Editor’s Blog: Stephanie Bess speaks, Women’s Day, new guidelines for Letters

Julia Rentsch

 

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Dear readers,

As always, it has been a busy week for the Collegian‘s student journalists, newsroom staff and managers. But thank goodness it is spring break! I am commemorating the occasion by writing you all a small novel here. 

For quick reference, topics covered in this post include top stories of the past two weeks, Stephanie Bess speaks out, the letter to the editor against the ‘Day Without A Woman’ protest, some new guidelines for letters to the editor, and a tribute to International Women’s Day.

Our top-read stories of the week of Feb. 26 were:

  1. A very personal account of having an eating disorder written by one of our opinion columnists
  2. CSU’s decision to expand campus access to gender-neutral bathrooms despite President Trump’s order
  3. The announcement that it is now lawful for women to be topless in public
  4. The story of the seven Colorado State wrestlers qualifying for nationals
  5. A roundup of four places to spend 303 day, which occurred last Friday.

We post digital copies of all of our issues on the platform Issuu. Our March 2 edition, which had the story about the topless ordinance on cover, was flagged as adult content by Issuu’s screening process. It is still available digitally on our website’s print archives.

And the top-read stories of this past week, the week of March 5, were:

  1. Stephanie Bess speaks out about domestic abuse case with CSU basketball star Gian Clavell 
  2. A letter to the editor about the “nauseating” Day Without A Woman protest that occurred this week
  3. Again, CSU’s decision to expand access to gender-neutral bathrooms
  4. The judge’s order to allow women to go topless in public is also still ‘topping’ the list 
  5. An announcement that the Islamic Center of Fort Collins will host an open house this Sunday.

To address concerns about the Stephanie Bess headline

The story that detailed Stephanie Bess’s situation was written by assistant news editor Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick and reached over 12,400 views after being live for less than 24 hours. For context, that placed it as our top-read story of the year (surpassing our report on the discontinuation of the trombone suicide routine by the CSU marching band, which was also written by Tatiana). Both Stephanie Bess’s story and the trombone suicide story are among our top five most-read stories over the past five years. I am pleased that we have afforded Bess the opportunity to speak her side of the controversy to this large audience.

We received feedback about our headline on this very important story. Some people who commented were concerned that our wording, “Gian Clavell’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Bess, speaks out on domestic abuse case,” took away agency from Bess by only referring to her by her relationship to Clavell. Here is some insight into how we choose to word headlines courtesy of one of our news editors, Erin Douglas:

“I apologize that the headline made you uncomfortable with the presentation of Stephanie Bess. However, we very intentionally write headlines and I would like to take a moment to explain our process for this particular story:

While I sympathize with your concern to prioritize survivors of abuse rather than the perpetrators, we also have to balance that concern with the need to inform our audience as to what the story is about. This story needed to make an impact on the largest audience possible. Without drawing attention to the fact that the survivor sharing the story was in a relationship with a high-profile CSU basketball player, or to the fact that the University prioritized him over her, people would not know what the story was about.

We also have to make our headlines searchable online, as well as relevant. For example, if the headline was, “Stephanie Bess speaks out on domestic abuse case,” many of our readers would not know who she is or that it was related to the Athletic Department and the men’s basketball team. The story would also not show up if someone decided to search “Gian Clavell.” Unfortunately, with a headline omitting her relationship with Clavell, only people who are already interested in domestic abuse would read the story. Most likely, those interested in sports would not read the story – and they are the very community that this story is meant to impact.

I would also like to point out that in the print version of this story, the much larger headline is, “Stephanie Bess demands a voice,” and the sub-headline clarifies her relationship with Clavell. This was very intentional in order to give her a larger platform than Clavell.”

Hopefully this sheds some light on our process of writing headlines. 

To address the letter to the editor disparaging the Women’s Day protest:

Another piece made waves this week, but not for very good reasons. We received considerable feedback about a letter to the editor posted March 9 that argued against the “Day Without A Woman” protest, and attested that a gender-based pay gap does not exist in the U.S. The issue with this letter to the editor was that it did not cite adequate evidence for its claims, but was published as received. 

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This has been something of a trend in our content, and I intend to make a change. Articles that are hinged on baseless claims should never get the ‘okay’ to be published, as doing so perpetuates the dissemination of misinformation and damages the integrity of our discussion of the issues as a community. Frankly, the fact that some articles and letters containing misinformation have been published is based on an editorial failure to vet their fitness for publication.

At our organization, we must balance teaching people to write and to edit with running a news business that demands daily content. This system, by nature, involves accepting content that we view as imperfect, and often doing so on the daily. 

On top of this, we consistently try to give space in our opinion section to a spectrum of political identities, as is fair practice. If we are looking to publish community opinions on a particular issue and fail to receive much content to choose from, pieces that lack proper facts and supporting evidence have been known to get through. We regularly turn down pieces that are not properly based in fact, but, when caught in the clutch, our editorial bar sometimes lowers.

Finally, it is not a hard-and-fast rule that viewpoints based more off of feeling than off of fact are always unpublishable — take, for example, stances rooted in personal experience, or those that discuss abstract concepts like what should constitute a right versus a privilege. There are, however, cases in which feeling-based opinions are inappropriate, such as in the letter run this week that declared no existence of a wage gap. A second letter in response to the first rightly corrected us that most reputable sources and experts have agreed upon the gap’s existence. Still at play, however, is the discussion of how to deal with it.

Ultimately, our mission is to produce thoughtful, face-based opinion columns that provoke civil and educational discussion. Going forward, we intend to keep this mission at the heart of what we produce for the opinion section. It is also my prerogative to remind readers now that, while we serve as the gatekeepers for what opinions appear in our publications, the opinions presented there should not be taken as pure fact, as the opinions of the editorial board, as the opinion of the Collegian as a whole, nor as the opinion of our parent company, Rocky Mountain Student Media. 

In the past, we have published letters to the editor simply because they possess relative coherence and are suitable in length. Sometimes, in the event that our opinion columnists have not met deadline, we print letters simply because that they exist and provide runnable content. Some short letters do not get published because it feels weird to dedicate a post or page to a blurb. This is set to change.

I have created a set of guidelines for letters to the editor that will help more submissions reach publishable status from the get-go:

1) Please include your full name and your job title. If you are a student, please include your major and year. Additionally, please mention in the body of your letter if you hold any qualifications that may bolster the credibility of your argument. Anonymous columns will not be published, except under circumstances in which the writer can reasonably prove that publishing their name next to their opinion would endanger their personal safety. It is important that no one, except in those few special cases, expect their viewpoint to be published anonymously because it helps the credibility of the opinion section. To be able to vet the source of a claim is essential, and personal name-based accountability helps ensure civility.

2) Please refrain from including personal attacks on Collegian authors or people referenced in Collegian articles. Feel free to critique what someone wrote or how they wrote it, but ad hominem attacks cannot be published.

3) Please use paragraph form. Lists are difficult for us to format to fit our spaces correctly.

4) We retain the editorial right to edit content for length and clarity. We will never edit a piece to change the message or viewpoint being conveyed.

5) Please keep your submission at or under 650 words long.

In honor of International Women’s Day, which was Wednesday, March 8…

Because Collegian leadership is largely female, it would feel remiss not to make at least a small reference to what International Women’s Day, and the general concept of female empowerment, mean to me and to our company. This Wednesday, we stopped to acknowledge that exactly half of our editorial board is female, and our upper leadership is completely female. This paper would not run without the hard work of Mikaela Rodenbaugh, our managing editor; Erin Douglas, one of our news editors; Randi Mattox and Zoë Jennings, our arts and culture editors; Natalie Dyer, our photo editor; and me. 

On this day, and every day, let us celebrate the women of the world: we shall not place ourselves in boxes or allow others to determine our destinies. 

“Our power is in our diversity, and with diversity comes new knowledge and new truths.” — Medea Khmelidze

Thanks as always for reading, liking, watching, and following (and for getting to the end of this very long post). By the way, check out this SOURCE article recently written about the Collegian‘s 125th anniversary! It features some more cool behind-the-scenes stuff, both from back in the day and today.

‘Til next week,

Julia

About the Editor’s Blog: In a quest to become more transparent about what we do and how we do it, the Collegian has launched a blog written by the editor-in-chief that details the latest goings-on with our paper. To help me feel like I’m not just speaking into a void (or to voice your questions, comments, derision or best puns for my entertainment), feel free to tweet at me, @julia_rentsch, message us on Facebook or email editor@collegian.com.