Student government, the DTH and fighting bias

Ever since The Daily Tar Heel stopped receiving student fees in 1993, it’s been completely independent of the University and, by extension, student government. Hence, it bears the responsibility of covering student government. In fact, it’s virtually the only news organization that does.

That’s not a responsibility we take lightly. At our orientation for new staffers every year, we make it clear that members of the DTH cannot participate in student government in any way — no involvement in the executive branch, Student Congress or the Student Supreme Court (see our conflict of interest policy). The rationale: the DTH must not only attempt to avoid bias, but also the appearance of bias. The former is a threat to quality, the latter, credibility. In that spirit, those staffers who can ever expect to produce content related to student body president elections — on the writing, design, photo or multimedia sides — are prohibited from signing those annoying petitions. (Every year, the editors get the list of petition signatures from student government’s Board of Elections and comb through it for their staffers’ names. The painstaking effort inevitably results in some suspensions every year).

The one position on the paper that, to a degree, avoids these restrictions is that of editorial board member. Because members of the editorial board write opinions, not news, they are freed somewhat from the aforementioned restrictions. Now, that doesn’t excuse us from aiming for objectivity; we do that by striving for a makeup of individuals with diverse perspectives. You wouldn’t want the editorial board to consist entirely of student government’s executive branch, for example.

This issue has been on my mind a lot this year, but was most recently brought to my attention by a letter asking us to be more transparent about our ties to student government. The letter writer took issue with the editorial board’s generally favorable evaluation of Student Body President Will Leimenstoll’s term so far. The main point: Opinion Editor Chelsea Phipps is roommates with Student Body Vice President Rachel Myrick, and was one of Leimenstoll’s campaign managers (and they’re good friends).

Chelsea will be the first to admit that she has biases. Allow me to counter the perception that the editorial board is a cheerleader with these points:

1. The evaluation section was spearheaded by Deputy Opinion Editor Nathan D’Ambrosio, who has no ties to the executive branch. I edited it after he did.
2. The editorial board has many voices. While it includes Chelsea, as well as a roommate of Leimenstoll’s chief of staff, it also includes Tim Longest, who ran against Leimenstoll. (Fun fact: the second-place candidate in the student body president race has been a member of the editorial board for the previous two years).
3. I sit on the editorial board too, and Chelsea reports to me.

Basically, on the editorial board and in journalism in general, it’s impossible to wholly eliminate bias. The best path is instead to get all sides. I trust that Chelsea’s knowledge of the executive branch, combined with Tim’s critiques and my three years’ experience reporting on student government, along with the perspectives off all the other members will result in a smart, balanced editorial page.

And, to further illustrate the point that we can never fully remove bias from the operation, I have a longstanding friendship with Rachel Myrick; she’s also my next door neighbor.

I would argue that the takeaway from this is not that we’ve succeeded in creating a triumvirate of unprecedented trivial influence on campus, but that students who like to be “involved” tend to cluster. At the DTH, we do our best to include as many voices as possible, on both the news and editorial sides.

If you’re still reading, I would like to offer one more bit of transparency. It also serves as a good example of how we adjust to avoid bias. Our University editor, who usually oversees coverage of Student Congress, is the sister of the speaker of Student Congress. If left unaddressed, this would be a heinous example of a conflict of interest. But, right from the get-go, I knew we had to get around it. And it was easy. All coverage of Student Congress runs through the State & National editor — the University editor doesn’t touch it.

I appreciate the letter writer’s call for transparency. I hope this rambling explainer helps.

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