October 2, 2013

In the weeks before school started, it was widely known on campus at the University of Alabama that a well-qualified black woman was pledging the white sororities. Her high-school resume was stellar, her family were alums and her grandfather was on the Board of Trustees.

The staff at the student newspaper, The Crimson White, was poised to document the seminal moment when she was accepted, which would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the university’s integration.

But the woman received no invitations to join any of the school’s 16 white sororities.

A couple days after the invitations were issued, Culture Editor Abbey Crain and Magazine Editor Matt Ford both stepped up at the Crimson White. Crain said in a phone interview for the Poynter Excellence Project that she assumed someone else was already working on the story and just wanted to help. Instead, she found herself as the lead reporter. Ford said he just wanted to tell a good story when he volunteered, and wasn’t even aware of the 50th anniversary.

Over the next three weeks, the two asked dozens of sorority members if they would describe the closed-door negotiations that led to invitations. Nearly all of the people approached said no.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Heck no, I am not talking about that. ” Crain said. “You know some of the sororities instruct their members to never ever talk to us about anything.”

Eventually, sources within four sororities agreed to tell their stories. One of the women even agreed to talk on the record.

On Sept. 11, The Crimson White published its investigative piece, “The Final Barrier: 50 Years Later Segregation Still Exists.” The story documented a rush process in which members at several sororities actively tried to pledge the student in question, only to be thwarted by their alumnae and advisers.

The story caught fire on social media. Jezebel linked to it the next day. Within a week, CNN, USA Today, The New York Times and The Guardian of London had published similar stories.

It’s a remarkable piece of journalism for three reasons.

  • The story itself is clear-eyed and insightful, taking readers into a secret rush process that’s rarely been documented.
  • The tone of the story was authoritative, yet lacked any hint of sensationalism. The writers were careful not to overreach in their conclusions, which made their assertions that much more powerful.
  • The impact was even more remarkable. Students and faculty protested. The college president, the governor and the U.S. Attorney General trained their sights on the rush process, and news media around the world took notice.

The outcome: Several sororities reopened the rush process and invited four African-American women and two other women of color into their ranks.

Alabama student Yardena Wolf, right, speaks at a campus protest. Khortlan Patterson is at left. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

This wasn’t the first time The Crimson White had criticized the sororities, Crain said — it was almost a rite of autumn. In Crain’s time as a student, the paper has published three columns or editorials calling the Greek system discriminatory. Each time, the Greeks responded that the paper was biased, online comments flew, and nothing changed, Crain said.

This year offered the prospect that things would be different: The weight of history was pressing down on the entire South, with commemorations of the integration of several universities and remembrances of the death of the four girls in the Birmingham bombing making headlines.

But the outcome was also different because the story was different.

On Sept. 18, about 400 students and faculty members protested on campus. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

One of Crain’s first moves was to track down Melanie Gotz, the only named source and the backbone of the story.

“I knew her from my freshman year. I thought she might be the kind of girl that would stick up for this stuff,” Crain said. Sure enough, Gotz had unsuccessfully spoken up during the rush meetings at her own sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta, demanding to know what happened to the African-American pledge. When Crain called, Gotz was ready to talk. She described her sorority sisters standing with her to oppose their alumnae, only to be overruled.

“The entire house wanted this girl to be in Alpha Gam,” Gotz told The Crimson White. “We were just powerless over the alums.”

Anonymous sources at Delta Delta Delta, Chi Omega and Pi Beta Phi described similar scenarios to Crain and Ford.

Crain was particularly worried about Gotz being the only named source. Throughout the reporting she kept Gotz informed of her progress, including the fact that no one else was going on the record. But Gotz insisted on keeping her name in the story.

“I didn’t want to throw her under the bus,” Crain said. “But she told me she would regret it if she didn’t put her name to it.”

Crain’s father, an Alabama alum, was back home in Huntsville and worried about his daughter.

“At first he was like, ‘Oh Abbey you are playing with fire. These are all well-off women. You are going to get yourself in trouble,’ ” she said. But as the reporting went along and she revealed what she was finding, her father changed his mind. “He was just like ‘Oh my gosh, I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was like this.’ My parents are really proud.”

Mark Mayfield, the Crimson White’s adviser, said Crain, Ford and Editor-in-Chief Mazie Bryant approached him early with the story. They were particularly concerned because one of their anonymous sources had implicated an administration official who doubled as a sorority-house adviser as one of two people in the room when votes (which sources said were unanimously in favor of inviting the student) were counted and the pledge was removed from consideration.

Crain and Ford worked hard to get that woman’s response in the story, rather than settle for her initial “no comment.” The sorority adviser later responded that “Our recruitment processes and procedures were followed, and while I cannot take away the disappointment a potential new member or chapter member may feel, I can share that all women were treated fairly and consistently in our process.”

While that response doesn’t really explain how a pledge who had unanimous support from the members didn’t get an invitation, it at least allowed the adviser to respond to her critics. “It was the right thing to do,” Mayfield said. “Abbey was a bulldog about it.”

The morning the story was published, Ford said he went to bed at 3:30 a.m. When he awoke much later that day, his phone was overloaded with text messages. Jezebel had picked up the story, and people on Facebook and Twitter were talking about it.

National networks sent crews to campus, protests erupted, and after the bidding process was reopened, six women of color accepted invitations into sororities on campus. (Ford noted his disappointment that some of the national stories wrongly suggested the pledges had been blocked by current sorority members and not the alumnae.)

Ford and Crain are both on track to graduate next spring. Both admit they’re already behind in their classes, mostly because of their devotion to their journalism. After college, Ford hopes to move to New York to be a journalist — or maybe a screenwriter, or maybe an actor. Crain wants to be a fashion writer.

You should hire them before someone else does.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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