Reflecting, moving forward

In the last year, the nation has witnessed the print newspaper, considered by many a staple of democracy, fizzle to a dying ember. There is much talk about the future of the newspaper and where the industry is headed, and as anyone with an Internet connection can now become a “citizen journalist,” many fear for the integrity of the craft. Editors and publishers are scratching their heads in search of an answer, hoping for a miracle. The industry is facing drastic changes, and those who seek to maintain high standards know only that they must adapt with the shifting tides. The question of how best to accomplish this is foremost on a great number of minds, and in times of desperation it’s easy to grasp at straws.

Yet those who believe in the importance of journalism to the democratic process know certain things must stay the same. It is crucial that journalism continues to be, first and foremost, about maintaining diligent attention to one’s values and ethics while independently and objectively informing readers, stimulating discussion and educating democracy. In the face of such uncertainty, this will undoubtedly require making difficult decisions and sacrifices. Still, those who represent the future of journalism – that is to say, our generation – must stand up for those values and ethics and not lose sight of their responsibility as journalists.

Surely, in order to move forward you have to abandon some traditions, but ethics must always be maintained. The past year has been a pivotal one in the history of the Emerald, and one that has seen the effects of this debate. Uncertainty about what’s to come for this and any other newspaper has loomed overhead, but the paper continues to be guided by a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future.

It is this hope, as well as a responsibility to those who paved the way to independence before it, that led the Emerald editorial staff to strike on March 4 of this year. The editorial staff stood up with the hope of ensuring the independence that had been gained nearly 40 years ago would remain intact for future generations. In doing so, it stuck a thermometer in the mouth of journalism and gauged the temperature of the media world. Considering the resounding support the newsroom received from the journalism community at large during the strike, it seems young journalists and veterans alike are largely still on the same page about ethical boundaries.

Students in the Emerald newsroom have long been ingrained to be fiercely independent, and often have initiated serious change. They have made difficult or unpopular decisions in order to maintain their values, and journalism across Oregon is largely better for this.

On May 24, 1966, Emerald reporter Annette Buchanan made one of these decisions, and in doing so, paved the way for American journalistic shield protection. Buchanan and her editors ran a controversial story with the headline, “Students Condone Marijuana Use,” which contained seven unnamed sources discussing their drug use. On June 1 of that year, the Lane County district attorney subpoenaed Buchanan, requesting the names of the sources. Buchanan refused and was fined $300 for contempt of court. The Oregon Supreme Court dismissed Buchanan’s claim that the Oregon Constitution protected her, and in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Buchanan could have made the easy decision to succumb to pressure and reveal her sources. Instead, she stuck to her ethics as a journalist. As a result, Oregon legislators created the first journalistic shield law, which provides extensive protection for all members of the news and information media. Despite the changing face of the news media, the statute still grants absolute protection from compelled disclosure of sources and all information obtained by journalists in the course of their work.

Issues of maintaining editorial integrity, in fact, are the very reason the Emerald became independent in the first place. Then-editor Art Bushnell said in an article published July 1, 1971, that one of the main outcomes of independence was the ability to avoid potential control of the newspaper by any group, “from the State Board of Higher Education to the University administration to student government.” During the strike, Bushnell told the Emerald’s editor, “These are very difficult financial times for all newspapers. They require difficult economic decisions. But you must ensure the independence of the Emerald editor is not a casualty of this economy.”

As the media evolve, everyone from bloggers to senators is debating how best to keep the newspaper industry afloat and still true to its guiding principles. The Emerald this year witnessed firsthand the necessity of making hard decisions in order to make this happen, and it became clearer than ever that, if news journalism is to survive, it must change.

But as journalists increasingly find themselves without work and newsrooms look for new ways to generate revenue, it is all the more important for those lucky enough to still be publishing to make sure that the values of independence, transparency and integrity are not compromised. We can’t just know what we’re doing – we have to know why. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be willing to stand up for something if you believe it’s right – and against something when you know it’s wrong. College newsrooms should continue to be a breeding ground for that kind of thinking. And though it is still hard to say what the future of the Emerald or the journalism industry will be, by working together and communicating openly, we may have come one step closer to realizing that future.

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