Mere appearance of bias can hurt credibility

What happened?

April 12, literature professor Dr. Sally Jacobsen encouraged the students in her class to express their “free speech” and destroy the crosses.

Destruction of property does not constitute freedom of speech, but it can earn the perpetrator a criminal charge for theft by unlawful taking.

Theft by unlawful taking is a Class A misdemeanor in Kentucky unless the property is worth more than $300, then it becomes a Class D felony.

The Right to Life group has claimed an estimated $600 in damages from the site.

University officials have been quick to condemn the actions of Jacobsen, saying that protesting the display in an orderly manner would have been the appropriate route to express her disapproval.

How did the paper react?

Amidst the heated debated, The Northerner was accused of bias in its coverage of the incident.

These accusations are not based on any slant in coverage. In fact, the paper has received numerous e-mails and Web site posts complementing the balanced coverage of the story. No, these complaints stem from one staff member being involved with Northern Right to Life. Our assistant arts and entertainment editor, Katie Walker, happens to be the president and a founder of Northern Right to Life.

The paper was criticized for allowing an integral employee to head a group at the forefront of a heated social view.

Walker was given the opportunity to resign as a result of her involvement and her failure to disclose this involvement to her editor. Though Walker never covered the Northern Right to Life incident or influenced the writers in any way, these accusations of bias are valid concerns.


As journalist, objectivity is our supreme ambition. From the day we step onto the reporter’s path, we learn to leave everything behind but the facts. Opinions, fabrication and the flowery adjectives of our creative writing days are trampled in the dust as we trudge toward a pinnacle of accuracy. However, in the world of academia, students are permitted to falter, to flag, to glance over their shoulders and wistfully pluck up a discarded creative ideal or two. This is our training ground, the arena for our greatest success and failure. Foremost, we are here to learn.

While The Northerner aspires to be viewed as a professional publication, we must never forget that we are still a training ground. This is why our doors are open to anyone who is willing to learn, work, write and stumble along the way. Normally, when a student editor or writer makes a mistake, the paper takes the hit and keeps on trucking. After all, what human being can be perfectly objective, lacking any opinions? Unfortunately, Walker’s case is not a question of faulty objectivity but of the appearance of it.


Walker’s involvement with Northern Right to Life as the group’s president did not compromise The Northerner’s objectivity, but did hurt its credibility. The appearance of bias is as damaging to a newspaper’s integrity as actual bias. If our public does not trust us, who will? This is why it was necessary for Walker to resign her position as assistant editor. Not because she did something malicious, not because she was influencing news coverage and not because her objectivity was imperfect. She merely allowed the appearance of her own bias to affect the newspaper’s appearance of credibility.

In the Washington Supreme Court case of Nelson v. McClatchy Newspapers, the court upheld the paper’s right to reassign reporter Susan Nelson based on her political activities. Nelson’s high-profile political involvement was seen as a severely handicapping the paper’s reputation and integrity. The ruling asserted that Nelson’s personal rights were trumped by the First Amendment free-press clause, as long as she was an employee for the paper.

Justice Richard Sanders wrote that the freedom of the press clause is a “constitutionally protected sphere of control of editorial integrity and credibility.” In other words, a media outlet has the right to control an employee’s actions if those actions threaten the organization’s credibility and integrity. The reasoning behind the ruling was that the qualities of integrity and credibility are essential for a news outlet to exercise freedom of the press. This is why, in light of the damage to our credibility, The Northerner has been forced to accept Walker’s resignation. May this be a lesson, but never an obstacle, to any student seeking truth.