During a critical conversation meeting on March 11, 2021, School of Journalism and Communication (SJC) professors Stephen Ruf and Alva James-Johnson presented on the topic of the credibility of the press. Among the questions asked from the audience, someone brought up this concern:
“My faith in the credibility of the Southern Accent is gone,” the comment, submitted through Slido, read “… It seems as if the Accent has become more interested in inflammatory articles and less about just telling the news. How do we keep credibility on our campus? How do we say that we can trust the press when even on our campus our local paper is producing inflammatory articles?”
Prior to the meeting, Johnson, who is also the Accent’s adviser, had requested an internal audit in response to complaints from a faculty member and a few administrators regarding what was perceived as negative coverage of the university by the Accent. Johnson assigned an SJC student worker not associated with the Accent to the task, allowing the student to independently audit an 18-month period of Accent coverage.
The results showed that from Sept. 12, 2019, to March 10, 2021, the Southern Accent published 355 news articles. Out of this number, 92%, were deemed non-controversial while 8% covered controversial topics. In addition, 67% of the articles painted the school in a positive light, 13% in a negative one and 20% of the articles were neutral.
While most of the Accent’s articles contain a positive theme, at times negative issues are addressed in our stories. However, the Accent does not intend for these articles to be “inflammatory,” arousing angry or violent feelings, but rather to reflect the sentiments of those who make up the campus. These negative issues are just as important to report on as the positive ones. We aim to write such stories in an objective manner.
According to Southern’s 2020-2021 Undergraduate catalog, student publications and productions are “a vital part of” the university.
“When exercised in the spirit of Christian fellowship, responsible freedom of expression and debate of issues enhances the university community,” the catalog reads. “Editors and producers are encouraged to express themselves freely within the parameters of the philosophy, standards, and mission statement of the University.
“Student media are the voices of both students and faculty, representing the visual and creative arts, both in print and non-print formats,” the passage continues. “The student media provides a marketplace of ideas in a university environment.”
At the Southern Accent, we take our role very seriously. Like most newspapers, we aim to keep the community — in this case students, parents, alumni and employees — informed about ongoing issues as well as to hold leaders accountable to their constituents. This is a two-way street, as that same community also needs to ensure the news team that serves them is balanced, fair and accurate. The Accent has strived to maintain such standards under the current leadership.
Last year, we added a correction box to the newspaper. When mistakes are made, we recognize and correct those errors as quickly as possible, both online and in print. Just as we encourage students to voice their opinions, we also encourage employees to reach out to us if they feel they are inaccurately represented. We have even invited critics to write letters to the editors voicing their concerns, but few have accepted the offer.
The Accent also believes there needs to be more cooperation between Southern employees and reporters in order to provide the most accurate and balanced articles. If sources do not respond to requests for information or interviews in a timely manner, it is difficult to write balanced stories. As found in the employee handbook, Southern supports employees’ contribution to the Accent.
“Faculty, staff and administrators are encouraged to participate in the marketplace of ideas as sources of accurate information, and as contributing writers,” the policy states in article 1540. “Their participation provides a balance. For student media to have credibility, it must accurately and fairly report the truth, set the record straight, and dispel rumor.”
While the Accent strives to report on most issues affecting students, faculty or the Southern community, we feel that the newspaper has been unable to report on some important topics due to censorship from various levels of departments. The Accent should not be a marketing tool but a student-produced medium that serves as a channel of information that pursues truth.
We’ve been asked not to share pictures of students who do not comply with Southern’s dress code or current COVID-19 policy, for example, even when these pictures are not staged. While it would make sense to follow these guidelines for a marketing publication, withholding such images in a news publication creates an inaccurate depiction of those we are trying to represent.
When media is censored, it endangers the true representation of a group and the rights of individuals to access transparent information. We believe that this does not align with Southern’s goal of accurately preserving history.
“Student media serve not only the current residents of the campus, but also document the culture and history of the institution,” the policy states in article 1540.
It is our hope moving forward, that the Accent, in conjunction with students and employees, will maintain the commitment to accurately represent the community and culture of Southern. We anticipate that the future Accent team will continue to responsibly use the freedom of expression granted by the university to discuss issues that will enhance our community, through transparency and mutual trust.