6 lessons student journalists learned at the center of a reporting controversy

December 10, 2012
Category: Uncategorized
Daniel Reimold

The most controversial student press story of 2012 went viral before it was even written.

In early September, American University anthropology professor Adrienne Pine published a 4,000-word essay online alleging The Eagle student newspaper was out to get her. Her allegations quickly received national media attention. They stemmed from a story the paper had been pursuing about Pine breast-feeding her newborn daughter during a class lecture.

Eagle staff writer Heather Mongilio had taken on the assignment, while the paper’s editor-in-chief Zach Cohen and other editors supervised her progress. But Mongilio’s name never appeared in the published article’s byline. Instead, she joined Cohen and the Eagle as a news flavor of the week and trending Twitter topic, while caught in a swirl of nasty debate that briefly seemed to swallow the paper and students whole.

Late last month, Cohen and Mongilio gave their first interview about the story and the sudden super-storm that formed around them while they were working on it. Their reflections offer a fresh, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the multi-headed Minotaur that is the modern media scandal. The scandals are born online, spread in real-time, pounced on by the press, spit on in status updates, and often built around loud voices, larger agendas, and first impressions, facts or full stories be damned. They are also increasingly ensnaring the campus press, almost always attached to an embedded anti-student sentiment along the lines of, “What have the kids done now?”

Some real news to report

Cohen called the saga’s mundane start, simply, “the essence of journalism: We received a news tip and followed up with the proper sources to confirm the truth.”

From the outset, the newsworthy angles were easy to spot.

  • The story centered on an act that is rare in a university classroom, especially involving a professor, in front of students, mid-lecture.
  • Students were apparently discussing it online and across campus.
  • There were rumblings that the faculty senate at the Washington, D.C., school might be investigating (ultimately it did not).
  • And it linked to larger issues involving childcare, classroom decorum, family-friendly workplaces, lactivism, and gender and mother’s rights.

“The story, in our eyes, became newsworthy when we found specific policies that afforded her protection, opinions from the university on her actions, and widespread campus debate on a very legitimate question on the social acceptance of public breast-feeding,” said Cohen.

Mongilio, 19, a sophomore print journalism and psychology double major, said she was determined to follow “the inverted hard news pyramid to the dot.”

How the story unfolded

Early in her reporting, Mongilio contacted Pine to hear her perspectives as a mother and a professor leading a feminist anthropology course.

After they spoke in person, by her own admission, Pine grew “increasingly incensed at the entire premise of the ‘story.’” She wrote Mongilio an email straightforwardly pleading, “Please do not publish this story.”

“She said, ‘I don’t want to become a martyr for breastfeeding,’” recalled Cohen, 20, a junior international studies major from Wyckoff, N.J., a suburb of New York City. “We totally appreciated that. We were fine to keep her anonymous and even to not mention that she was teaching a sex, gender, and culture class, which in my mind is pretty crucial to understand the context of it.”

Regardless, Pine felt threatened, and decided “the only option left was to exposé my breasts – on my own terms – on the Internet.”

In a post for the political outlet CounterPunch, headlined “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus,” she chided the Eagle for focusing on “a pointless story centered around my breasts” and subsequently creating “a hostile work environment.”

She called it “a third-rate university newspaper” and referred to the staff directly and indirectly as naive, gossip-driven, and misogynistic. She also cited Cohen and Mongilio by name and even published their mobile phone numbers (university officials intervened to have that information removed).

In conclusion, she asked, “AU Eagle, how about finding some real news to report?”

Zach Cohen (Photo by Felicia Afuan)

When Cohen and Mongilio first received emails containing the link to the CounterPunch piece, they both thought the messages were spam. But they soon realized the essay was real, a full-blown digital body blow that Cohen admits “knocked the wind out of me a little bit.”

Pine’s post spurred a spate of mostly harsh media coverage directed at The Eagle. Online vitriol and private threats followed, along with a campus protest which included the chant, “Give it a rest, it’s just a breast” and signs screaming, “This is not news.”

All of this, and the Eagle had not yet published the story.

Instead of a simple deadline, the dilemma the students suddenly faced was much more pressing and complex: what to do when outside forces unexpectedly and dramatically shift the focus of a story onto you – and your media outlet.

Six lessons learned

In their recounting of events, roughly two months and 10 Eagle issues later, Cohen and Mongilio said they learned six main lessons from the steps they subsequently took and the reactions they encountered.

Don’t be rash. From the start of the controversy, they both fought the urge to publicly respond while still emotional and before they had brainstormed how best to go about it. It was not easy to ward off urgings from their family, some fellow staffers, the outside press, and every fiber of their beings.

“I can tell you, we wanted to come out and say something,” said Cohen. “Absolutely. When you’re being attacked like that, it’s a natural reaction to want to defend yourself.”

As Mongilio similarly shared about external pressures, “You have this balance where you’re trying to be the student on a campus where half the students hate you now and you’re trying to be a reporter and stay objective. And then your parents are yelling at you to make a stand and come out and say something and you’re trying to convey to them that you can’t because you’re a journalist and trying to maintain the paper.”

Initially maintaining what Cohen called “radio silence” allowed staffers to see the true extent of the brouhaha, once the initial ranting and bloviating died down. “We spent a lot of time deliberating, and that was important,” he said. “We didn’t want to make any rash decisions.”

In part, that was because they were witnessing the consequences of impulsive publishing firsthand. Pine admittedly wrote her anti-Eagle essay while still upset and before knowing how the paper’s story would turn out.

Heather Mongilio (Photo by Samantha Mongilio)

As she emailed Mongilio roughly a week after it went live on CounterPunch, “In writing the article I was motivated by anger at having been treated in a way that I saw (and continue to see) as profoundly unethical by The Eagle. However, that anger in no way justifies the tone I used in describing your actions.”

Slate writer Amanda Marcotte agreed that Pine “responded in a way that likely hurt her cause by coming across as pedantic and needlessly defensive.” Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak similarly called the essay “inappropriate, judgmental, and flat-out absurd.” As she wrote, “[R]ather than work with the student journalist [Mongilio] in a calm, mature, and professional way, Pine lost it. And me.” AU administrators also released a statement denouncing the essay, noting it “does not reflect professional conduct.”

And Pine later apologized to Cohen and Mongilio in a pair of personal emails for featuring their full names and phone numbers in the post.

The Eagle, by comparison, did not want to be forced to apologize due to an emotional lapse in judgment. They collaborated for more than a week on the main article, subbing a new reporter for Mongilio due to real and perceived conflict-of-interest issues. The piece finally appeared on the front page of the first print issue The Eagle published since the scandal broke.

“I know the night that we came out with the final story, we were up until 5 a.m., basically having everybody read it and check for inaccuracies and things that could be clarified in covering all of our bases,” said Cohen.  “We knew we didn’t want this to be a botched job. We were also constantly in communication with each other, down to every detail, what we were saying to our friends, what we were saying to professors, you name it. It really was a group exercise to a certain extent.”

Reach out. To that end, throughout the controversy, Cohen constantly worked to ensure he was not alone in his decision-making or brainstorming in a bubble. Along with current staff, he sought the counsel of The Eagle’s two most recent former editors-in-chief, Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte, and the paper’s adviser Adell Crowe, a veteran journalist who previously served as standards and development editor at USA TODAY.

“As editor-in-chief, obviously a lot of this is on me to make final decisions,” he said. “But I didn’t think I needed to make those decisions without consultation with people that I trusted. So I would urge people to not think of themselves as martyrs and think they have to figure things out on their own. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”

Know where you’re coming from. In her essay, Pine argued, “The Eagle has long had a solidly anti-woman slant.” The proof she cited: a single opinion piece.

In spring 2010, an American University sophomore known for stirring the pot wrote a column for The Eagle questioning the validity of date rape.  The piece was a powder keg, triggering heated media attention and hundreds of angry comments and letters to the editor. It also spawned a protest that left more than 1,000 copies of The Eagle scattered near the newsroom under a sign reading, “No Room for Rape Apologists.”

While unquestionably controversial – and unconscionably offensive to some – the column ran more than two years ago. “At a mainstream newspaper, two years is a blink of an eye,” Cohen said. “On a college campus, it’s a complete staff turnover. I wasn’t even here two years ago.  I was in high school when that first came out.”

Yet, Pine and others still branded the Eagle as sexist, even when almost all the paper’s current staffers are female.

While ironic, the labeling also served as a three-fold reminder:

  1. It is important to know your news outlet’s previous highs and lows – including those that pre-date your time on staff.
  2. Be aware of the perceptions students, faculty, staff, alumni, locals, and online readers hold about your outlet.
  3. As the Eagle staff understands more than most, don’t dismiss the imprint a single screw-up or scandal can leave on your outlet’s long-term reputation.

“It’s incredibly important to know the history of your publication,” Cohen said. “The Chicago Tribune still suffers from the ‘Dewey Wins’ headline way back in the Truman years.”

Search for real-world reaction. As the controversy played out, The Eagle team continually took stock of related social media chatter.  Yet, they did not put much faith in it as an arbiter of true sentiment. “It’s hard to capture what people say on Facebook and Twitter,” said Cohen. “It’s hard to really insert that into a narrative. People say things on Facebook and Twitter all the time.”

Instead, staffers focused a portion of their reaction coverage on a campus protest staged to support Pine and malign the paper. It was a small gathering compared to the endless Internet debate. But it provided a glimpse into the perspectives of individuals truly motivated to make their voices heard – and not afraid to show their faces and reveal their names while doing it.

Expect, even welcome, criticism. The campus protest also provided another important lesson. Even as students chanted in rhyme and held signs indicating their disgust toward The Eagle, they still spoke to its staffers. At the height of their anger and indignation, they were agreeable to having their voice heard through the very outlet they were protesting against.

For Cohen, it was a telling reminder that many times anti-media zealotry and implicit respect go hand in hand. “It’s as American as apple pie to criticize the press,” he said. “People criticize us all the time, and then they like us or want to give us a tip for a story. It’s the American way.”

The related lessons for staff: Grow a thick skin. Trust in your work. Revel in criticism as a sign of your public significance. And recognize readers are often not the best judges of quality journalism.

“Even after something horrible like this – and it was a very stressful first four weeks of the semester and my grades are going to suffer from it – it hasn’t changed who I am,” said Mongilio, a native of Ellicott City, Md.

“I still want to write the important stories, the big stories. … People can keep saying what they’ll say about me and I can just laugh because I know it’s not true and people just don’t understand how the news works sometimes.”

Along with steeling Mongilio’s reporting resolve, the criticism has even helped her make in-roads in her new position: administration and local news editor.

“I was definitely known to administrators going in,” she said. “They joke around about the whole thing with me. … I’m covering the university budget now, so I can walk up to our VP of campus life and say hi and she’ll recognize me. They’re a little more friendly when they know who you are.”

Learn from the limelight. One last unexpected byproduct of the scandal for the students was a firmer grasp on the concept of empathy. Their brief time in the media’s crosshairs – and the emotional and social pressures accompanying it – gave them a new appreciation for those they quote and report on.

“To be clear, I totally understood where professor Pine was coming from,” said Cohen. “I never doubted her sincerity in any of this. She felt her career and her personal life were at stake. She was thrown into the limelight. That’s certainly a good lesson for us to learn as journalists.  Now, we’ve gotten a taste of it, so we know what happens when we cover other people, especially when we cover very controversial topics.”

Yet, the pair confirmed the experience has not led them to be too sympathetic or slackened their desire for objective, aggressive coverage.

“To me, there’s no better satisfaction with what happened than for my name to continue to be in print in every issue and to say, ‘You can’t just put me down because you wrote a post that made national news,’” said Mongilio. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop or run away from the school.  I’m going to keep doing what I do.”

On a personal level, what will Mongilio do if she sees Pine on campus?  Her prediction: “I’m sure that if I ever do run into her we’ll have a very awkward eye contest as we try to make our way past each other without talking.”

Pine did not respond to an email interview request for this story.


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