Loyal Cougars

Editorial: Time for anonymous Honor Code details has passed

One of the biggest critiques levied against the enforcement of BYU’s honor code is that it unnecessarily makes youthful indiscretions public. Asking why college students should face the shame of having everyone know the details of what they’ve done is a fair question. As Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune recently wrote, having those details publicly known “makes the penalty much more punitive than it should be. It etches an erstwhile scarlet letter onto the offender’s forehead.”

While it may not take a rocket scientist, as Monson suggests, to figure out what the details of the offense might be, what it does take is an editorial policy willing to pass along the whisperings of those personal details.

What etches a scarlet letter more deeply? When BYU’s spokesperson says Spencer Hadley is suspended for five games for an honor code violation — or when the Tribune follows up with, “a source with close ties to the program also said Hadley had been suspended after clubbing in Las Vegas.”

What grabs more attention? When BYU’s spokesperson says Brandon Davies is suspended for the rest of the season for an honor code violation — or when the Tribune trumpets a since-revised headline: “Sources: BYU’s Brandon Davies booted for premarital sex.”

When a college athlete is suspended for violations of their university’s code of conduct, fans rightly care about how this personnel change will affect the team’s lineup and performance. Unless honor code violations also involve criminal charges, the exact nature of a suspension will likely not impact the general public. Legal charges brought against a player at any school become public record and would be available to reporters. Such reporting of the violation’s details otherwise draws unnecessary attention to the student and adds little, if any, benefit.

After the Tribune again recently cited anonymous sources to disclose the personal details of honor code violations, Loyal Cougars contacted editors from media organizations that cover Air Force (which has an “Honor Code”), Army (“Cadet Honor Code”), Navy (“Honor Concept”), and Notre Dame (“Code of Honor”). We learned that the Tribune’s policy is an outlier among news organizations covering similar events at schools with an “honor code.”

While the honor code at each of these schools is not the same, the media organizations that cover them have all recently covered high-profile athletes being suspended for violations of their school’s code of conduct. Notre Dame and Air Force both lost starting quarterbacks to code of conduct violations in the last year.

Colorado Springs Gazette sports editor Jim O’Connell said that in these circumstances, “We report what we get on the record.” Denver Post sports editor Scott Monserud added, “We will use on-the-record information but not source information in a case like this that is highly sensitive. [There are] always exceptions but that is our general rule.”

Other organizations universally expressed similar thoughtful reservations about reporting on sensitive, private matters. Editor Bill Bilinski at the South Bend Tribune said there needs to be a good reason to publish that kind of information. Before moving forward, they ask, “Is it imperative to writing an accurate story? Does it move a story forward? Does the source have anything to gain? Why does the source want to remain anonymous?”

Bilinski added, “We heard rumors of other suspensions, but we never printed them. The rumors were used by at least one local television station, citing anonymous sources, and the athlete who was mentioned in the story was never suspended. That’s why we’re extremely cautious. Credibility and fairness matter. We hope readers respect that.”

Referring to their coverage of the suspension of a high-profile athlete, Judy Connelly, editor at the Times Herald-Record said, “We had some information, [but] we did not have enough people to confirm it. Without getting something on the record, we did not report the details.”

When contacted for comment about their policy, Salt Lake Tribune editor Joe Baird said their process to use anonymous information in a report requires a great deal of oversight. Before publishing news using anonymous sources, the information must be corroborated through multiple sources and as a general policy, they cannot be levying an accusation against anyone. The Tribune must also know and trust the sources. Finally, the top editors at the paper are made aware of who the sources are.

“We use anonymous sources very rarely,” Baird said in an interview with Loyal Cougars today. “We’re not comfortable using a lot of them.”

Baird said that in both the Davies and Hadley cases, “The details are news by any measure. We are a news organization. When you lose your starting center, that’s news. When you lose your starting inside linebacker, that’s news. If we have information, if it’s accurate and verifiable, and it increases people’s understanding of what happened, we’re going to write about it.”

Baird added that “We aren’t in the business of routinely outing people. But there are times when the size of the story is so huge, and the impacts are so huge, that we feel like we need to not only explain the what’s but the why’s and the how’s.”

When asked if their policy was comparable to other news organizations in similar situations, Baird said, “I don’t want to speak for other organizations, but my guess is if they knew about it, they’d write about it.”

However, giving readers only a small piece of information regarding why a suspension took place draws more attention to the story without helping the public evaluate if the suspension was fair. Only knowing what part of the honor code was broken leaves readers to imagine if it was a first-time offense or something that happened over a long period of time. One’s feelings of how fair the punishment is will be based on the reader’s own assumptions.

Furthermore, in general, the honor code office is an easy target for criticism. Since the office always stays silent, it is easy to levy any accusation against them.

If you think poorly of BYU and question their motivations, you can accuse BYU of staging remorseful events for publicity and there will likely be no official comment to contradict you.

If you think highly of BYU, you can believe that the honor code office, ecclesiastical leaders, and media relations employees release little information to the public in an effort to protect students and are doing their best to balance a difficult situation. If you think highly of BYU, you likely trust the people involved to be well aware of the public nature of media reports and to act with as much discretion and care as is possible.

BYU is a unique place, and the honor code is a big part of what makes it stand out. The school’s new commercial this year is also unique, I think, among the many college commercials I have been subjected to as a football fan. Nearly every spot presents a nice, diverse set of students talking about what a great place their school is. It’s all about them, which is a tried-and-true strategy, and is what all the how-to-market-to-millennials handbooks say you should do.

BYU’s 2013 ad doesn’t do that. It doesn’t feature any single person talking to you about how you can find yourself at BYU. You can, of course, find yourself at BYU just as you can find yourself anywhere else you spend your early twenties. BYU’s new commercial uses a miniaturizing technique called tilt shift. Intentional or not, it miniaturizes the individual and puts more focus on the community as a whole.

This strategy of community-first thinking is why the honor code matters at all. It’s easy to say that the mistakes of others have no effect on other individuals, and I can see why people might feel that way. But the mistakes of others do have an effect on the community as a whole. I care how BYU fans act in the stands because the action of individual fans reflects on the reputation of the entire BYU fan community.

With a little bit of understanding of that community, reasonable people can debate the need for the honor code or the policies surrounding its enforcement without cynical disparagement of BYU or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fans can choose to act with more caution and respect toward the privacy of players involved in honor code violations. Columnists can raise concerns about how BYU operates without calling anyone a monkey and saying that BYU is making them dance for attention.

But most importantly, The Salt Lake Tribune could pledge to adopt a more ethical policy that reflects the standard of their peers in the news media world and not cite anonymous sources to report personal details of honor code violations of students at Brigham Young University.

9 Comments

  1. Brandon

    October 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    BOOM! Go ahead and drop the mike right now. You hit the nail on the head! Well done!

  2. Adam Mangum

    October 10, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Another great perspective on this. Thanks.

  3. Mars

    October 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    This points out the type of letters the SLTrib should probably be receiving from their concerned readers. And why I try not to read or support them in the first place.

  4. AppleSauce

    October 10, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Good investigative reporting

  5. Gene

    October 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Monson and Trib are banned in my book. Never click on anything they write or say. If enough people that were annoyed like me did the same then they would change to stay in business but nope BYU fans hear about the hit piece and go running to read it. Don’t be suckers. Turn it off and pretend you heard nothing when they run their shoddy journalist piece.

  6. Ryan

    October 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Nicely done.

    I believe BYU can improve the manner in which they treat Honor Code violations for athletes and kill the stories/rumor mill from the old and new media.

    From an organizational design approach, I would place an Honor Code office representative within the athletic department and handle all HC issues there. Any violations would merely be reported as “a violation of team rules.” It really isn’t anyone’s business what the violation is and it should be handled in the private manner most transgressions are dealt with – at the ecclesiastical level and with the spirit of helping the offender return to “full-fellowship.”

  7. Louis D

    October 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    It sounds an awful lot like Baird is saying, “We won’t sleep with the ugly girl, but we are morally obligated to bed the really hot one.” Don’t like that parallel? Sounds like Baird is saying, “It’s wrong to steal a buck from a friend’s table, but how can you pass up pocketing the $100 you found in his wallet on the counter while he used to toilet? Apparently the SLT uses the tale of the tape to determine when personal embarrassment is story worthy…so size does matter!

  8. Jack

    October 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Well researched and written.You let the facts speak strongly for themselves. I especially like the way your conclusion calls for restraint across the boards, from news sources, fans, and people everywhere. Anyone who reads your piece will at least think twice before saying anything that is little more than gossip.

    Also, in a society that values the right of privacy so highly in most other situations, one must wonder why the respect for privacy has been disregarded in cases such as these. There may be several factors at work here. Among them it might be that people forget that student athletes are not celebrities. Public figures, of course, are up for grabs in the media–people can say or print just about anything they want about that kind of person–and that may make it easy (but while still improper) for a journalist (who usually writes about public figures) to forget that an undergraduate, amateur athlete is not in the same class as star-studded professional athletes. This rather obvious distinction may explain why many newspapers have instinctively backed off in reporting cases involving student honor code violations.

    Go college sports!

  9. Pingback: Podcast 126: Davies, Hoffman, and previewing Houston - Loyal Cougars