Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — A media advisory Tuesday night said a sit-in the next day at Smith College would “call attention to issues of racism on our campus and other campuses around the country ….”

It also said organizers “would like to invite journalists and media representatives to participate in our action, not simply to document it from an outside perspective.” The message continued, “If your media outlet would be open to joining us in solidarity, and recording events that take place, we welcome your support.”

Such a request is unusual from activists seeking coverage — and unacceptable. Days after the sit-in, the question of access that it created was dominating coverage and being picked up nationally. On Friday, I learned that in navigating this unusual terrain, our team had for the most part handled the situation well, but made one misstep.

After the request came in from student organizers, I met with Greg Saulmon, our managing editor for news, and we agreed that we would decline to “participate” in the event. But believing the sit-in newsworthy, we made plans to cover it.

Saulmon assigned the story to Katie Hazen, a Smith student who reports for The Sophian newspaper at the college and is an intern with the Gazette this fall. At that point, we should have cautioned Hazen about the unusual advisory, of which she was unaware. It was a particularly important point to stress with an intern, who had no experience with such demands.

At noon Wednesday, as she prepared to report the story, Hazen contacted one of the event’s organizers by email to request an interview at the sit-in, located in the school’s campus center. Hazen wrote that she planned to attend “to offer my support and also to cover the event for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.”

In doing so, she inadvertently signaled an acceptance of the condition student organizers sought to impose. However, it is important to note that when covering the event Wednesday, she did not express — and was not asked to express — support for the sit-in as a condition for obtaining access. She asked the questions she wanted to ask and chronicled the event as an independent observer.

When Photo Editor Carol Lollis arrived to document the sit-in, she was told by a Smith media representative that students wanted members of the press to affirm they supported the sit-in’s goals. Lollis was not willing to do that and said she wanted to discuss that directly with a student involved with the sit-in. The Smith representative tried to locate a student organizer but returned to say they were too busy to speak with Lollis.

Lollis, meantime, began photographing. After roughly an hour of shooting and interviewing, one of the students she photographed declined to provide her name until it could be cleared by student organizers. She returned to say that permission had been granted.

At no time was Lollis asked to declare her support for the sit-in as a condition of being allowed to remain. “If I had been asked, I would have said no,” Lollis said. On Friday, Hazen continued her coverage of the story, but in a note to the organizer she interviewed, she clarified that as a representative of the Gazette, she would remain independent. “The personal views I expressed to you in that email have not been and cannot be a part of my reporting.”

— LARRY PARNASS, Gazette editor


 


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