Free press at stake

When student government tries to assume financial control over student media, serious ethical questions arise that cannot be overlooked.

The Student Government Association has proposed a new constitution that would give it sole control over the budgets of Student Media, the Activities Programming Board (APB) and the Residential Housing Association (RHA).

We at The Northerner support the separation of media and government, and will fight to uphold the freedom of the press in order to accurately report the news free from outside influence.

The media functions in society as a watchdog of the government, among other things.

It provides the public with information on the government’s activities, both good and bad.

Media outlets remain independent from the government in order to preserve the freedom to report fairly and objectively upon government activities.

It naturally follows that this standard should also apply at universities, especially at public universities (funded by the state government), where students seek to gain pre-professional experience that mirrors the current job market as closely as possible.

SGA control over student funding could gravely compromise the watchdog function of student media and the ability of its members to gain adequate preparation for post-university employment.

The ethical track record of SGA is also less than exemplary, and the student body has been given no assurance that SGA control over student media funding would follow any other path.

In October 2003, Trey Orndorff, vice president for academic and student affairs on the SGA executive board (and former member of its ethics committee), plagiarized a letter to the editor of The Northerner.

SGA failed to penalize Orndorff, an elected representative of the student body, for this serious trespass upon professional ethics.

Coincidentally, Orndorff immediately gave his support to the proposed constitution.

Should an organization that protects its own members and interests at the expense of ethics be allowed financial control over any student organization, media or otherwise?

Could it be trusted to make ethical decisions when allocating funds that include student fees to student organizations?

The organization’s dissatisfaction with The Northerner’s coverage of it last semester is no secret.

SGA has also expressed an interest in the past for influence over WRFN content and WNTV programming.

Assuming financial control over The Northerner and other student media outlets would be the most effective way for SGA to ensure that future media coverage of its activities is more favorable.

SGA fiscal control over student media could effectively reduce these independent student media outlets to nothing more than mouthpieces for SGA propaganda.

It is difficult to believe that SGA would smile benevolently upon student media and give it adequate funding if it ran a high-profile story criticizing the organization.

According to the proposed constitution, the handbooks, practices and policies of student media would be subject to SGA approval, but the student media would not be permitted to have a representative in SGA.

The leaders of RHA and APB, included in the article that would affect student media, would serve as vice presidents of SGA. There would be no student media representative on SGA.

Why the discrepancy?

It seems unethical to apply different standards to three organizations that would be subject to the same fiscal guidelines under SGA directive.

“You don’t want government necessarily to interfere with the media. And thereby, you don’t necessarily want somebody in the media being involved in the government,” said Mike Tobergta, author of the proposed constitution, when asked why there would be no media representative on SGA.

It seems that SGA is crystal clear as to what would constitute an ethical dilemma when it comes to interference in its own operations.

Would the same sense of clarity apply to ethical decisions involving allocation of student media funds?

We doubt it.