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Either/or: Hampton University must decide what paper will be

Nov. 12, 2003

Daily Press
Newport News, Va.

What’s in a name? Is the Hampton Script a newspaper? Or is it a communications channel for the Hampton University administration, a kind of public relations tool?

It can’t be both.

The values of accuracy, fairness and independence must guide a newspaper as it strives to serve all its readers — in the case of the Script, the university’s students, faculty, staff and friends. A university paper also functions as a training ground for student journalists, providing hands-on reporting and editing practice to complement classroom learning. And an alliance with the field of journalism requires the courage to deal with sensitive, even embarrassing, subjects with honesty.

A public relations tool has a different, although still legitimate, goal: to present things in a light favorable to the client’s interests. Its aim is to influence perceptions, not necessarily to expose the sometimes-warty truth.

Two different things, two different purposes. Hampton must decide which the Script will be.

It was clear that the university, in the person of acting president, Provost JoAnn Haysbert, viewed the newspaper as the administration’s mouthpiece when she demanded that it print on the front of the Oct. 22 edition her letter putting a positive spin on what had been a difficult situation: widespread media coverage of the exceptionally high number of health code violations in the university cafeteria. Haysbert’s job is to protect the university, and it was important for her to put things in a good light with alumni, parents and friends arriving for homecoming weekend.

It was equally clear that to the student journalists, the Script was a newspaper. They ran on Page 1 their own story about the cafeteria, and printed Haysbert’s letter on a more appropriate (for a newspaper, that is) inside page. When she confiscated the press run, Haysbert violated the editorial independence that a newspaper would enjoy.

A promising way out of the impasse came with appointment of a task force to determine the role of the Script. The naming as chairman pioneering African-American reporter Earl Caldwell, who holds an endowed chair at the school, was a good sign for those who want to protect the Script’s newspaper identity. So was the inclusion of the director of the journalism school and the paper’s key editors and faculty advisers. So was Haysbert’s statement that she will abide by the task force’s recommendations.

But there are still questions about which way the winds will blow the Script. Haysbert later added to the panel three members (faculty in nursing, psychology and sociology). Their grounding in the principles of journalism and credentials for setting journalistic policy might be a stretch, but there is room for a nonjournalism perspective. Haysbert’s particular interest appears to be that the Script continue to be produced by students from various disciplines at HU, not just the journalism students. That shouldn’t be a problem; learning and practicing journalism values would be a good part of any citizen’s education.

If Hampton intends to nurture a journalism school that has professional stature — the coinage on which its graduates will trade — it must either assure that the Script will have editorial independence and freedom from interference, or acknowledge it as a public relations tool and open the way for students to create their own, independent newspaper.

There’s a lot at stake. Some organizations that take journalism seriously — including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Knight-Ridder and Scripps Howard foundations — admit they’re squeamish about alliances with a university that doesn’t respect the principles of the profession. In the interests of strengthening the journalism school, they can use their influence, derived from their purse strings and professional stature, to clarify issues for the university.

Copyright © 2003, Daily Press. Reprinted with permission.