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Emerson student newspaper accused of bias in edits on a student’s opinion piece

Posted by Your Town  November 19, 2012 04:13 PM

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By Alyssa Edes, Globe Correspondent

A battle of opinions, interests, and ethics is playing out at Emerson College’s newspaper, the Berkeley Beacon.

The student organization Emerson Progressives and Radicals in Defense of Employees (PRIDE), formed to give support to Emerson’s security guards, is distributing a flyer alleging that editors at the Beacon skewed the argument in a member’s op-ed article because of editorial bias.

Editors at the Beacon say the column was unfit for publication not because of their personal disagreement with its opinion, but because the article didn’t have necessary factual support.

Junior marketing communication major Emma MacDonald penned the text on behalf of Emerson PRIDE, a group recently formed “to build community between college workers and students.” She pulled the piece after editors proposed changes she said would have undercut the integrity of her message.

“I wrote the article to give voice to security guards who were experiencing a lot of negativity from the student body and also from the Beacon itself, which intensified after a recent breach of security,” says MacDonald.

In October, two guards from the security contractor Securitas were fired for allowing an unauthorized individual posing as a building employee into one of the dorms, where he attempted to steal computers and other valuables before being caught with the help of a resident assistant.

The incident prompted the Beacon’s editorial board to write an opinion piece arguing for the college to reassess its contract with Securitas, whose performance, it said,  “has permitted this breach and numerous student complaints.”

“If Securitas hopes to retain its contract with our college, it must respond by living up to its own standards,” editors wrote. “‘A Securitas employee is always attentive and often notices things that others don’t,’ boasts the company’s website under its code of values. There is no question that its sentries at this institution have fallen short.”

MacDonald submitted her article in defense of the security guards, who she says operate in difficult working conditions, and are underpaid and under supported. She pulled her opinion piece after editors required changes before publication. Instead, she distributed an independent flyer displaying the piece in full and asserting Beacon editors “inserted their own bias” in edits.

Opinion Editor Hayden Wright defended the paper’s handling of the opinion piece.

“We would never not publish a story because we personally disagreed with it or because we as an editorial board disagreed with it,” Wright said. “But we don’t publish something when the argument is faulty or the writing isn’t up to par or there are other ethical issues, which this piece definitely encountered.”

Part of the problem, Beacon editors said, was the article failed to support opinion with factual evidence. They call its tone “suspect.”

 “We basically believed it was an accusatory piece, it was little bit paranoid, and a lot of her assertions about the student body weren’t adequately backed up,” says Wright. “To imply students were in some way wrong for fearing for their safety without evidence just isn’t fair.”

MacDonald’s piece asserted students had expressed “a sentiment of fear, misunderstanding and disrespect” toward security guards. Wright calls this allegation “insensitive toward the student body,” but MacDonald said it was a part of her argument she wasn’t willing to abandon.

“They said I was being too harsh on the students but that’s what my point was because I did feel people were being very harsh about Securitas,” she says. “I also didn’t say this was the view of the entire student body -- I only pointed out that it exists.”

The passage in dispute reads, “Students here have been whispering stereotypes like, ‘Well this is what they get when they fall asleep all of the time,’ and statements such as ‘I don’t feel safe here anymore.’”

The article also makes a number of claims without specific support.

It says, for example, that Securitas cut wages over the summer to $10.50 an hour across the board, which Securitas workers told this reporter is true. But both MacDonald and guards say wages have been restored to their original rate.

The guards, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisal, also said they are under-trained and come under intense scrutiny from students and bosses.

Securitas headquarters declined requests for comment.

Emerson PRIDE member Suzi Pietroluongo, a junior theater education major, said the choice not to identify the sources of the opinion piece’s charges was strategic.

“If we were to say it came from an anonymous security guard that would put every single security [person] at Emerson at risk of being spied on at their boss, which they have been.”

The Beacon editors argue that the op-ed may not need attribution for its opinion, but it does need to support its claims with evidence that Securitas guards are underpaid, understaffed, poorly trained, and work under “murky rules.”

Heidi Moeller, the Berkley Beacon’s editor-and-chief and a marketing communication student, said the op-ed piece’s argument didn’t hold up without attribution to a particular source.

“We weren’t asking necessarily for the names of the security workers from whom she got this information. We were asking, ‘How do you know what their wages are?’ They could be lying to her -- there’s no way of knowing that for sure – so she should’ve attributed it through the corporate headquarters of Securitas.”

Emerson journalism Professor Janet Kolodzy said the Beacon editors have a reasonable argument.

“People who write columns for the op-ed section are expected to provide some verification for the positions they take. A columnist has the opportunity to provide opinions via analysis so there is some expectation of not just spouting off.”

But Kolodzy also said the issue at hand is how much verification is needed. She said the Beacon must enforce the same standards of verification for opinion articles across the board.

“Do they have every right to enforce this standard here? Yes. Do they have every right to -- like any newspaper -- reject a column, essay, opinion, or letter to the editor? Yes. But in this case is there middle ground that has not been met?”

MacDonald’s article also says a contributing factor to last month’s security breach was likely that some people entering Emerson buildings don’t have working ID’s. This has since been addressed.

“Before the incident, a lot of the maintenance and Aramark [food service] workers didn’t have ID’s, so they were told, ‘Okay you just have to recognize faces,’” says MacDonald. “I believe the pair of security guards that were fired were lied to by the intruder and were probably really confused.”

Moeller says the security officers deserved to be fired regardless.

“If we lived in a world where when people make mistakes we brush it aside and say, ‘oh no big deal,’ what kind of world would we really be living in? It was those workers’ jobs to keep the dorms safe and secure and they didn’t do their job.”

Nevertheless she insists her opinion did not influence the decision to demand changes in the PRIDE opinion piece. Beacon editors say all articles published in the paper, even opinion pieces, go through “the same level of edits” to ensure the credibility and the integrity of the organization.

“The Beacon is not this person’s personal blog,” says Wright. “We do a lot of really hard work to make sure pieces we publish are up to the standard we aspire to here. And we’re not always perfect, but if this student wants what she calls an ‘unfiltered platform’ to voice her opinion and fail to back that up with credible support, she can find another place.”

MacDonald says she and her cohorts are talking about reviving an alternative publication, The Urban Pirate. They’re reconsidering the name.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College. 

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