Editorial: On Spectator’s Struggle With Media Ethics & the Need for Robust Journalism Scholarship
Last week, we published an editorial in response to the Spectator’s correction in their September 8th issue, finally correcting May 5th front-page photograph’s credit to one of our staff photographers, Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25, and our publication as a whole. As we stated then, while we are grateful for this correction, the process to it was much more arduous than should have been, especially for Spectator to claim “it is important to us that we address all such clarifications.” In truth, it is our view that Spectator made a steadfast effort over the course of four months to avoid and delay addressing the issue of correction and deflect blame to Monitor and Bit-Babik until the Monitor filed a plagiarism complaint with the Honor Court for them to investigate.
Before proceeding further, we wish to make it clear that nothing we say should be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of the entirety of Spectator’s staff – when we refer to “Spectator” in this piece, we refer to it as an institution and its official positions/policies. On the contrary, we are sympathetic to Spectator staff members who may be hearing all of this information for the first time, and may have taken action to urge their leaders to more adequately address our concerns had they known of the issue.
While in what follows we will explore some of the specifics of our plagiarism complaint, our aim is not to make this singular issue the problem. Rather, our goal is to point to several systemic issues in journalism at Hamilton College which make the unethical and improper behavior exemplified here a norm, not an exception.
From there, we hope, there will be ample ground for a convergence of the Media Board, including Spectator’s editors and staff, the Dean of Students Office, Dean of Faculty Office, Student Assembly, and faculty governance to the end of analyzing the problem, developing stronger courses, programs, and policies for student journalism, and maintaining a higher set of standards for campus media in the future. There is one portion of Spectator’s editorial that we could not agree with more strongly: “Though we are required to take three writing intensives (and many take even more), some, especially us at The Spec, are disappointed in not being able to take courses that empower strictly journalistic writing.” It is our feeling that through this collaboration, we may move through this unfortunate circumstance with restoration and transformation, rather than through conflict, and in doing so avoid future issues like this one. This circumstance shows how we can all learn to do better for journalism at Hamilton.
However, for us to make that point, we need to prove that such a problem exists to be resolved. To keep our focus on systems rather than individuals, we will avoid directly naming individuals unless absolutely necessary. To provide a neutral third party account, here are some of the conclusions from an investigation by the Honor Court Chairs, written by the faculty chair/Dean of Students representative in a September 14th email to the Media Board Chair (think of this as the TLDR):
“In brief, a photograph taken by Gabriel Bit-Babik ’25, who was working as a staff photographer for The Monitor, was published in the print and online versions of the May 5th, 2022 issue of The Spectator. The photo was originally credited as “Photo courtesy of The Center for Intersectional Feminism” in the print version while no attribution was present in the online version. Staff from The Monitor, including Bit-Babik, contacted the co-editors of The Spectator via email on May 7th asking that the photo be either removed or credited as “Photo courtesy of Gabriel Bit-Babik ’25 on assignment for The Monitor” in the online version, and a correction be issued in the first issue of The Spectator in the Fall 2022 semester. The co-editors of The Spectator responded on May 12th describing their policy for photo citation. Staff from The Monitor asked again for an updated attribution in the online version and a commitment to an in-print correction in the fall on May 30th, citing the Honor Code explicitly in this instance. There was no response from The Spectator until July 11th when The Monitor reached out again. At this point a co-editor of The Spectator wrote a brief message confirming receipt of the email and stating he would address the matter upon returning to campus. The Honor Court received the official complaint from The Monitor on July 15th. [The Honor Court Student Chair] and I investigated the allegation starting in July and then at the beginning of the Fall semester. The Spectator ran a correction in their September 8th edition and updated the online version with an attribution, “Photo by Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25 of The Monitor”, at the same time. When I learned that The Spectator planned to print a correction, I offered my assistance in editing that correction and The Spectator accepted my help. At the Media Board’s request, I would be willing to share a more detailed version of the results of our investigation as well as my understanding of the context and circumstances that contributed to the situation.”
As a preface, we do not believe the Center for Intersectional Feminism meant to cause any harm. On their own Instagram, CIF immediately gave us proper credit at our request and worked with the Monitor in good faith to resolve the issue cordially.
We feel the summary is an accurate reflection of the order of events. However, its brevity does leave out a few details we feel are relevant to our message here. First, the account that one of Spectator’s co-editors replied saying he would address the issue once on campus is very literal: “I am in receipt of your message and will address the matter upon returning to campus,” read the entirety of his message. It remained unclear whether the correction would actually be made, and Monitor sent another follow-up email urging immediate action, which never received a reply. Absent this reply, we brought the complaint to the Honor Court a day later, in line with the deadline we had given them to make the correction. Spectator was not made aware an investigation was ongoing until near the beginning of the semester, over a month after this last email exchange, and still had not replied.
Second, Spectator’s first communication to the Monitor with regard to the issue, in which they declined to take action, was signed by both of its then-co-Editors-in-Chief for the Spring 2022 semester. However, one of the co-editors later informed Monitor in a private text message that she was not present during the Spectator's decision process, nor was she aware of the use of her signature on the Spectator’s correspondence. The former co-Editor-in-Chief explained that they sign both names out of habit. We, nor the Honor Court investigation, were able to verify the truth of such claims, but nonetheless the potential “habit” to sign other individual’s names on documents they’ve not seen alarms us significantly, especially communications as serious as this one.
The Spectator’s methodology to signing statements raises a more pressing question: Spectator’s editorial correcting the credit is signed “The Spectator Staff,” unlike all its other recent editorials which were signed just by the two named Editors-in-Chief, including in its orientation issue this semester. Considering that the Spectator has, according to the Editor-in-Chief who remains from last semester’s LinkedIn, a claimed staff of “150+ reporters, copyeditors, fact checkers, and photographer,” roughly 7.5% of the student body, is it ethical or proper to include the entirety of the Spec’s staff as signatories? Were they all informed of the full context that led to its publication? If not, would they still have decided to offer their support if they did? That a former co-Editor-in-Chief reached out to Monitor to say she wasn't a party to the contents of Spectator’s email regarding our initial complaint which bore her signature makes these questions not just reasonable, but necessary to assess whether the very same systems that played into our initial complaint are still at work.
Third, Spectator’s initial response to our request for correction deflected blame onto Monitor and Bit-Babik whilst acknowledging the photo was in fact taken by him. The Spectator wrote, “Although we recognize how frustrating this may be, it could be prevented in the future if you (The Monitor) are more clear with setting expectations of your staff and the work that they provide to other organizations on campus.” They continued, “Should the pictures have only been shared to us directly by Gabriel Bit-Babik, we would have credited his name.”
In other words, Spectator acknowledged that the photos were Bit-Babik’s, but because they received the images via a third party they decided not to credit him or Monitor. Let alone that this third party did not have the right to distribute the image, this justification does not negate Honor Code and copyright law obligations to publish the name of the individual who took the image. We later learned in a Monday, September 12th meeting with the chairs of the Honor Court that their investigation discovered that both their staff advisor, who we know to be the former Director of Student Activities, and former Media Board Chair were consulted when the Spectator responded to The Monitor stating their policy that their original citation was appropriate.
This demonstrates that the editors of our “official” campus newspaper, the College employee responsible for advising student media, and the student leader responsible for overseeing the conduct of publications (who also won an official College journalism award before graduating) all had fundamentally incorrect understandings of the College’s policies and copyright law. These incorrect understandings, born from a lack of formal training by qualified independent news media professionals, led to a situation in which all of the individuals most responsible for watching for and correcting these types of problems instead exacerbated them. We mention that two students involved were journalism award recipients not to single them out, but rather to point out that all of these unfortunate events occurred under the oversight of those officially regarded by Hamilton College as the most capable and well-equipped journalists on campus for that academic year.
Finally, Spectator claimed their original improper citation was “according to The Spectator policy.” If this is the case, Spectator’s policy is likely against the Honor Code and copyright law. We’d have liked to verify this claim, but Spectator to date of publishing has no publicly accessible policies other than their Letters to the Editor policy. Though all student organizations are required to renew their status annually and have a publicly available constitution, Spectator’s page on Presence, Hamilton’s student organization site, does not contain a constitution. According to the most recent official Student Organization Manual from Student Activities, “Officers are expected to update their student organization profile in Xander [now Presence] whenever there are changes to their roster, leadership, or Constitution. Organizations that do not renew for the next academic year will be deactivated.” Why is it that the “official” campus newspaper is not held to the same standards of all other student groups?
The plagiarism case we brought forth, unfortunately, is not the only instance this year in which Spectator did not meet appropriate journalistic standards in its material. In February, the then-Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer announced her retirement and Spectator published a front page “news” story by a co-Editor-in-Chief thanking her “On behalf of all students” for her “warmth, charisma and extraordinary commitment to Hamilton’s students.” Regardless of your sentiments towards this former Dean, this article was clearly a favorable, opinionated set of statements. Yet, the article appeared in the “News” section of Spectator’s website and in a place traditionally, exclusively, used for news stories in the print edition. The issue also contained a standard, clearly labeled editorial.
When faced with criticism for this decision, Spectator moved the piece from the “News” section of their site to the “Editorial” section. Spectator declined to publish the two letters to the editor they received on the matter, including Lazenby’s. In an editorial the following week, both editors claimed the incident had simply been “workshopping of a new look for our front page” and that the piece had always been intended to be an editorial, not news. They did not mention that the article was originally published in their News section on the site. When one student submitted a second letter critiquing this misrepresentation, Spectator accused them of libel, a claim that carries an implication of potential legal action. You can read more about this story, and find evidence of our claims, here.
Sadly, this does not begin to approach all of the stories we could tell. But for our purposes here, we’ve established that the causes of our present situation would likely be avoided with education not just about proper attribution standards, but also about how to manage a publication, write stories, and respond to criticism. We at Monitor do not claim to have all this knowledge, either. Since having this experience, we have also become much more intentional about how we label our own photos on our website and hope to continue learning. Before this situation, many times, we have sought the counsel of those with more experience than us. For example, for this story from May, we had the privilege to be able to consult with one of our family members who is a journalism professor with decades of reporting experience. The problem is just that: it was a privilege. All student journalists should have access to high quality professional advice, but as Spectator correctly points out in their editorial, we have no one with such training serving in a full time capacity to help us. Despite Hamilton’s emphasis on communication, we receive no formal training for this critical kind of communication that most of us engage with every single day when we check our notifications or pick up a paper.
Ironically, the former Director of Student Activities acknowledged the need for expertise in a series of meetings and emails in the 2020-2021 academic year. Referring to an investigative journalism project about how students with suicidal ideation have been told to stay home by the College eventually published in Spectator, she wrote in a November 5th, 2020 email to some Monitor staff, in which she cc’d the then-Dean of Students: “This project cannot move forward without the proper investigative journalism training and oversight by a professional in the field.” Perhaps with more training, the former Director of Student Activities and former Dean of Students (who was a subject of the story, ergo a clear conflict of interest) would have known that the individual in charge of all student organizations at Hamilton declaring that a journalistic investigation “cannot move forward” without meeting their specific standards not grounded in any College or legal policy, namely “oversight” (as opposed to “guidance” or “advice”) from someone designated by the College, is called censorship. This is not to say that an advisor is a bad thing; rather, it is to say that an administrator setting their own personal requirements, not based on policy, for what can and cannot be published is deeply inappropriate and unethical.
While this project eventually did move forward with the support of a satisfactory alumnae journalist obtained by the then-Director, the reporter, Julia Dupuis ‘21, noted a distinct effort on the part of the College to silence their reporting on mental health issues. They said in a conversation with some Monitor staff in February, “I felt suppressed by the school. They didn’t want it out there, they thought it was bad PR for them, which it was of course. They really wanted my piece on the back burner. They were willing to throw obstacles in my way in the hopes I would give up or run out of time. They wanted me confused and frustrated and gaslit.” Dupuis described that when interviewing the then-Dean of Students in 2019, she argued that then-recent campus suicides were such painful moments that Dupuis’s reporting on how the College responded to such incidents would “retraumatize” students, and was particularly opposed to them discussing a particular suicide which sparked national attention in the NY Times.
Dupuis also described the role of the Director of Student Activities as “the mouthpiece, the middleman between student voices on publications and the administration.” They shared that in a meeting with then-Monitor staff spurred by the Director of Student Activities’s “concerns” about Dupuis’s article, “she just grilled me. She wanted to know what it was about, who I’ve talked to, why I’m writing the piece, sort of questioning what the purpose is of the piece.” Dupuis told Monitor that the Director’s primary concern was that they had no supervision - but the issue was that Dupuis sought several faculty and staff advisors on campus, yet none of those they asked felt they had the expertise to do so. This conversation eventually led to the alumnae advisor, who Dupuis was very happy with, but Dupuis recalled feeling worried, based on their experiences to date, that the purpose of this advisor was to keep tabs on them rather than to support their work.
As part of Dupuis’s reporting, they sent a notices email in November 2020 from Monitor to students requesting those who have had experiences with College administration regarding suicidal ideation and mental health reach out. Another reporter had also sent an email requesting students share their negative experiences with two local hospitals for a separate story. According to Dupuis, the Director of Student Activities reached out to Monitor’s then-Editor-in-Chief, without ccing them, saying, “As Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor, I wonder if you have concerns about the biased tone of the questions in the email that was sent last week. I find it concerning, and based on the conversation we had with Julia and [a separate student reporter], I sense that there is a personal connection to the topic being investigated, which could lead to a more biased piece. Do you feel comfortable having your publication associated with a biased approach to investigative journalism?”
In a message Dupuis sent to Monitor today, they said, “at no point during our conversation did we discuss anything about a personal connection to the piece. That claim was unwarranted and felt especially malicious considering it wasn’t sent to me and these concerns were never brought to my attention. It felt like they weren’t genuinely concerned about bias and were instead searching for an excuse to challenge my reporting behind my back. If these concerns has been brought to my attention, I would have had no problem addressing them — but they were instead sent to my editors with the intent of undermining my journalistic integrity.”
Again, we say the examples we share here are only a sliver of all we have observed in our time at Hamilton. We wish to call attention to the fact that there is clearly something systemic about the problems with journalistic ethics at Hamilton, spanning from reporters on the ground to the administrators who have overseen them. The case before us with Spectator’s plagiarism is not an isolated mistake by particular individuals, but rather, a symptom of a broader problem where basic standards of journalism are not upheld by many of those bound to do so. While we do not rule out malice as part of the cause, we feel a lack of journalism training has created these windows for improper behavior, whether the wrong-doers are conscious of their wrongdoing or not.
The above email excerpt from the Honor Court Chairs to the Media Board Chair was to remand the case to the Media Board. In other words, the Honor Court Chairs felt that because the dispute involved organizations, their policies, and general organizational practices, as opposed to the actions of independent individuals, the case would be better addressed by the Media Board than the Honor Court. The Honor Court Chairs made clear to us, and in the email to the Media Board Chair, that they do believe our plagiarism complaint has merit to be addressed by the Media Board; their dismissing the case from the Honor Court is not an acquittal.
To our understanding, the Media Board process will be to assess whether Spectator committed actions in violation of the Media Board Constitution, and from there to decide what will be appropriate recourse. We intend to partake in this process and present our understanding of the order of events in a more detailed form than in this editorial. Several administrators have offered to assist with this process. We must note, here, that part of the reason why this is the case is that this procedure for disciplining a publication has not been undertaken any time in recent history, and that the Honor Court Chairs came to feel through their investigation that the Media Board is in need of outside assistance to properly adjudicate this case. We feel confident that Media Board obligations were violated, specifically those regarding plagiarism and adherence to journalistic codes of ethics.
We agree that outside assistance is necessary, and further believe this proves the urgent need for a full time, tenured professor to advise Media Board publications and teach journalism courses. It should not be the case that the Media Board (of which Monitor is a member) requires outside intervention to adjudicate its own members’ conduct; we should have been equipped to address it with existing support.
We are tremendously appreciative of the assistance offered by several College administrators in this process, and we welcome their participation and collaboration. We should also note that as staff representatives of Hamilton College, their obligations are primarily to their employer rather than to student media. We are not assuming malintent on their part; however, we cannot look past that their job requires them to prioritize Hamilton’s interests, interests which are inherently different from those of the journalists reporting on them. To that end, while we welcome their participation, we strongly urge that the Media Board and Dean of Students Office (all of the administrators in question are with DoS) combine resources to contract an external individual with significant journalism experience to assist with the process. This person would be compensated via both students’ media body and the College itself, and therefore would ideally not be partial to any group.
Beyond the scope of this case, students should be able to take a variety of journalism and communications-related courses at Hamilton that teach how media operates and how to become a part of it. At present, the Media Board offers journalism related workshops to students periodically and the topics are suggested by the current editors. Thus, the only training of individual reporters and editors are done in-house within each publication. Though this individualism may make sense since we have so many publications of varying interests and scopes, this can—and evidently has—led to inconsistencies in understandings of journalistic ethics and copyright laws. Further, the faculty voted to discontinue the Communications major in 2014, and when the final professor in the department retired in Spring 2019, the department was closed in its entirety. This has left students with next to zero opportunities to learn about communications as a discipline at Hamilton. Yet, communications is a large field primed for a school that touts its commitment to free discourse; there are over 100,000 job openings in the field each year.
We see this, setting aside individual conflicts, as the root of the problem that Bit-Babik and the Monitor editorial team experienced with the Spectator, leading to us going to the Honor Court. This, more than anything, is our goal to change for the sake of future journalists on campus.
When the Spectator published their correction, we achieved what we’d been asking for for months: restoration of the truth. We are now seeking transformative action so that this may never happen again. Simple as that. We hope the coming months will bring mutual collaboration between many aspects of institutional governance to the end of ensuring student journalists have full time training and support from a qualified, independent expert.
We hope to update you on these events soon and what you can do to help.
Madison Lazenby ‘23 (she/her), Editor-in-Chief
Eric Santomauro-Stenzel ‘24 (he/him), Managing Editor
Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25 (he/him), Staff Photographer