why she was recording. But all she had to do was put her recording device on the table, turn it on and start the conversation. That was why hiding the recorder was so baffling—because it was so unnecessary. It was an incredible lapse in judgment.

But let’s remember a few things. First, she is a student. Students are here to learn. They are going to make mistakes and, ideally, learn from those mistakes. (From time to time, as if anyone needs a reminder, faculty and staff make mistakes too.) This will be a learning experience that sticks with her forever.

That said, the experience should end quietly, rather than dog her, when she graduates next month and begins her career, which is in a non-journalism-related field.

Think of all the political leaders—Bill Clinton, David Vitter and Mark Sanford, to name just three—who have committed ethical violations far more egregious than this. Of those, two are still in office, and Clinton’s approval rating is 55 percent—the same as the pope’s.

They are adults. Jacon-Duffy is still in her formative stages.

My take is Jacon-Duffy made a student mistake, then compounded it with an unfortunate attempt at a joke. For the long-term good of the paper, though, the staff should have accepted her resignation.

“Please also know: I love The Collegian staff,” she said in her email. “I love the editors, I love the young reporters and I am proud of all of them every day. These are all great journalists and do a lot for our campus. I hope that they will continue to be treated with the utmost respect.”

I hope so too. I want Collegian reporters to be seen as honorable and fair—which I think they are—and I want faculty, staff and students to be willing to talk to The Collegian and feel that they will be treated fairly. If this incident does no long-term damage, then the staff will have made the right decision.

Ultimately, what happened in this case should serve as a teachable moment for all concerned—the students running The Collegian, certainly, but, really, for everyone. And the lesson is simple: How you conduct yourself matters, always.